Charlottesville tech: a community that won’t be stopped by tragedy

Note: This post was written on August 17, 2017. I was living in Charlottesville, Virginia at the time; I had been based there since 2011 and would end up living there until 2019. Unfortunately, 5 days before this post was written, a tragedy happened in my town. This was my attempt to provide an alternative perspective on Charlottesville, the town, when this specific (terrible) tragedy on a specific (terrible) day became all anyone knew about it in the national headlines for months and years on end.

tl;dr — This New York techie moved to Charlottesville six years ago and witnessed a vibrant tech ecosystem develop. Though Charlottesville has some deep social problems, it’s also a place of creativity and optimism. Its best communities will prevail.

After spending my childhood, teenage years, college years, and early working years in and around New York City, in 2011, I was ready for a change. My wife was applying to medical schools across the country, and I was in the early stages of running my tech startup as a fully remote/distributed team.

Charlottesville’s pedestrian Downtown Mall on a calm fall day in 2013.

Charlottesville’s pedestrian “Downtown Mall” on a calm fall day in 2013. (source)

I think prior to the tragic events of Saturday, August 12, most life-long New Yorkers I know rarely gave much thought to Charlottesville, Virginia. Maybe they would hear the occasional news story about it, or had a friend, or friend of a friend, who attended the University of Virginia. But, for the most part, the locale occupied very little room in their brain — perhaps none — as was the case for me in 2011.

The view of small southern cities from a New Yorker’s vantage point is, perhaps cruelly, like the famous New Yorker magazine cover of the “View of the World from 9th Avenue” — amorphous, far off, irrelevant. (full image)

New Yorker magazine cover

Crop of the “View of the World from 9th Avenue” New Yorker magazine cover. (More info).

Thus, the surprise when we told our New York friends in 2011 that we were moving to one such place, Charlottesville. Some friends worried that we wouldn’t fit in. But, we were convinced the change of pace was worth a try.

The first four years

When I first moved to Charlottesville, I needed to build up a new in-real-life social and professional network from scratch. Whereas my wife was being thrust into the world of medicine with a built-in social network, I didn’t really know what to expect in a place like this, in that regard.

To speak in gross generalities: I was a liberal urbanite, the son of Romanian and Italian immigrants, whose last home address was in one of the densest and most diverse locales in America — Astoria, Queens. I was moving to a city with a population of 40,000, mostly white, and where most of the residents in my age group were passing through, attending the local graduate medical, law, and business schools.

Though Charlottesville was as good a place as any to start a tech company — as indeed proven by the founding of reddit in a UVa dorm room — the true locals, based on the light web research I had done, had more an interest in farms and churches than in technology and entrepreneurship.

I was a liberal urbanite, the son of Romanian and Italian immigrants, whose last home address was in one of the densest and most diverse locales in America — Astoria, Queens.

Thus I was surprised when in one of my first sit-down lunches with another former New Yorker techie based in Cville, I was told, “Actually, we have a little tech scene growing up right now. You moved here at a good time.”

It turned out that in 2011, Cville was itself undergoing an economic and intellectual renaissance. One of my first experiences: a local annual self-organized tech conference called beCamp, which happened only a few weeks after I moved here. I met hundreds of other technologists, programmers, designers, and entrepreneurs, who were all working passionately on their own projects. It was awesome. It made me feel like I had found a new home, rather quickly. And after that conference, I got actively involved in other local meetups, including beCraft (monthly software practitioners meetup), beSwarm (annual tech demo show-and-tell), First Wednesday’s (monthly tech/entrepreneur drinkup), PyCHO (the local Python programming user group), and more.

A group of Charlottesville techies gathered for beSwarm in 2015

A group of Charlottesville techies gathered for beSwarm in 2015.

It actually reminded me of the tech scene in NYC in 2007. You see, in that period, NYC was still reeling from the dotcom bust, and, you could gather all the local tech entrepreneurs in a single room. NYC did not even have any tech accelerators yet — when my co-founder and I got into Dreamit in 2009, we had to move to Philadelphia for the summer, because no local NYC-based accelerators existed!

