The Nashville NEXT Awards honor entrepreneurial individuals and businesses for their ongoing contributions to the Music City’s continued growth and innovation in the technology industry.
Finalists for the 2014 edition of the annual awards gathered recently at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center, where they had a chance to connect with and congratulate fellow difference makers in the Nashville entrepreneur community. Some of them took some time to speak with Nashville Podcaster Clark Buckner, a Chamber and EC volunteer, about the current challenges and future trends facing Nashville’s entrepreneurs.
The Nashville NEXT Awards
For the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, the NEXT Awards rank as one of their biggest events, and they partner with the EC to make it happen. The Director of Business Growth for the Chamber, Corey Davis, noted how the collaboration between the chamber and the EC underscores how the groups “want to help the Nashville business community any way we can. We want Nashville to grow, and partnering with the EC to highlight companies that are the future of Nashville is a great way to help encourage that.”
NEXT Award winners come from five different industries in three categories:
Startup, for small companies
Growth, for mid-sized companies
Market Mover, for large companies
Davis mentioned how exciting it was to see former “startup” award winners now being nominated for “Market Mover” awards, a sure sign of Nashville’s growth and ability to incubate startups into successful, long-term businesses.
The Director of Business Partnerships for the EC, Jared Marquette, believes the NEXT Awards are a visible representation and yearly reminder of Nashville’s growth and change over the last few years. They reveal “what’s new and what’s happening” instead of just showing “where we’re at now.”
He riffed on the word “collision” to uniquely define the event as a smaller representation of the whole of Nashville’s tech scene:
“There’s so much movement and so many different particles and pieces constantly bumping into each other that things start to stick. You start to not just have these tiny individual pieces, ideas, businesses, entrepreneurs, or investors—but what you have is an actual whole system that's planned and organized that allows for any part of the system to come in and understand how to walk through it.”
A Helping Hand
Marquette pointed to Nashville’s inherent helpfulness as another reason for The Music City’s tech growth: “There’s a lot of competition here, but I think it’s friendly. People are always willing to offer advice or lend a helping hand.”
Tammy Hawes with Virsys12 echoed his sentiments:
“Nashville is a very giving community. You run across people all the time in Nashville that truly want to help you along your path. And pretty much everybody I meet, they have some kind of golden nugget of advice or experience in the past that I can relate to …. There's always something that they say that makes me think differently about the way the world's changing. I think that's what's drawing people to Nashville -- that sense of people helping each other. I hope that we can keep that. I think we can.”
The Current Challenge: Retaining Tech Talent
Though technology professionals keep discovering Nashville as a prime place to work, the city knows it’s just as important to retain the tech talent that’s hiding in plain sight. Consequently, organizations and companies in town are helping to spur development in order to retain homegrown tech workers. This includes many partnerships targeted at middle schools and high schools:
Nissan invests in the Williamson County School Systems.
Griffin Technology invests in the Hunters Lane High School Design and Technology Academy (MNPS IT Academy).
HCA invests in female mentors for Overton High School girls.
Firefly Logic invests in the Stratford STEM Magnet High School.
Additionally, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce now offers InternNashville.com, a site providing resources for internships and opportunities for Middle Tennessee students and employers to connect.
Ben McIntyre, a finalist for Young Entrepreneur of the Year and CEO of startup Internpreneur, sees the link between the city’s growth and the continual need for retaining talent. The city and its tech companies must work to ensure that recent Middle Tennessee graduates want to stay there. He points to the city’s low cost-of-living as one motivation for them to stay, though there are many other reasons. He believes it’s the responsibility of local companies and groups to make those up-and-coming tech workers aware of the many benefits staying in the Music City will afford them.
The inherent helpfulness of the Nashville community may play a large role in that retention. What’s Hubbin’ CEO and Co-founder Channing Moreland noted recent graduates have a greater drive to collaborate than previous generations in the workforce. “I really think if (experienced professionals) could just remove the stereotypes from our minds and really look at these entrepreneurs, it would be amazing what they could do because they are so willing to work,” she said.
Hawes praised the EC as one of the top supporters of that collaboration, but noted there are countless ways for young entrepreneurs to connect with peers and mentors that could help their development. She sees such collaboration as especially important when it comes to women in technology.
Hawes is actively involved in the EC, the Nashville Chamber, the Nashville Technology Council, and Women in Technology, and she encourages all tech women to likewise become involved in such groups. “The main thing is that they just have to put themselves out there. It's not that scary, and if they put themselves out there, great things will happen,” she said.
On the Horizon for Nashville Tech
Throughout the NEXT Award finalists’ various conversations, the themes of community and growth were a constant refrain.
Make It Pop Creations founder Kevin Kazlauskas sees Nashville starting to rival New York and Los Angeles in terms of creative output. DePalma Studio Principal Floyd DePalma highlighted the EC and Jumpstart Foundry as two examples of the city’s work to encourage young entrepreneurs and startups.
Picd.us CEO and Co-founder Tim Downey is a finalist for this year’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year. He said that it was the people of Nashville who made him understand that he could actually become a successful entrepreneur. “It just took getting involved here and talking to all of these inspired people to understand that I could do it,” he said.
Many of the finalists suggested that Nashville’s growth as a whole has been driven by what’s helped them to also grow as entrepreneurs: passion and generosity. Moreland may have summarized it best:
“It's been the greatest experience of my life getting to be a part of this [entrepreneurship and collaboration in Nashville] and having opportunities to be a part of the events with the Chamber and the EC. None of this was ever what I thought my life would be. I came here as a songwriting major. I came here as an artist. My life has totally changed, but all for the better, and it's because of opportunities like these. It's just so cool that this can happen in Nashville. I'll always come home to Nashville. I'm sure about that.”
Clark Buckner is the online events manager for TechnologyAdvice, a Nashville NEXT Awards finalist that educates, advises, and connects buyers and sellers of business technology. He hosts the TechnologyAdvice Podcast, and also covers news and trends in the tech conference scene.