Austin entrepreneur Robert Olivier says that getting this far hasn’t been easy.

“I literally couch surfed, and even spent a few nights sleeping in my car,” says Olivier. “But it was worth it, because it got me to the place that I am now.”

That place was on the stage of Austin’s ACL Live at the Moody Theater, where he accepted the grand prize at the Creator Awards. Olivier says he was “amazed and humbled at the same time” to win $360,000 for Grub Tubs, the company he helped to found.

Grub Tubs, a pioneer of the growing “table to farm” movement, transforms restaurant leftovers into animal feed. Like most of the 18 winners at the event, Grub Tubs isn’t just about making a profit. It’s about making a difference in the world.

Sponsored by WeWork, the Creator Awards gave out nearly $1.5 million at the event in Austin. Over the course of a year, WeWork will be giving out more than $20 million in cities spanning the globe. Coming up next are events in London and Mexico City.

Olivier says he knows exactly what his company is going to do with the money from the Creator Awards. In fact, he announced it from the stage seconds after receiving his award.

“Grub Tubs needs a rock star female CEO to disrupt the waste industry in this town,” he said as the audience rose to its feet. “So we are taking applications. Send your resume.”

It wasn’t the only job announcement made at the Creator Awards. Among the three winners, all said that their grants would be going to fund new positions.

Samantha Snabes, co-founder of re:3D, took home a prize of $180,000. Her company, based in Austin and Houston, is designing an industrial 3D printer that uses recycled plastic.

“We’re planning on bringing a materials scientist onto our team,” said Snabes. “So if you’re out there, we’re hiring.”

Also winning $180,000 was Abianne Falla, co-founder of the Austin-based CatSpring Yaupon. Her company, which makes a beverage from a local plant, is putting out a call for new employees.

“This award is going to make a difference almost immediately,” she said. “By this time next week we’re going to have more harvesters on the job.”

Her company’s commitment to hiring people who have difficulty finding jobs, such as those who’ve been through the prison system, seems to reflect WeWork founder Miguel McKelvey’s feeling that the awards are “something much bigger than just yourself.”

There were two special awards given out the same evening. The first went to Ruthie Lindsey, the well-known designer, stylist, and public speaker who inspired the standing-room-only crowd with her story of regaining her life after a devastating accident. She spoke at a master class alongside her close friend, actor and activist Sophia Bush.

The other award went to Texas native Matt Glazer, executive director of the Austin Young Chamber of Commerce. The WeWork University Park member won praise for his “vision of cultivating a community that serves, connects, inspires, and supports one another.”

“Matt is a connector,” says WeWork’s Sarah Imparato. “He’s launched companies, grown organizations, but mostly, Matt creates a space for professionals and individuals to be heard and developed.”

There were three categories of Creator Awards, including the Scale Award for more established operations aiming to get to the next level and the Launch Award for young businesses and organizations that need a little help getting off the ground. The third category is the Incubate Award, for great ideas or specific projects that need funding.

After a lightning round in which the Launch Award finalists pitched their companies in a minute or less, the judges picked who would take home $72,000: Keisha Whaley of the Brass Tacks Collective and Jennifer Ding of ParkIT (both based in Dallas), Deven Hariyani of Austin’s Kwaddle, and Marcus Blackwell Jr. of Atlanta’s Make Music Count.

The big winner in the category was Brothers Empowered to Teach Initiative, which was represented by founder Larry Irvin. When it was announced that the New Orleans-based nonprofit won $130,000, Irvin was greeted with a standing ovation from the crowd of more than 2,750 people.

The 10 winners in the Incubate category — all of whom took home $18,000 for their organizations —include including Beth Taylor of Hand Made By Beth, Barrie Schwartz of My House Social, Shaughn Thomas of the Invest In Yourself Foundation, Murphy Anne Carter of Freehand Arts Project, Lauren Calderera of TXRX Labs, Piper LeMoine of Rancho Alegre Radio, Roberto Rivera of Successful Smiles of Texas, Chris Brown of Venture Legal, Annemarie Stockinger of GoSafely, and Amber Scott of The Leap Year.

Scott said that her award would allow her company, which helps high school graduates from underprivileged communities prepare for college, hire its first employee.

“We’re going to use the prize money to begin to build out our team,” she said. “We’ll be able to hire our first part-time employee this summer.”

Brown, who is launching a software called Contract Canvas that offers a simple and straightforward way for freelancers to draw up legal agreements, is also planning on bringing on more staff.

“I want to hire a few additional people to build it out,” he said. “ We’ve done our initial testing of the software, and most people have told me that they’re excited about it. But to really see if it works nationwide, we need to build it out.”

Out of hundreds of applicants, judges were able to pick between 10 to 14 finalists for each category. The winners in the Launch and Scale categories will be able to compete in the grand finale in New York.

Photo by Getty Images for WeWork

 

Melanie Faye grew up in Nashville, but she doesn’t credit Music City with her success. She credits Guitar Hero. Yes, that Guitar Hero, the video game that allows players to mimic the sounds and moves of their favorite stars. For Faye, it was Michael Jackson.

“I don’t think growing up in Nashville introduced me to guitar players,” Faye says. “My parents were chemists. I was not able to go to bars and see local shows. Guitar Hero introduced me to all this music I was not exposed to. Guitar Hero looked really cool. It made me feel empowered.”

So, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that Faye, now 20, has found fame via YouTube. After dropping out of college three semesters in to pursue her music career, Faye posted videos of herself sitting in her bedroom and playing covers of John Mayer and Mariah Carey.

“Guitar Hero introduced me to all this music I was not exposed to,” says Melanie Faye. “Guitar Hero looked really cool. It made me feel empowered.”

She also used the platform to debut some of her original work, which she describes as a mixture of R&B, hip hop, and pop. Her voice, serious guitar-playing chops, and friendly demeanor propelled those videos to more than 10 million views. She was so popular that the guitar company Fender tapped her to demo a new line of the instrument.

“I thought, ‘This is it! I’m viral. I made it!’ But it does not work that way,” she says. Faye makes ends meet by working at a local doughnut shop and teaches guitar. She also keeps working on her music the old-fashioned way, having been tapped to be the opening act for musicians like Noname and Mac Demarco. Her most recent gig was at the Nashville Creator Awards.

She is working on her first album, which she hopes will be out by the year’s end. A self-proclaimed perfectionist, Faye has been working on Homophone for years.

“If I had known it was going to take this long,” she says, “I wouldn’t have told people it was going to be out soon.”

Faye is also working to relieve the jitters that come with performing live, rather than in front of a camera. A recent show at the Hollywood Palladium was a game changer.

“I typically am really shy and inhibited on stage. But I felt so much support and positive energy, I just let loose,” she remembers. “I think to an extent you just have to have fake confidence at first. I walked up and had a confident demeanor and once I heard crowd cheering, then I was confident.”

“It happens overnight,” Maria Vertkin says. “An immigrant moves to the U.S. and goes from being a surgeon to washing toilets.”

College degrees and professional experience from their home country don’t always mean as much as they should when an immigrant starts a new life abroad, says Vertkin. She knows from experience: She spent her childhood in Russia and Israel before immigrating to the United States. But she realized that they have one thing that will always be of use to them: their language skills.

“It doesn’t make sense if you have something as valuable as a second language to not use it,” says Vertkin, who speaks English, Russian, Hebrew, Spanish, and Portuguese.

Vertkin, a Boston-based social worker, wanted to help train women to use their multilingual skills to their advantage. She saw a need that they could fill in the medical field. Hospitals in Massachusetts struggled to find interpreters for their patients who aren’t native English speakers. Without interpreters, expensive and even potentially fatal medical errors are possible.

A Found in Translation graduate shows off her diploma.

“The jobs are plentiful and the demographics are shifting,” says Vertkin. “Not only do they serve the local population, but medical tourists come from other countries and they need interpreters.”

The idea was a hit with the judges of WeWork’s Nashville Creator Awards. Found in Translation took home a $72,000 prize in the nonprofit category.

In 2011, Vertkin started Found in Translation to help homeless and low-income women achieve economic security by making their language skills an asset, rather than a liability. Within a few weeks of announcing the first class, she had 200 applications.

The nonprofit offers medical interpreter certificate training as well as other interpreter programs. And the training includes more than the core curriculum — childcare, transportation, job placement, and access to mentors for professional development are also part of the program.

The 186 graduates of Found in Translation classes between 2012 and 2017 earned approximately $1.86 million cumulatively more per year than they did before enrollment. That’s about $10,000 more per person annually. She says that if she wins in the nonprofit category at the Nashville Creator Awards, she can expand the program.

Classes currently take place in Boston, where Vertkin estimates they could easily double in size with the right funding. Every city in the U.S., she says, has the potential for success with Found in Translation.

“There is opportunity and need and we are connecting them,” Vertkin says. “The biggest risk is for employers not hiring multilingual employees.”

If Janett Liriano has her way, you won’t be using your FitBit much longer.

Liriano is CEO of Loomia, a New York-based firm at the intersection of tech and fashion. The company creates “intelligent drapeable circuits” that are soft enough to be embedded into textiles and can be safely washed and dried. Instead of wearing a step tracker on your wrist, it could be embedded into your running shoes.

That’s just the beginning of what these circuits can do. Those shoes might not just track your steps, but can also measure the pressure on your feet, giving you information on how you should adjust your gait. They might heat up and keep your feet warm in winter. And a light might keep you safer on a nighttime jog.

Loomia’s CEO Janett Liriano and founder Maddy Maxey

Liriano has two patents for her product and others in the pipeline for the smart fabric-enabling circuits. Her team is working with more than 80 brands on how they can integrate the smart technology into their designs. The current emphasis is on clothing, but the flexibility of the circuit opens the door to other products in the future.

“We are category agnostic,” Liriano says. “If you can make a washable circuit, you can put it on the floor. You can put it in wallpaper.”

Liriano, who took home third place in the business ventures category at the Nashville Creator Awards, sees potential in fields ranging from medicine to transportation.

Not only can Loomia transform the ways smart devices are used, it can also change what happens to all that data once it is collected. The company is looking at ways that consumers can sell their data to interested parties — or choose not to share it.

Liriano, a “born-and-bred New Yorker,” thinks the city is the right place for the firm. It’s one of the country’s great fashion hubs, but it also has a strong startup scene.

New Yorkers are inherently scrappy and resourceful,” she says. “For a business that is not super capitalized, that’s a good network. We are hard-core hustlers.”

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.”