Sandra Carter gets the good news about winning the $1,000 prize in 2012

This week’s third annual Tom Tom Founders Festival kicks off with a crowd-funded pitch competition.

Previous winners and contestants say the competition was influential in their work. After what are often lively and creative presentations, audience members vote on their favorite contestant’s pitch with the winner taking home a cash prize.

Ten participants have been selected to make their pitches Wednesday. Some of the 20 alumni say the competition is proving valuable for both contestants and the community, and it has become a staple of the festival, which focuses its programming on local art, music and innovation.

Because audience members cast the deciding votes, contestants benefit from pitching an idea that is a plus for the community.

“We knew the festival was about Charlottesville, so we tried to cater to how our idea could help Charlottesville,” said 2013 participant Alexander Zorychta. He and his partner pitched an idea of a hub to connect needs and services within the biofuels industry.

“We saw it could expand to helping Charlottesville by bringing jobs in biofuels,” he said. “Charlottesville is a progressive city; it would be the perfect culture to work on getting into biofuels and alternative energies.”

Although the idea didn’t win the vote of the audience, Zorychta and his partner are working to get their website ( registered as a nonprofit in the coming months.

Zorychta had familiarity with pitch competitions as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. But for one of his competitors, longtime area resident and single mother Liz James, this was a first-time experience.

“At Tom Tom I was competing against a totally different breed of animal. It was very intimidating,” said James, who pitched her business, The Happy Tomato. “However, it challenged me when I needed to be challenged, and how I needed to be challenged.”

James did not place. However, in the year since the competition, her homemade tomato sauce business has seen marked growth. She is now selling in 18 stores, including Charlottesville’s Whole Foods Market.

James wants her success to proliferate through the community. She now places basil and spice orders through a local farmer, and she hired her first employee this year.

“It increases the strength of the farmer and increases my strength,” James said.

“From the whole angle I see now, I am glad I did the pitch,” added James. “You start to recognize, when all of a sudden something starts coming down the pike months later, you recognize it is from this opportunity that you had.”

James is also a graduate of the Community Investment Collaborative, a program she said educated her and provided her with the resources to reach her potential as an entrepreneur.

In 2012, a year before James pitched The Happy Tomato, the Community Investment Collaborative was the inaugural Tom Tom festival’s “innovator in residence.” Since then, CIC has graduated three classes and more than 50 entrepreneurs.

The winner of the 2012 competition, Sandra Carter, is also a CIC graduate. She pitched her idea of starting a catering business out of the local Sixth Street Mini Mart. A self-described shy person, she says the community there gave her confidence and connections to move forward.

“Going in I was nervous, but once I saw how the crowd accepted me, I had a lot of fun. I met a lot of wonderful people there,” Carter said.

Carter and her catering business have since worked local weddings and home funerals, and she has catered for the city of Charlottesville. She is looking now at working with community churches and feeding the community’s homeless.

She met one of her ongoing mentors, a chef at Harvest Moon Catering, at the pitch night in 2012.

“One of my great mentors was there to hear my pitch that night,” Carter said. “A lot of things turned out from just that.” 

Kenny Schulman, the 2013 winner, is also still moving ahead with his idea. Initially called Eat Drink Play, YOLOCALS ( gives visitors to Charlottesville authentically local activity recommendations.

“The site is serving as your trusted bartender or cab driver with the local information,” Schulman said.

At the pitch night last year, Schulman used local businesses’ products to attract the crowd to his idea. “I threw some bags of Shenandoah Joe’s coffee and Stevie G’s cookies at the crowd,” he said. “They were enjoying it.”

Beyond getting “inside information” from audience members about local places to include on the site, Schulman sees this kind of event as a way to improve the entrepreneurial community in Charlottesville.

“It is good for Charlottesville to get people interacting and trading ideas,” he said. “The idea you bring on Day 1 is not the same on Day 10.”

Schulman and the other contestants agree on their affection for the Charlottesville community and innovation within it.

“I didn’t realize there were so many awesome people in Charlottesville,” Zorychta said of the pitch competition. “I had a sense of it, but the pitch drew even more people who are all about innovating in the community.”

For a second year, the pitch night winner also gets an opportunity to do work in the Innovation Lab at the Batten Institute of at UVa with the support of a $5,000 grant.

This year’s festival’s pitch competition will be held from 7 to 10 p.m. Wednesday at The Haven on Market Street. Ten participants will have three minutes to win the crowd vote. Admission is $10.