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DC Creator Camp 2017

This past weekend, 28 entrepreneurs came together in Washington, D.C. for the first-ever WeWork Creator Camp, which one participant called “the most intense, most rewarding accelerator program you could imagine.” For three fast-paced days, the cohort—comprised of Creator Awards winners from Austin, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. competitions—learned how to develop a stronger brand voice, pitch their great ideas in front of investors, and stand out in a competitive marketplace.

“You’ve got to be passionate about your startup,” Jeff Sheely, co-founder of the flower delivery service UrbanStems, told participants. “This is something you’re going to be talking about a lot for a very long time.” (Editor’s note: Learn more about the experts who coached the finalists.)

Sheely was one of the many business experts on hand to mentor and advise more than two dozen regional winners at the Creator Awards, a worldwide competition sponsored by WeWork.  These winners—from the Austin, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. competitions—are all set to compete in the Creator Awards Finals, which will be held in in New York City in early 2018.

The stakes are high, as the winners are eligible for the grand prize of more than $1 million given out at the Finals. Creator Camp is designed to prepare them for the competition, as well as for real-world events like pitching to potential investors.

Announced earlier this year by WeWork Founder Adam Neumann, the Creator Awards are a global initiative to “recognize and reward the creators of the world.” Over the course of the year, WeWork is giving out more than $20 million at a series of events taking place in cities spanning the globe.

Winners on the regional level said that the experience has already transformed their companies. Keisha Whaley, founder of a Dallas-based ad agency called Brass Tacks Collective, said the $72,000 she won in the Austin regional event has allowed her company to expand in ways she hadn’t expected.

“The money allowed us to expand in ways that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise,” Whaley said.

On Friday, finalists arrived at WeLive Crystal City. The following morning, after an early morning yoga class, the group shuttled across the Potomac River for a jam-packed day of workshops at WeWork White House, with expansive windows overlooking the nearby executive mansion.

The first session featured Sheely, who discussed the importance of a strong brand voice. He explained that when his business partner Ajay Koriand was involved in a long-distance romance, he was unsatisfied with the quality of flower delivery. They decided to rethink the process.

At another session, Hafezi Capital CEO Babak Hafezi focused on how strategic business planning can help a company scale in a crowded field.

“You must be able to tell your story,” he said. “There are people out there who have money and want to support you on your mission and make an impact.”

Mealtimes were also an opportunity to learn. Prominent D.C. restaurateur and owner of Cava Brett Schulman discussed challenges like team building with Kley Sippel, WeWork’s Community Director in D.C.

After lunch, the group hopped on a bus to Improv DC to test their ad-lib skills and creativity. For starters, they formed a large circle and assigned themselves alliterative nicknames and signature movements. (Example: Greg Jumes of Victor App became Good Greg, and his movement was lunging forward.)

The event was capped off by pitches to a panel of judges, testing how much they’d grown after the whirlwind of storytelling workshops. Each participant had a distinct style. Grace Hsia of Warmilu was full of energy as she explained the inspiration that led her to create warming blankets for premature babies.

Kevin White of the nonprofit Global Vision 2020 was cool and collected, impressing the crowd with his passion for providing affordable eyeglasses to children in developing nations. Jay Newton-Small, telling how her grandfather’s dementia had inspired her to launch Memory Well, brought an emotional component to the afternoon.

There’s one more Creator Camp scheduled for 2017, taking place on Dec. 2 and 3 for winners from the Creator Awards in London, Berlin, Tel Aviv, and New York.

Nashville has always thought big. People have moved here with dreams of conquering the city, or even the world. Adam Neumann, cofounder and CEO of WeWork — which has two locations in Music City — has described the company as a place that fosters that kind of growth.

So it makes sense that the two meshed so well at WeWork’s Nashville Creator Awards, held on September 13. Host Ashton Kutcher ticked off the long list of larger cities where the Creator Awards, a global competition that rewards entrepreneurs, have already taken place. “London! São Paulo! Nashville, you are on that list!”

Adam Neumann and Ashton Kutcher at WeWork’s Nashville Creator Awards.

Neumann twice interrupted the event to increase the amounts of the prizes, underscoring that “think big” theme for the night. He boosted dollar amounts for runners-up in the nonprofit category and gave performance arts winner Melanie Faye a recording studio, in addition to her $18,000 cash prize. All told, WeWork awarded $888,000 in prize money in Music City.

If you were expecting a prim-and-proper pitch competition, well, this wasn’t your father’s shark tank. The crowd of more than 2,500 people at Marathon Music Works was standing room only, and there were lines outside of more folks who wanted to get in. (Food trucks kept serving outside all night.) Faye rocked out on her signature blue Fender guitar as attendees made their way to their seats. “A lot of times on stage I am inhibited, but the audience was giving me a lot of energy that I could feed off,” she said. “So it made me play at my potential. It made me a lot more confident.”

Sarah Martin McConnell wowed the judges — and the crowd — with her elevator pitch for Music for Seniors, a nonprofit that takes live music to the elderly.

