In its third year, Tom Tom tackles big questions that put C’ville in the spotlight

Image: Jason Crosby Image: Jason Crosby

When Paul Beyer launched the first Tom Tom Founders Festival in 2012, he billed it as Charlottesville’s answer to Austin’s SXSW, a smorgasbord of music, art, and innovation in a city that always wants more of all three.

The festival returns for a third time April 9-14, and true to its young roots, it’s got a schedule chock full of performances,exhibitions, and panel talks. Also, food trucks. Jefferson—whose birthday party it’s supposed to be, after all—would be into it, we think.

The schedule—which you can check out online and in our paper—is sprawling (you can find some of our picks from the whole long weekend at the end of this story). But at its center, the evolving festival is about two things: ideas and identity. One shapes the other, Beyer said, and this year more than ever, he wants Tom Tom to ask a question that speaks to both.

“Is the narrative of Charlottesville this place where you can create businesses, create new things, think new ideas?” he asked.

To that end, the 2014 festival is even more heavily focused on innovation, with a big slate of talks and workshops structured around seven “tracks”: entrepreneurship, technology, health, energy, education, law, and food.

There’s a lot to talk about. But there are three questions Tom Tom is exploring this year that really piqued our interest, so we called up some of the local experts who will be helping steer the discussions next week, and we’ve got a preview for you.

These are the Charlottesville conversations you don’t want to miss.

Sandy Reisky. Photo: Jackson Smith
Sandy Reisky. Photo: Jackson Smith

“How are small startups changing the way energy is delivered in the U.S.?”

When: Noon Friday, April 11 at CitySpace

Sandy Reisky is a key figure in what the energy industry calls disruptive technologies. The Charlottesville native has helped found five alternative energy companies focused on tapping into the power of wind, solar, and biofuels. He’s now CEO of Apex Clean Energy, which has wind projects in 17 states. He believes we’re seeing a cultural shift in how America is powered, and he thinks Charlottes-
ville—thanks in no small part to him, a growing energy startup hub—is a great place to watch it happen.

But what’s driving the changing energy ethic?

“These are exciting times. Our generation is witnessing the rapid adoption of new energy technologies that are cleaner, cheaper, and more convenient.

People are responding to new energy choices, they are installing solar panels and buying electric cars, they are insulating their homes and consuming less. In the U.S., every four minutes a new home or business goes solar. Collectively, we are changing our energy future by adding more clean energy to the grid, using less gasoline and embracing efficiency. Consequently, energy is becoming more democratic as individuals play a more active role in determining our energy future.

The implications are profound. In the past, centralized decisions made changes to our energy system slow and difficult to influence. People concerned about energy issues like carbon pollution or climate change had few opportunities to drive change. But now, for the first time the power to change energy is in our hands.

As these changes unfold, a new energy ethic is emerging. Built on foundational values we share like independence, self-reliance, personal initiative, and personal responsibility, the new energy ethic is empowering. It points to the many ways we can make individual choices to reduce our dependence on oil and stop carbon pollution. It refuses to be demoralized by climate change, and reaches for the solutions we can implement today, in our own lives, to address carbon pollution. How we think and talk about energy is important. As the new energy ethic takes hold, politics and policy will follow, and we will create a better energy future.

Nationally, entrepreneurial companies like Cree, Nest, SolarCity, Tesla Motors, SunEdison, and many others have been pioneers in bringing these products to market. In Charlottesville, companies like HelioSage, AltEnergy, Apex Clean Energy, Greenlight Biofuels, Columbia Power Technologies, and a host of others are market participants moving the industry forward with projects locally and nationwide. This is a fast-growing industry with lots of room for innovation.”

Jessica Nagle. Photo: Jen Fariello
Jessica Nagle. Photo: Jen Fariello

“Why would somebody starting a large business pick Charlottesville as its headquarters?”

When: 1:30pm Friday, April 11 at The Haven

Jessica Nagle helped found SNL Financial in a Manhattan apartment living room in 1987. A few years later, the fledgling financial reporting firm had relocated to Charlottesville. It’s still headquartered here, and now employs about 1,800 people, 400 of them in an office complex near the Downtown Mall. Nagle has left the company, but was there through the growth years in a city that at first seemed an unlikely home. 

So why here? And what made it work?

“What prompted the move was we were working seven days a week, from eight in the morning until 11 at night and knew the small workforce of ten had to grow, and we just also started talking about quality of life —not that we had any time out of the office.

SNL needed super smart people. We thought a university town would provide that bright, eager workforce. We actually used the Barron’s Guide to Colleges to narrow down our search. We considered areas near Bowdoin (too cold), Swarthmore (too expensive), Duke (better basketball here—we happily can say that now!), William & Mary, and UVA.

We moved to Charlottesville with 10 people on the Fourth of July in 1989.

In 1989 the Downtown Mall was a very different place—few restaurants and very deserted at night. We still opted for a Downtown location against the advice of brokers who didn’t seem to see corporations anywhere but office parks; as New Yorkers we were accustomed to walking to lunch and getting around on foot, something that was a bit unique in a town of “drivers.” I have been delighted to see the Mall develop and become a commercial and social hub for Charlottesville.

Originally small town infrastructure issues were at times difficult—lack of phone lines, unreliable power and ample office space. I know it’s hard to believe, but SNL moved to Charlottesville before there was an Internet. In the early years the fax machine was key for our data gathering and distribution so all we needed were good phone lines. In the mid 1990s, SNL grew along with the Internet, which certainly made location less and less important—although SNL has always maintained offices in other key locations.

Today, I think Charlottesville is still small enough that it can react to the needs of any company that’s growing, whether that’s space, or a type of employee you need. At one point, SNL really needed a certain type of account analyst, and PVCC designed a curriculum that created graduates with those exact skills SNL needed.”