By 2011, three years after the financial crisis and a few years into the current financial capital wave of investment in startups, NYC’s tech community was already a thriving, self-sustaining, and unwieldy social network. But in Cville, at that moment, it felt like I was witness to a lot of latent energy, talent, and passion which could be directed toward tech startups, and other independent entrepreneurial causes.

I also was fortunate enough to meet Spencer Ingram, who, at the time, had the vision to create a “startup hacker house” a stone’s throw from the university, as a kind of safe space for local creatives to coalesce with students on entrepreneurial projects and ideas. I lent little more than moral support and my own time mentoring, as Spencer literally built HackCville with his own two hands, rejuvenating a well-situated but poorly-utilized piece of real estate and turning into one of Charlottesville’s first active, thriving, entrepreneurship/tech communities.

Spencer builds desks out of doors - Bezos style - in HackCville in 2012

Spencer builds desks out of doors (Bezos style) in HackCville in 2012. (source)

We spent a lot of those early days talking about entrepreneurial communities, reflecting on the good aspects of YCombinator, TechStars, ERA, Dreamit, and other similar ventures. Even though Spencer has now brought his talents to Austin, Texas, HackCville lives on as an independent spark and a local clubhouse for so many local entrepreneurship projects, I can no longer even keep count.

One of the regular local visitors to and supporters of HackCville was Jaffray Woodriff, a local entrepreneur and hedge fund manager, who, having achieved financial success in his own work, went on to support other local entrepreneurial efforts with time, money, and connections. His investment office, Felton Group, would also go on to fund local startups like Foodio, itself a HackCville alum, and VividCortex, a fast-growing SaaS company leading the way in real-time application monitoring, and over 20 other Charlottesville-area startups. (Aside: Felton/Woodriff even invested in my own startup ahead of our Series A round, even though we had a fully remote team with only a few Charlottesvillians on-staff.) Recently, Woodriff made a major donation to UVa’s new Data Science Institute and purchased a large piece of local real estate attached to the pedestrian downtown mall, which will be redeveloped into space for local startups.

HackCville space in 2012

HackCville space in 2012, a few minutes before a presentation.
Sharing startup founding war stories. (source)

Later on, I met Paul Beyer, a long-time Charlottesville native who had a vision for an SXSW-style music+tech+entrepreneurship festival to take place for one week annually in the city, with associated single- or multi-day events sprinkled throughout the year. That is the Tom Tom Founders Festival, aka TTFF. Paul is a world-class community-builder, and it shows, as TTFF grew from a few thousand to tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of attendees over the last few years, with increasingly amazing speakers and panels. At first, I joined this conference merely as an attendee, but then later helped in small ways behind the scenes as Paul attempted to bridge communities among the academic, creative, and entrepreneurial worlds. You only need to visit the TTFF website to see what a vibrant festival it has become; in particular, check out the profiles on local founders.

And this is only a small taste of what was going on locally in Charlottesville in the 2011–2015 period. Very small taste.

In 2015, my wife graduated from medical school and became a doctor. We were fortunate to learn that we’d get to stay in Charlottesville for another four years, where she’d do her residency training. Thus, we’d be “double ‘Hoos”, as they call them around here — people who get to stay in Charlottesville for more than one University-affiliated stint. For me, it meant that rather than passing through Charlottesville, I’d get to see the community flourish for another four years, through 2019.

Toward Charlottesville 2020

I only have a couple more years left in Charlottesville, after which I will likely cease to witness, firsthand, the tech community that I am sure will continue to flourish here.

A non-profit startup, Center for Open Science, is trying to address the issue of reproducible research in science. A local entrepreneur launched Relay Foods, which connected farm-fresh food to local food consumers through a novel grocery delivery service. A startup called Locus Health is attempting to address post-treatment care with software. I could go on and on.

Around these and other companies, I am already starting to see the signs of a true tech ecosystem. Alums from one of the largest tech companies in town by headcount, WillowTree, have gone on to start other local companies. For example, one co-founder of WillowTree split off to start a new local machine learning startup, Metis Machine. It already has Series A funding.

The former VP of Engineering of WillowTree went on to co-found his own startup, Maternity Neighborhood, and then, in 2015, started his own independent tech hiring practice, Myth Talent, using his experience scaling engineering teams to address local tech hiring needs in Charlottesville. He has told me that personally, there is a nearly limitless demand for recruitment assistance — that is, all the local tech firms are hiring. There are countless other examples of cross-pollination.

