From 2015 to 2016: Lessons Learned from Last Year’s Tom Tom Founders Summit

Do it yourself, the value of a diverse skill set, and how bold art can empower women.

Anybody who has ever hiked to the top of a mountain knows the successful feeling of reaching the top: a breathtaking view that’s awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping, and even enlightening. However, a view from the pinnacle of one’s success can also offer perspective, clarity, and probably a cool story to tell. That’s what speakers at the 2015 Tom Tom Founders Summit offered last year, sharing their founding stories to a sold-out crowd of +1000 people at the Paramount Theater here in Charlottesville, Va.

Several keynote speakers from last year: Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, Becca McCharen, fashion designer of the label Chromat, and Peter Rojas, co-founder of technology blogs Gizmodo and Engadget

Several keynote speakers from last year (right to left): Alexis Ohanian and Becca McCharen

The Tom Tom Founders Summit is an all-day event of talks delivered by some of the nation’s most innovative individuals and founders. Part of the Tom Tom Founders Festival, a week-long event that celebrates Charlottesville’s arts, music, and entrepreneurial scene, the Founders Summit is, as festival director Paul Beyer describes it, “Virginia’s premier entrepreneurship conference.” Among this year’s keynote speakers include Bill Crutchfield, founder of the $250 million consumer electronics company Crutchfield, Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, who led an 18-country expansion of Google and founded the online shopping company JOYUS, and Jason Flom, CEO of Lava Records and music industry titan who has signed artists such as Katy Perry, Lorde, and Jessie J. Among others include Craig Dubitsky, the award-winning creative genius behind Method and founder of EOS Lip Balm and Hello Products, Rodney Mullen, 35-time World Champion Skateboarder and inventor of modern street skating, and Becca McCharen, an NYC-based fashion designer who founded the successful fashion label Chromat.

Luckily, The Pioneer (formerly HackCville Media) had the privilege of interviewing some of last year’s keynote speakers, two of which are featured below: Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of the news and social networking site Reddit, and Becca McCharen in her inaugural appearance at the Founders Summit. We learned a lot from these interviews which touched upon themes of having a do-it-yourself mindset, applying one’s diverse skill set to any venture, and empowering females in a variety of industries. Expect this year’s Founders Summit to echo similar themes as well as new ones. Read and watch below for some words of wisdom, plenty of which will be featured at this year’s Founders Summit held on Friday, April 15th at the Paramount Theater.

1) Alexis Ohanian: You can start ventures anywhere.

Where else can you go when you’ve reached the top of the social media industry? For Alexis Ohanian, the answer was literally many places. As the host of the web series “Small Empires,” Ohanian travels across the nation and Canada to showcase fast-growing entrepreneurial communities in lesser-known locales. In our interview, Ohanian supported his belief that “world-changing companies” don’t have to start in big cities or Silicon Valley. “We know entrepreneurship is not limited to certain zip codes, and we wanted to show it off and, hopefully, tell people some great stories they can learn from,” he said. With the blooming entrepreneurial scene in small-town Charlottesville, Ohanian’s advice proves you can start a venture anywhere if you have the skill and drive to build it.

2) Ohanian: The best way to learn is to do.

In the same vein, Ohanian offered sage advice for students starting businesses in the current economy. “I think the best way we can prepare students is for them to get real-making experience as early and often as possible,” he said. He continued with this advice: “The challenge is going to be that anyone in this new economy, whether they want to be an entrepreneur or not, is gonna have to be entrepreneurial[…]your competition for that job can self-teach whatever skills he or she is gonna need. What that means is, we as people, who are thinking about education systems, should be preparing our students as much as possible for that world.” Higher education administrators take note: teach students practical and relevant skills through an entrepreneurial-based curriculum, even if it’s, as Ohanian states, just turning $10 to $100.

3) Becca McCharen: Your skill set and background experiences do not have to exactly align with the kind of business you want to start.

A graduate of the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture, McCharen applies her background in urban design to create unique and experimental garments for powerful women, including Beyonce and Nicki Minaj. “I really see architecture and fashion as completely linked, the design process to me is the same,” she said. She explained further: “I mean with architecture, you start off by examining the site and looking for context clues with other buildings. You’re examining materials, you’re making material investigations and experiments with joints. You’re doing the same thing with fashion. You’re looking at the body as the site and thinking about[…]different context lines, clues and joints and seams that you can play around, and investigate materials that would work with the body.” McCharen’s creativity stems from her ability to create connections between different disciplines and making things work; she proves you don’t need a fashion degree to start a successful fashion label. Adaptability, innovation, and an open-minded attitude helps make any venture succeed.

4) McCharen: What you wear can transform you and empower you.

McCharen says her vision for Chromat came from a desire to empower females, likening her designs to female “armor” that make women want to kick ass. “What we try to do [with] our garments[…]when people come to our studio and try pieces on, they’re like, ‘Oh, wow, this actually makes me feel really strong’–it’s like armor,” she said. “That’s kind of how I see the pieces working, as this empowerment tool for the wearer.” In the same vein, McCharen expresses a “total” interest in “human and technology merging to make new, enhanced, augmented bodies” that makes you “stronger and faster and able to perform better.” Referring to female representation in the media, McCharen states: “Why isn’t there a female Iron Man? Why does it always have to be dudes with the armor and the super strong [powers]? The girls are always in skin-tight–like, you know, they can see through walls. I want women to also have that super strong, powerful possibility.” Whether she’s using vinyls, plastics, or other synthetic materials to bring her designs to life, McCharen taught us that fashion is not only a means of self-expression but a way to empower yourself.

Several of Becca McCharen's designs from her fashion label Chromat

Several of McCharen’s designs from her fashion label Chromat.

Want a view from the top? Learn what it takes to create meaningful and successful projects this Friday, April 15th at The Paramount Theater in Charlottesville, Va. Get your tickets by April 13th to get them for $99–tickets will be $129 at the door on the day of the festival. Student tickets are $25. Visit the Founders Summit website for more details like the chance to meet the founders themselves through workshops and luncheons.

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Want to see more interviews from the 2015 Founders Summit?

Interviews with Peter Rojas and Kip Tindell, founder and CEO of The Container Store.

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