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Berlin Creator Awards Frantics dance

With 60 seconds on the clock and a skateboard in his hand, Skateistan Founder Oliver Percovich prepared to deliver his pitch at the Berlin Creator Awards Tuesday night. On the line was a top prize of $360,000.

“People told me my idea was impossible for years,” he said of his nonprofit, which provides children in Afghanistan, Cambodia, and South Africa with schools and skate parks. “For me, it made sense. I saw the smile on the kids’ faces.”

After his high-stakes pitch, a panel of judges asked why skateboarding appeals to kids in unstable countries. “It’s challenging,” he answered. “You fall down and have to get back up again. Afghanis know hardship.”

With his innovative approach to empowering the next generation of leaders, Percovich took home the top prize at the Creator Awards, the fifth one hosted by WeWork this year. For the Berlin edition, more than 1,100 gathered at Motorwerk Berlin, an engine factory turned club turned event space. Over the course of the evening, WeWork gave out more than $1 million to innovative projects and the creators behind them.

Speaking at the start of the night, WeWork Co-Founder Miguel McKelvey acknowledged how even embracing the title of “creator” can be hard for those working on their own projects that deviate from the typical idea of a startup.

“The Creator Awards are about trying to uncover people who don’t fit into the traditional systems of funding,” McKelvey said. “It’s OK to not be the next Facebook. What really counts is doing something that you care about.”

Tape Over Berlin creates a mural that reads "Building up the Future."
Miguel McKelvey says the Creator Awards "uncover people who don’t fit into the traditional systems of funding."
WeWork Co-Founder Miguel McKelvey embraces Community Giver Award winner Nicola Metzger.
AC Coppens moderates the Master Class on Modern Storytelling for Creatives with Nina Trippel and Laetitia Deveau.
The dance floor kicks up during Giorgio Moroder's DJ set.
Winners soak in their moment at the 2017 Berlin Creator Awards.
The judges deliberate after hearing the finalists' 60-second pitches.

Before the ceremony, while the crowd noshed on Berlin bites like vegan curry wurst and locally brewed BRLO, many of the finalists – Percovich included – fought nerves as they got ready for the final pitches. For these entrepreneurs and artists, the prizes of $18,000 in the Incubate category, to $72,000 to $130,000 in Launch, and $180,000 to $360,000 in Scale can make or break their ideas.

Matthias Heskamp of Radbahn said he and his team were on the brink of going back to their day jobs. “We almost couldn’t survive anymore,” he said. While the team of eight had received great media attention for their plan to turn the overpasses of Berlin’s elevated S-train into sheltered paths for bikes and pedestrians, they hadn’t yet secured sufficient funding to keep themselves afloat. Now, with the $72,000 Launch prize, they’ll be able to increase their focus on Radbahn, lobbying the local government and starting to unveil sections of the path.

The top winner in the Launch category, Sebastian Jünemann of Cadus, is also thrilled that his team will now be able to build and deploy a second mobile hospital to areas deemed too risky by other aid organizations. “Everyone said it wasn’t possible to put a mobile hospital two kilometers from the front lines in Mosul,” he said. “We showed them it is possible … and helped 300 people who would be dead now if we hadn’t been there.”

Among the excitement of the pitches and prizes, no one topped the enthusiasm of the Community Giver Award recipient Nicola Metzger. The Berlin crowd roared for the petite but exuberant WeWork Sony Center member as she bounced up to the stage to accept the $18,000 award, grinning ear to ear.

When all the money was handed out, it was time for a proper Berlin DJ set. Legendary Italian producer Giorgio Moroder threw on some of the disco classics he helped create, including the iconic “Love to Love You Baby.” The crowd stayed through to the last note at midnight, the dance floor strewn with confetti and business cards.

Looking ahead, Percovich said he knows exactly how he’s going to use the Creator Awards prize money. Skateistan gets messages from similar programs on a weekly basis.

“We’re contacted almost every week by copycat programs from around the world looking for support,” he said. “We see enormous potential in open sourcing all that we’ve learned in 10 years. This will give us the ability to have an impact on 100 countries and get closer to our goal of creating hundreds of thousands of leaders to change the world.”

WeWork

Winners of the 2017 Berlin Creator Awards

Scale

Skateistan (nonprofit) – $360,000

Hexlox (for profit) – $180,000

Common Goal (nonprofit) – $180,000

 

Launch

Cadus (nonprofit) – $130,000

Radbahn (nonprofit) – $72,000

Sonic Geometry (artist) – $72,000

Citizen’s Mark (for profit) – $72,000

Institute for Sound & Music (nonprofit) – $72,000

 

Incubate

12 Minutes Me (nonprofit) – $18,000

Atempo (for profit) – $18,000

Bikeee (for profit) – $18,000

Framen (for profit) – $18,000

Gusto Jobs (for profit) – $18,000

Plumage (artist) – $18,000

Pydro (for profit) – $18,000

 

Community Giver Award

Nicola Metzger

 

For the Creator Awards, WeWork is committing more than $20 million to innovative projects and the people behind them. This global competition is now open for entrepreneurs, artists, startups, nonprofits – anyone who embodies our mantra, “Create your life’s work.” Apply today.

Photos by Max Menning and Marjolein Van der Klaauw

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.