A team at UVa started PsiKick, a local IoT sensors company— which raised money from Silicon Valley and local firms. The founding CEO now teaches entrepreneurship locally at the university, and recently started another local tech startup, focused on machine learning over geo/satellite data.

A local entrepreneur, James Barton, helped to build a thriving tech/entrepreneurship community in his co-working space, Studio IX, which is now a local gathering space for techies and creatives. He is now replicating that success by rejuvenating a historical building on the downtown mall, with a new office space called Vault Virginia.

This kind of startup-to-startup movement — as well as pay-it-forward mentality — is the definition of a tech/startup ecosystem. And it’s happening in Charlottesville.

A local startup named Hotelicopter was acquired by a consortium of major hotels years ago, re-branded as RoomKey, and now operates as a local tech startup. One of the alumni from that endeavor includes Adam Healey, who is now working on the consumer weddings destination Borrowed & Blue, which recently raised a Series A from Foundry Group. The former CTO of RoomKey, Colin Steele is now working on TypeZero, a fast-growing med tech startup.

Rocking chairs on The Lawn, in the center of the UVa college campus

Rocking chairs on The Lawn, in the center of UVa’s college campus. (source)
Peaceful and picturesque locales like this abound in the city.

This kind of startup-to-startup movement — as well as pay-it-forward mentality — is the definition of a tech/startup ecosystem. And it’s happening in Charlottesville — a city of 40,000 people, many hours away from San Francisco, Boston, or New York. And, I’m only scratching the surface, based on an anecdotal retelling of my own personal experience here.

Charlottesville has some serious problems

I’m not sharing all of this information about Charlottesville’s local tech ecosystem to make excuses for the hateful tragedy that recently transpired in this city, just a 10 minute walk from where I live.

I am digusted — absolutely disgusted — with the events of that weekend, both the Friday torchlit hate march and the Saturday mass violence that followed. Nazis and KKK were marching in broad daylight. A man plowed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring many. White supremacists, racists, bigots, and a whole host of other unsavory characters gathered here under a mass delusion of white victimhood.

And I agree with many that anyone who responds to this event dismissively — sayings things like “this isn’t the real Charlottesville” or “this is a fluke event” or “all these people are out-of-towners” — is ignoring the deep tensions in this town, and this region, with regard to race, religion, politics, and intolerance.

I know that if I had never moved to Charlottesville, if I hadn’t lived here for the past six years, as a New Yorker watching these events unfold on television, it would have been all I would have ever heard about Charlottesville, and it would be all I would ever think about Charlottesville from that point forward. Like the New Yorker magazine “View from 9th Avenue”, my new view of Charlottesville would be a dot on a non-descript map, with a little asterisk that reads, “*Where a bunch of white supremacists like to gather.”

But that view is very dark, and very unfair to this place.

Charlottesville is not an urban oasis in rural Virginia. Far, far from it. People here and in the surrounding areas are not used to minorities, are not used to Jews, are not used to immigrants, are not used to atheism.

What’s more, I have heard real and shocking stories of local racism, local bigotry, local small-mindedness. Across the country, but yes, especially here, people are not used to the kind of ethnic, religious, and intellectual diversity I might have taken for granted in a place like New York. The kind of diversity others take for granted in places like San Francisco, New Orleans, Chicago, or Philadelphia, among many other American cities.

I mentioned that my last home address was in Astoria, Queens. Well, Astoria is very diverse. Yet, even there, one would witness acts of violence and racism. Diversity does not make one immune. But homogeneity does make one prone.

Like many “second-tier” cities in America, Charlottesville is a place of change and progression. It is saddled with a complex history. Many of the people who live here did not choose that history, and though they must honor and respect it, they did not participate in its creation. I am a cynical person — deeply cynical at times — but I am also an optimist about humanity. Part of that optimism is a relentless focus on moving forward. Pursuing the future.

Diversity does not make one immune. But homogeneity does make one prone.

I think technology and entrepreneurship is the future. I think it can change the world, as trite as it sounds. Even more practically, in a post-industrial society, I think it is one of our last hopes for creating well-paying jobs with a low barrier to entry, which is the gateway to local prosperity.