Kutcher described Nashville has having seemingly contradictory, yet laudatory, qualities: humility and confidence. Also one of the judges, Kutcher said the one quality he looked for most in a creator is “grit.”

Music City’s quirkiness came through loud and clear in all the best moments of the evening:

Best way to fight the stereotype: Nashville likes to emphasize that it’s not just about country music. Sure, the mega duo of Florida Georgia Line were celebrity judges, but what better way to show Music City’s range than to have G-Eazy (wearing a “Cashville” T-shirt) in the house? The rapper played to a happy after-party crowd that danced through beer and confetti.

Janett Liriano of Loomia pitches her company to the judges.

Best eats: Food trucks lined up outside —  including That Awesome Taco Truck, King Tut’s, and Bradley’s Creamery — fed attendees in a makeshift park with picnic tables and a view of the city skyline in the distance.

Best thirst quencher: On a day that topped 92 degrees and humidity levels as noticeable in the air as the confetti streamers that later rained down, “refreshing” was the beverage watchword of the night. Palomas, served both as limed-accented drinks from the open bars in the vendor market and job fair and as shots once the winners were announced, helped the parched and got folks in a party mood, while keeping it light. For non-drinkers, WithCo’s drink call the Jackass, made with fresh lime and ginger, was a particularly popular pre-show energy kick.

Melanie Faye rocked out on her signature blue Fender guitar at the Nashville Creator Awards.

Easiest way to influence your future: Inside, Neumann, Kutcher, and the finalists demonstrated what happens when one has ambition and curiosity. Business card-maker Moo helped people put that initiative in their own hands –– literally. Market-goers wrote a postcard to their future selves that Moo will mail 12 months from now.

Best wearable art: WeWorker and East Nashville florist FLWR Shop used liquid latex to paint fresh-flower corsages on the wrists of willing attendees.

Local vendors showed off their wares at the Nashville Creator Awards.

Best salute to veterans: The world-changing went on not just on the stage but in the pop-up market and job fair, which hosted many businesses and nonprofits specifically focused on helping refugees and veterans, including Bunker Labs, a national nonprofit for veteran entrepreneurs.

Most quintessential Nashville item for sale: Music City’s Original Fuzz was selling its line of guitar straps made from vintage and one-of-a-kind fabrics. Camera and bags straps were available for those who can’t pick a note.

Dozens of jobs were on offer at the Nashville Creator Awards job fair.

Biggest scene-stealer: Before the pitches began Kutcher and Neumann asked for two volunteers from the packed audience to pitch their idea. Sarah Martin McConnell’s hand shot up, and in 30 seconds she wowed the duo — and the crowd — with her elevator pitch for Music for Seniors, a nonprofit that takes live music to the elderly. She was awarded $50,000 to triple the organization’s size by the end of next year. “This is a turning place for us,” she said.

Product that best knows its niche audience: Nashville is home to the largest Kurdish population in the U.S. The majority of Kurds are Muslim, and Muslim women who participate in wudu, a washing ritual where water must reach every part of the body, cannot wear waterproof makeup or nail polish. Enter Júwon Enamel, a vegan nail polish with a water-permeable polish, to solve that problem. (Júwon means “beautiful” in Kurdish.)

Biggest winner: Stephanie Benedetto, founder and CEO of Queen of Raw, the night’s biggest winner with a $360,000 prize for her online marketplace for excess raw textiles, demonstrated a lot of grit. “The kinds of questions they asked were so valuable, informative, and supportive,” she said, but they also forced her to think about the direction she’ll take the company going forward.

Best sign you were on the right track: Anthony Brahimsha, who walked away with a second-place $180,000 prize for Prommus, his high-protein, clean-label hummus, says that “as soon as you win this award, all the blood, sweat and tears that you put into the company comes together. I’m talking, literally, blood, sweat, and tears… Finally, it feels like an affirmation that you were doing the right thing.”

When luxury clothing retailer Burberry burned millions of dollars worth of items that it couldn’t sell, it caused an uproar. Destroying excess fabric is rampant in the industry, but Stephanie Benedetto may have come up with a solution.

Her business, Queen of Raw, offers an online marketplace for buying and selling fabrics that might otherwise go to waste.

Queen of Raw cofounder Stephanie Benedetto wants to use the prize money from the Nashville Creator Awards to take her company international.

The New Yorker says there’s $120 billion worth of excess fabric sitting in warehouses around the world. That costs the factories that made it, the companies that ordered it, and the warehouses that store it. And Benedetto says it also costs the planet.

The textile industry is the second-biggest polluter of clean water in the world, right after oil. That cotton T-shirt you’re wearing as you read this? Benedetto says it took a mind-boggling 700 gallons of water to produce (unless you happen to be wearing an organic shirt, in which case it’s more like 10 gallons). Multiply that by the 2 billion shirts sold annually across the globe, and you can see the impact this has on the environment.

With Queen of Raw, Bennedetto says that businesses can sell their excess raw fabric (hence the name) instead of destroying it. And if the company that buys it ends up not needing it? Well, it can sell it to another firm.

