“Everybody’s got a vision and they’re trying to get it off the ground,” said UVA senior Kevin Pujanauski. “How do you bring attention to it, how do you bring a little funding to it, how do you get people excited about it?”
Pujanauski, who graduates this month from the political honors and global development studies programs, said he was having a beer with a buddy when the idea came to him: a crowd-funded community pitch night, where entrepreneurs pitch ideas to an audience. After paying $10 at the door, attendees vote on their favorite and all the proceeds go to the winning idea. “Everybody’s got a vision and they’re trying to get it off the ground,” said UVA senior Kevin Pujanauski. “How do you bring attention to it, how do you bring a little funding to it, how do you get people excited about it?”
About three months later, on Thursday, May 3, as part of the Tom Tom Founder’s Festival, a crowd of over 150 gathered at the Gleason, where Pujanauski’s idea came to life. With four minutes onstage for each presentation, individuals and groups stood up to pitch their ideas to the enthusiastic crowd, which cast its votes by placing marbles in jars.
Ideas ranged from a local taxicab app for smartphones to an emergency day care; from a pop-up restaurant specializing in desserts and cocktails to a mural project at a local elementary school. Each idea was different from the next, and that, according to Oliver Platts-Mills, was entirely the point. Platts-Mills, the festival’s innovation coordinator, said he wanted a variety of ideas, whether art, technology, non-profit or local business. He said this was to give opportunity to a breadth of organizations, but also to keep the audience interested and excited.
“People want to be engaged,” Platts-Mills said. He said people were more likely to donate to a cause if they could play an active part in it. And given the $1,400 raised at the event, he was right.
The goal was to raise $1,000 and donate the full amount to the group or individual with the most votes. After adding up the marbles and noting how close the top two were, event organizers decided to give $1,000 to the top choice, and award the remaining cash to the second-place winner.
The runner-up and recipient of $400 was a group of UVA computer science undergraduates who have helped start a micro-volunteering organization through a service learning practicum course. The goal is for students, particularly those studying computer science, to offer their expertise to local non-profits, free of charge. Chris Jones, a computer science junior, explained in their presentation that if a non-profit needs help setting up a router or starting a website, it can call on student volunteers rather than spending $89.99 elsewhere for technical support.
Aaron Bloomfield, an associate professor of computer science, said it gives his students the chance to give back to the community, and also “get real world experience” in their chosen field.
First-place winner Sandra Carter is the second of three generations of women who run Sixth Street Mini Mart at the corner of Sixth Street Southeast and Montrose. Currently the store sells alcohol and cigarettes, but Carter’s vision is to utilize the store’s kitchen and begin a catering company that offers healthy foods to the surrounding low-income neighborhoods.
“I want the catering to be big enough that we don’t need the alcohol and tobacco anymore,” she said. Carter knows that neighborhood youth frequent the store, and she wants them to have access to local, healthy foods.
Her inspiration for this company came from her sister, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at a young age. Carter said her sister was given six months to live, but lived another 13.5 years after making the decision to get healthy. Not only did she take better care of herself in terms of food and exercise, but she encouraged others to do so as well.
“My sister really inspired me,” Carter said. She said her sister always reached out to kids—not just her own—to teach them healthy living habits. She wants to continue that outreach with healthy foods and a welcoming environment.
Carter said she was nervous before going onstage, but the support and excitement of the crowd gave her energy and soothed her nerves.
“This time next year,” said Sandra Carter, “I would love to come back here and stand up and say ‘It worked. Thank you.’”