Charlottesville has the bones of a real tech ecosystem. In the last six years, I’ve watched it bootstrap a true entrepreneurial ecosystem, only hardly described on the surface with my anecdotes above.

Silicon Valley does not deserve a monopoly on the leveraged power of technology, entrepreneurship, and venture capital. Like Boulder and Austin before it, it was striving, in the last few years, to put itself on the map as a place where motivated people can come to accomplish their entrepreneurial dreams.

The white supremacist rally, and the violence that followed, was a major, major set-back for that vision. It put Charlottesville on the map for all the wrong reasons. There is a lot of work and healing to do.

But I’m a New Yorker, dammit. I’m all about resilience. If New York City can bounce back from an act of mass terror, then Charlottesville can bounce back from this.

I have met thousands of Charlottesville residents since living here, and, by and large, like most Americans, they are kind, optimistic, and want to do well in the world. Yes, the region has a lot to learn about inclusion and tolerance. But up until that terrible day, it felt like it was headed in the right direction.

We might do well to ask ourselves what causes racism and bigotry — and to focus on the system, especially the economic system, in which racism and bigotry arises. I am not saying the rally “is not America” or “is not Charlottesville”. It most certainly was America. It most certainly was Charlottesville. It was real. It happened.

And, it most certainly expressed some deep fissures laying beneath the surface in American society, as it showcased the strange bedfellows among white conservatives, white nationalists, and white supremacists. We have to uproot the causes of that disaffection, and fast.

But, we don’t have to give in to the darkness. They are not everyone. They are not everywhere. They are not everything.

In these dark times, Charlottesville tech can lead

I don’t think technology and entrepreneurship is everything, either. As shown starkly in the last few months, there is lots of work to do, even inside that ecosystem, with regard to sexism, racism, and all other manner of unfairness and bias. See the recent issues at Google, Uber, 500 Startups, etc.

And, as many might be thinking when reading my history above here, it is one of the more “privileged” pursuits out there. Whether or not it is a bubble can be debated — but it is, almost certainly, a professional cocoon.

Well-educated men and women courting financiers for capital, starting privileged businesses in new digital economies that couldn’t be more disconnected from the plight of everyday rural Americans. I’d be the first to admit that to you.

But tech and entrepreneurship are, fundamentally, about optimism in the future. They are about creating well-being through change. They are about playing by the rules of capitalism in the best ways possible, with all the limits and benefits that are involved.

Having a vibrant tech ecosystem is not the only — nor the most important — thing that Charlottesville could do to be a more positive force in the world. But, this isn’t a zero-sum game. We need to stop thinking that it is. Fostering local growth and innovation is one very well-defined way to focus this city on a worthy goal: creating economic security for its citizens. It can happen alongside — not at the expense of — the healing of racial and social divides.

My hope is that by writing about this, you might see another side of Charlottesville that you won’t read about in the popular press. Not just a place of political or social unrest, but also a place that is striving, with optimism, toward a brighter future.

Charlottesville’s winter sky at sunset.

Charlottesville’s winter sky at sunset. (source)

I’ll end with a quote that was shared with me: “When through one person a little more love, a little more goodness, a little more hope, a little more beauty, a little more joy, a little more faith, has come into the world, then that person’s life has had meaning.”

I hope we all find our own ways to pursue just a little more light, even when all around us seems dark.

In no particular order, I’d like to extend a “thank you” to the following Cville friends for reviewing and providing feedback before publication:

Coda from the future: I haven’t lived in Charlottesville for years, but I still miss it and its tech community a whole lot. If you’re a techie who is looking for an idyllic college town from which to work remotely — with great weather, walkability, and an all-around collegial vibe — then please take a look at this post by my old friend, John Feminella, entitled “Comprehensive Technologist’s Guide to Charlottesville for Prospective Citizens.” It’s from 2015 but has a ton of useful pragmatic information on the town, and most of the things he describes have gotten even better in the intervening years. At a minimum, pick a nice fall or spring day to visit Charlottesville and learn more about it. And if you have any questions about it, don’t hesitate to contact me. Also note that this post discusses HackCville a whole bunch, but “HackCville” was rebranded as “Forge” a few years back; its history is described here.

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