Matt Younkle remembers those first few years of The Forward Festival, held annually in August, as a little bit crazy. “We’d get to March or April and we’d say to each other, ‘Hey, are we gonna do this again?’ ”
Eight years—and a lot of tweaking—later, Forward Fest (Aug. 17-24) is a permanent fixture in Madison and the largest event for entrepreneurs in Wisconsin. Always on the minds of its organizers is how to attract a wider and more diverse audience to join with the tech and biotech sectors that fueled its humble beginnings. Today, the event encourages programming around art, social good, music, family and food.
“One of the tenets of Forward Fest is inclusivity,” says Younkle, the event’s co-founder. “It’s got to be open to everybody.” Other criteria are a commitment to cross-promotion and a solid tie to entrepreneurship.
Younkle’s bio includes inventing the TurboTap—a keg-tapping device engineered to deliver the perfect pour. He has long since divested himself from the technology, but the invention is very much alive and pouring, according to the company’s website, turbotapusa.com. He is best known locally for co-founding the music-sharing platform Murfie, now headquartered in Middleton, as well as the Wisconsin Innovation Awards.
Younkle’s next venture is taking off just in time for Forward Fest—a digital business card app called Cardigan. He describes it as a 2.0 iteration of the popular app Bump, which facilitated content sharing by touching two smartphones together (and was shuttered by Google in 2014).
The startup was among the top 25 finalists in this year’s Governor’s Business Plan Contest, a prestigious mentoring program of the Wisconsin Technology Council.
During Forward Fest, Younkle says he and Cardigan co-founder Jim Remsik (founder of software company adorable.io) are excited to share with other entrepreneurs their commitment to the national corporate philanthropy program Pledge 1%, an emerging model where company founders pledge 1 percent of equity, product and/or employee time to charitable causes.
In addition to Younkle, the majority of the festival’s early organizers are still very much involved—all of whom continue to be key players in building and connecting the entrepreneurial ecosystem. The group has expanded to include event strategists, marketers, women entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color.
“This is the one chance I get to work shoulder to shoulder with other folks who are focused on their businesses,” says Younkle. “I get a lot of joy and energy around being involved.”
Highlights of 2017 Forward Fest, Aug. 17-24
Aug. 17: Social Good Summit.
Aug. 18: Immigrant Entrepreneurship Panel.
Aug. 19: Talk.Bytes.Act. This event is organized by social entrepreneur and activist Sabrina Madison, founder of Black Women’s Leadership Conference, and will focus on the challenges and opportunities for black entrepreneurs in Madison.
Aug. 21: Silver Tech. Organized by Earthling Interactive, the event will focus on technology and aging.
Aug. 22: Forward Summit. The annual Forward Tech Conference is combining with other programming and slated to be the first event held at the newly renovated Memorial Union. The summit includes the Wisconsin Big Data Conference, social impact data, health care innovation, a conference track devoted to Madison’s tech-focused Meetups, Forward Festival Startup Showcase, and a kids in tech/entrepreneurship event.
Aug. 23: Community Shares discussion of the Big Share.
For tickets and information, visit forwardfest.org.
Brennan Nardi is communications director at Madison Community Foundation and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.