After volunteering at Super Demo at the end of his first year — an event sponsored by the Tom Tom Founders Festival — third-year College student Daniel Willson did not anticipate becoming involved in HackCville and Tom Tom. The two prominent Charlottesville organizations would come to define his college career.
Tom Tom Founders Festival, spearheaded in 2012, brings together interests in music, art and innovation for an event-packed week in downtown Charlottesville.
“I connected with how it was trying to connect the fun, music, art component with talks and competitions for the intellectually curious,” Willson said.
HackCville shares much of the same mission. Located on Elliewood Avenue, it provides a haven for motivated students with entrepreneurial interests, while giving back through classes and events.
“Just this last semester we held 60 different events in 120 days, which is crazy,” Willson said. “We teach classes and workshops [in] modern skills that employers are looking for that you might not be able to take because it’s not offered at U.Va. or it’s not in your [department.]”
Willson became assistant director when HackCville transitioned from an alumni-run organization to a student-run organization. Now with CIO status, HackCville relies on students for its day-to-day and long-term operations.
“One of my favorite things about this space and in this community is you meet people from all years, all majors, all the time,” Willson said. “I’ve been able to take a lot of the lessons I learned from [TomTom] and apply it to [HackCville], back and forth.”
The partnership between Tom Tom and HackCville began at the Super Demo event the same year Willson volunteered and has grown since.
“Tom Tom has a lot of student volunteers and interns that work with the festival, and a lot of them come from HackCville,” Willson said. “They know this is a great place to find super talented, motivated students who are interested in innovation and the arts. It’s ended up being a very natural collaboration.”
This year, Willson returns as Tom Tom’s innovation programming coordinator for the second time. Looking ahead to April, he hopes to streamline events using his experiences last spring.
“[In 2014] there wasn’t the focus that we wanted,” Willson said. “So this year, we are focusing things — we are holding an all-day conference at the Paramount Theater downtown called the Founders Summit.”
The ‘Founders Summit’ will boast big name entrepreneurs, such as University graduates Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder and CEO of Reddit, and Becca McCharen, the founder of fashion line CHROMAT. These entrepreneurs will speak on their startup experiences and hope to inspire the brightest young minds in Charlottesville.
“This is the year where the festival takes a big step forward and says, ‘We’re not just a Charlottesville thing anymore,’” Willson said.
While Tom Tom Founders Festival and HackCville give back to the community by forging connections between the community, its entrepreneurs and students, they have had a profound impact on Willson’s own experience in Charlottesville.
“It can be hard to step outside your comfort zone and say, ‘I don’t know if this new thing I’m interested in is for me, but I’m going to go try it,’” Willson said. “I took that leap my first year getting involved with the Festival and with HackCville, and I am so glad that I did.”
While the University provides a host of opportunities for students, Willson stresses the importance of exploring your “backyard” — in this case, the greater Charlottesville area.
“I think there’s more to life than school,” Willson said. “I think you can learn a lot at the University, and I think you can meet incredible people and learn amazing skills that will be really useful to you, but that’s not everything.”