Albemarle Sheriff J.E. "Chip" Harding. Photo: Sarah Jane Winter
Albemarle Sheriff J.E. “Chip” Harding. Photo: Sarah Jane Winter

“How can Virginia avoid sending innocent people to death row?”

When: 4:30pm Sunday, April 13 at The Haven

Albemarle County Sheriff J.E. “Chip” Harding describes himself as “a cop with a degree in social work.” He spent decades with the Charlottesville Police Department, ultimately serving as captain, and in the late 1990s began lobbying for expanded funding for Virginia’s DNA databank. He’s now pushing for the creation of a state justice commission that coulddevelop best practices based on what DNA evidence has revealed about witness fallibility and interview procedures. The gist: Convene a group of respected law enforcement officials to come up with guidelines. He thinks getting local agencies onboard will work better than a top-down legislative approach.

But why do we need policy change?

“What DNA has shown us is not only can it catch the right guy and help ID suspects, it’s also helped exonerate people who have been proven to be innocent.

I’ve become very passionate about wanting to push the envelope to get more people in the justice system, particularly on the law enforcement and prosecutorial side of it, to look at what we’ve learned, and better our practices and procedures to make sure we get the right person locked up. It’s amazing the number of cases you read about where you can see where people committed more rapes, more robberies, because they weren’t ID’d correctly to begin with.

Earl Washington [a Culpeper man wrongly accused of rape and murder in 1983 and fully exonerated in 2006] came within nine days of being executed. Everyone believed he did it. It took a jury 45 minutes to convict Earl and give him the death penalty. How could he have convinced the jury he did something he didn’t do?

What we now know is the law enforcement agents that interviewed him interjected to him, almost like they rehearsed with him. They would say, ‘Earl, was she white or black? C’mon Earl, you know she was black.’

It’s easy to do it. You can be an ethical police officer and do it without realizing you’re doing it. But there are agencies in Virginia right now that don’t record interviews or interrogations. Federal law enforcement agents don’t do it. The attitude is, ‘People should believe what we say.’

To me, that just says that people making the policy just haven’t been introduced to the lessons learned from DNA exoneration.

If we’re professionals, we ought to want to adopt these policies. If you look later and they haven’t been adopted, what do we have to do? Do we need to bring a hammer and get it adopted?

Many of your elected officials in the General Assembly are afraid to be soft on crime, and they would be against it for fear of that—that they’ll be seen as putting up more impediments on arresting bad guys. And that’s not the case at all. I think we can change the way we do business, and I don’t think we’ll lessen at all the rate at which we’ll catch the bad guys.

It won’t take a lot of time. The research has been done. It’s a matter of getting a group of good people together to make it happen.”


STEP RIGHT UP: Tom Tom happenings we think you shouldn’t miss

Tom Tom’s five-day schedule runneth over with panels, pitch nights, performances, and parties. Below, find our staff picks for the long weekend—a highlight reel of music, food, and thought-provoking talks.

Event: Crowdfunded pitch night with Anatomy of Frank

7-10pm Wednesday, April 9

The Haven

The community-backed pitch night has become one of the festival’s signature events. Chip in $10 at the door and hear dozens of local entrepreneurs and inventors give their three-minute spiels. Then vote for your favorite. The winner gets a year-long residency at UVA’s i.Lab, a startup incubator that offers access to Darden professors and community mentors, plus a $5,000 grant. Playing the event are the local A-listers of indie rock quintet Anatomy of Frank.

Talk: Raising capital in a small town

11am Friday, April 11

The Haven

It comes up every time people talk about Charlottesville’s startup culture: This city is a great place to launch a business, because it’s crawling with rich investors. But how do you make it happen? This panel brings together some local “dealmakers” who have done it—and have written checks that have helped kickstart other entrepreneurs’ dreams. Medicus 24/7’s Blair Kelley, Felton Group’s Will Foshay, RKG COO Dean Johnson, and Heliosage co-founder Matthew Hantzmon talk it up.

Art event: McGuffey mural wall graffiti installation

All day Saturday, April 12

McGuffy Art Center

A concrete retaining wall near McGuffey gets its second makeover in two years during an installation workshop. Graffiti artists from around the state will convene with the aim of completing the wall by the end of the weekend. Drop by to check out their progress throughout the day.

Food event: Tom Yum

9am-noon Saturday, April 12


Get cooking (and eating) at the festival’s food expo on Saturday morning at BON, where local chefs Mark Gresge of l’Etoile, Dean Maupin of C&O, and Harrison Keevil of Brookville offer food workshops and culinary demos.

Art event: Words in Motion on the Free Trolley

1-9pm Saturday, April 12

Shuttling between Tom Tom events on schedule-heavy Saturday is an event in itself, as local writers and spoken word artists perform stories, poetry, and monologues live on the city’s free trolley. Check out for the bus timetable.

Art event: Comic craft panel and screen printing demo

2pm Saturday, April 12


Downtown comic and print shop Telegraph plays host for a talk on contemporary comics and independent publishing. Charlottesville’s own Warren Craghead III, an award-winning comic artist, joins illustrators Dustin Harbin, Andrew White, and Jared Cullum. Stick around afterward for a screen printing demonstration.

Talk: Red Light Tumblr panel

4pm Saturday, April 12

Old Metropolitan Hall

Part of the technology track of the innovation-centric discussions at the heart of this year’s festival, this talk digs into the culture and strategies driving one of the web’s biggest blogging platforms. Some of Red Light Management’s top talent will be on hand to talk about how artists like Tim McGraw and Belle & Sebastian use the site to interact with fans, and one of Tumblr’s first hires, Thomas Duffy, will join in.


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