March 23, 2017

This annual festival in Virginia perfectly captures America’s innovative spirit

Celebrating arts and innovation, Charlottesville's Tom Tom Founders Festival shows how big ideas can come from small cities

Launched in 2012, Tom Tom Founders Festival in Charlottesville, Virginia, is a weeklong event that promotes culture and entrepreneurship. Photo courtesy of Tom Tom Founders Festival


Meet the finalists for The Atlantic’s Renewal Awards, underwritten by Allstate. These individuals are the forces behind the 25 nonprofits competing for $100,000 in grant money. Five winners will be announced March 30 at The Renewal Summit in Washington, on, and here, on The Renewal Project.

The first Tom Tom Founders Festival launched in 2012 as a month-long music, art, and innovation festival in Charlottesville, Virginia. According to its founder Paul Beyer, the 30 days of free art and innovation programming, which concluded with a ticketed music festival, was experimental and community based. “The community programming was a huge success, the music festival was a failure,” said the Charlottesville native. “So we went back to the drawing board.”

Today, it’s a weeklong celebration of arts and entrepreneurship that attracts tens of thousands of attendees.

Meet Paul and follow the festival on Twitter at @tomtomfest.

This questionnaire has been edited for length and clarity.

Describe your community:

Tom Tom is both a reflection of the Charlottesville (Virginia) community and a much broader network of creators, entrepreneurs, and civic leaders. The Tom Tom Foundation works year-round to empower founders and connect resources, but our principal impacts come through our events. Our signature project occurs each April over Thomas Jefferson’s birthday week (April 13). Last year, the Founders Festival attracted over 38,000 attendees for over 100 events that inspire creative founding.

When did you start your community work?

Tom Tom began in 2012 as a month-long music, art, and innovation festival. The initial idea occurred to me in November 2011, and four months later we launched the first Tom Tom Founders Festival. It was very experimental and community based. Thirty days of free art and innovation programming concluded with a ticketed music festival. The community programming was a huge success, the music festival was a failure. So we went back to the drawing board. In the following years, Tom Tom condensed the programming to a week, which proved to be much more manageable.

What inspired you to do this work?

I’m a Charlottesville native, and I returned home from New York City, where I had worked and gone to school. When I started Tom Tom, I had a central question: can events change how you see a city? And can events inspire an emotional connection to make a place a “hometown”? Long-term, we wanted to inspire a conversation about the civic identity of the place you live and generate a collective vision about its future.

What ways are you helping to make your community thrive?

The Tom Tom Foundation helps our community at the local, regional, and national level. At the local level we are inspiring and empowering local creators to reimagine their city. At the regional level we are branding the Commonwealth of Virginia, and Charlottesville in particular, as an economic hub for creativity and innovation. At the national level we are drawing far-reaching attention to Charlottesville and modeling how small cities thrive.

To date, the Festival has attracted over 128,000 attendees, and featured 300 bands, 350 speakers, and dozens of artists and installations. Over $2,800,000 has been invested and granted to regional startups, entrepreneurs, and nonprofits.

What do you love about your community?

Charlottesville is a community of talented and innovative people who are seeking to make change in their city, and beyond. Whether it is through cutting edge research at University of Virginia, the launching of a clean energy alliance between local solar and wind industries, or a public arts initiative through the City of Charlottesville, people in Charlottesville seek to make the community a leading example of how big ideas can come from small cities.

What’s one thing you want outsiders to know about your community?

We spend a lot of time messaging Charlottesville as “America’s Founding City.” Sometimes we can be seen as a retirement community, a place with rich history—Thomas Jefferson, Founding Fathers, etc.—but that lives in the past. We want to posit that Charlottesville is a city for the future, and whose story is one that is still actively being shaped. If you have an idea that you want to launch, you don’t need to move to New York City or Silicon Valley to make it happen; Charlottesville is a place for modern day founders.

What leader or leaders inspired you?

I don’t have a specific person that comes to mind. What I admire is more the archetype of the founding entrepreneur, the person who takes risks, builds teams, and inspires those around them to pursue a vision. I had not been an entrepreneur before starting this festival, and it is ironic that my discovery of entrepreneurship has been through an event all about entrepreneurship. But I have come to understand my own story in the context of the founders we celebrate. It is both comforting and satisfying, and I experience firsthand many of the same empowering realizations of those who attend the festival. Starting something is hard work, with many struggles and obstacles that the average person doesn’t see.

Margaret Myers

Margaret Myers is the editor of The Renewal Project.