New businesses always face a significant risk of failure — especially when its founders are starting a business for the first time.
“That’s why the most successful entrepreneurs are those who start early,” said Jason Brewster, incubator program director for the University of Virginia’s iLab.
Brewster shared that advice with 600 students from local high schools and middle schools at the Tom Tom Founders Festival’s Youth Summit on Wednesday.
“Tom Tom fosters conversations about how you found things, how you make them grow, and how you create impact,” festival director Paul Beyer said to summit attendees. “I couldn’t be more pleased that you all are able to participate in those conversations as students.”
Ace Callwood, co-founder and CEO of Painless1099, gave the Youth Summit’s keynote address Wednesday morning at the Paramount Theater. Callwood’s latest startup, currently headquartered in Buffalo, New York, automates tax withholding for independent contractors.
Callwood, a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, previously co-founded Coffitivity, a web app that aims to boost creativity at work by recreating the ambient sound of coffee shops. In 2013, Time Magazine named coffitivity.com one of the year’s 50 best websites.
“Our goal [with Coffitivity] was not to build a business. It was to go out and gain some knowledge, irrespective of whether we tanked this thing,” Callwood said. “I think we put way too much pressure on ourselves to build a company. The ultimate goal is to change the world and impact people’s lives.”
The Youth Summit continued with two student pitch competitions, one for businesses and one for social impact projects. One team from each contest was accepted to the incubator program at the iLab.
Emma Hitchcock and Zadie Lacy will bring their social venture, Art for the Heart, to the iLab this summer. Their program provides art therapy classes for homeless people in partnership with People and Congregations Engaged in Ministry.
“Charlottesville is such an artistic town, but we saw a gap in what is being offered to our homeless population,” Lacy said. “Art for the Heart gives these people an outlet to express, process and cope with the trauma they experience on a regular basis.”
St. Anne’s-Belfield School students Henry Deal, William Du and Shihau Liu won admission to the iLab with their pitch for MindTrigger, a lighting control system. MindTrigger uses sensors to count how many people enter a room and turns off the lights when it detects that the same number of people has left. Deal, Du and Liu have spent the last year developing a prototype of the system.
“We love the fact that there is a working product,” Brewster said. “Most of our businesses at the iLab have a working product, or are very close to that point.”
Aleena Haidari and Lima Mohammad Asif, seniors at Charlottesville High School, won $250 and mentorship through the Community Investment Collaborative with their pitch for a custom T-shirt design business.
Asif said she hoped to keep working on the T-shirt venture while studying business and marketing in college. Haidari said she probably would be too busy preparing for law school to do the same.
“But if Lima messes up with the business, I’ll be there to defend her in court,” Haidari joked.
The Youth Summit concluded with “Makerville,” a project expo in the IX Art Park. The expo featured more than 60 student projects, including artwork, science and technology, and other independent research. Bands and DJs from local high schools also performed on the Ix Art Park stage.
Lucas Johnson, a senior at Monticello High School, was at Makerville to represent the Virginia Students Coalition for Mental Health. The coalition drafted and lobbied for a recently approved state law that will add mental health to Virginia’s Standards of Learning for high school health education by 2019.
“We are expecting thousands of [mental health] referrals to come from this every year,” Johnson said.
The coalition also advocated for the restoration of full-time mental health personnel from Region Ten at all three of Albemarle County’s comprehensive high schools. This $160,000 initiative is included in the county School Board’s proposed budget for fiscal 2019.
Technical Eats, a food truck that students at the Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center created with a retired school bus, made its first trip to Charlottesville for the Makerville expo. CATEC culinary arts students handed out free samples of panini sandwiches, pasta salad, brownies and cookies.
“The pace is fast and the conditions are tight, but it’s fun,” said Nathan Buckwith, an Albemarle High School senior manning the food truck. “You get to talk to people and work with your friends. It’s really unique.”
The Youth Summit was presented by UVa’s Curry School of Education and ReinventED Lab, a local nonprofit that advocates for innovation in public schools.
“We want to create support systems to give every student who wants to start a project the opportunity do so,” said ReinventED founder Keaton Wadzinski.