Buyers become sellers and sellers become buyers,” she says.

Bennedetto says she’s continuing a family tradition. A century ago, her immigrant grandfather worked in the garment industry on New York’s Lower East Side. Today, she runs her technology-driven company from New York’s WeWork Empire State.

A former lawyer who specialized in fashion, technology, and other fields, Benedetto started mapping out Queen of Raw on a napkin four years ago. She officially launched this year with cofounder Phil Derasmo, whose Wall Street and startup contacts were a good balance for her fashion industry chops.

Benedetto estimates that by 2025 Queen of Raw could help save more than 4 billion gallons of water and prevent 2 million tons of textiles from going to the landfill. While Queen of Raw strives to have serious social impact, it was important to Benedetto for it to be a for-profit business to show the industry that preventing waste will help their bottom line.

Benedetto knows how hard it is to run a successful startup. But things suddenly got a lot easier on Sept. 13 when she took home the top prize — $360,000 — at the Nashville Creator Awards.

“We were a bootstrapped company and it took us all the way to launch,” says Benedetto. “We want to be able to grow and scale beyond the U.S. and around the world.”

Her ultimate goal is to get people — business owners and consumers alike — to stop and think.

“Wherever you are, whatever you are going, the materials in the space you are in —the office, a car, a plane — did not come from nowhere,” says Benedetto. “If everyone thought a little differently about one T-shirt, about sourcing sustainably one thing, that would have a massive impact.”

Architect Luiz Alberto Altmann Fazio was volunteering with a well-known nonprofit when he visited a favela in Rio de Janeiro. There he saw for the first time the problems with sewage encountered by many poor communities in Brazil.

“Companies won’t build sewage networks in poor communities because they don’t see it as economically viable,” he says.

About 50 percent of Brazilian households are not connected to a sewage network, a statistic that disproportionally affects the poor. So Fazio created Biosaneamento, a project to build low-cost biogas toilets in communities that lack basic sanitation.

A biogas toilet is similar to an eco-friendly composting toilet in that it converts waste to fertilizer. But a biogas system takes things a step farther by also collecting methane gas that can be used by the local community. This gas can be a lifeline for poor families, who have seen the price of canisters of gas rise in recent months in Brazil.

Despite Brazil passing a law guaranteeing all citizens access to a sewage system 10 years ago, Fazio says that in a best-case scenario, the country is still at least 25 years away from fulfilling its promise. The total cost would be more than $100 billion.

But Biosaneamento offers a cheap and quicker solution to the problem. The construction of bio-toilets uses readily available materials and can create jobs in the community.

Biosaneamento, with offices at Rio de Janeiro’s WeWork Carica, is a winner in the nonprofit category at the WeWork Creator Awards. With the $18,000 prize the company will be able to build up to 50 systems — enough to serve 150 homes and 600 people.

Fazio says that says that their system would cost around a tenth of a sewer traditional system. One of the big benefits would be improving the health of local communities.

“In poor communities with open sewer networks you have high rates of diarrhea and other diseases,” says Fazio. “For young children this can be deadly.”

When São Paulo business leader Alcione Albanesi decided to start a nonprofit organization back in 1993, little did she know that 25 years later it would be one of the best-known programs in Brazil.

“At the time, we couldn’t have imagined where it would take us,” says Albanesi, who started off her career as head of a successful lamp company.

Today, Amigos do Bem — which translates as “Good Friends” — has 8,600 volunteers working to help 60,000 Brazilians in Sertão, one of the country’s poorest areas. The semi-arid region sits in the northeastern part of the country.

Through volunteering, fundraising, and other efforts, Amigos de Bem serves 118 villages in the remote parts of the states of Alagoas, Pernambuco, and Ceará. Last year, Amigos do Bem received an award from Brazil’s Epoca magazine, which honours the 100 best non-governmental organizations in the country.

Sertão is a visually beautiful and enchanting place that has inspired some of Brazil’s best literature and cinema, but it’s also a region that throughout Brazil’s history has suffered from natural disasters, poverty, and neglect.

While there have been some serious improvements in recent years, including much-needed grants provided by the government, problems remain. Jobs are hard to come by, and many residents rely to varying degrees on subsistence agriculture to help them get by.

To make matters worse, two years ago the area suffered its worst drought in history. In 2014, Brazil was removed from the United Nations World Hunger map, but in Sertão, there are many areas where hunger persists.  

“It’s a difficult fight,” says Albanesi, a resident of São Paulo. “It’s really complex. Without a humane intervention, it’s a pattern that repeats itself.”

In partnership with leading supermarket chains in Brazil, Amigos do Bem donates 11,000 food baskets each month to poor families in the Sertão region. But while the nonprofit started off with donations of food and clothing, it has expanded to offer housing and medical and dental care.

Today, the organization is focused on self-sustaining projects such as university scholarships that will benefit nearly 200 students. Most of them will be the first in their families to go on to higher education.

“Today, kids and teenagers in the region can dream,” says Albanesi.