In 2011, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Nashville Entrepreneur Center partnered to put on the first annual NEXT Awards. The ceremony highlights innovation in local startups and entrepreneurs who are up-and-coming, and recognizes ‘companies to watch’ in Nashville, with a focus on both giving back to the community and growing the business. Corey Davis, the Director of Business Growth Initiatives for the Nashville Chamber of Commerce, says the NEXT Awards are for “the next wave of businesses that are really gonna impact our city’s growth.” (0:29)
The Awards are broken into five industry categories: technology, healthcare, social enterprise and sustainability, products and services, and digital media and entertainment. Each category has three company size divisions: Startup, Growth, and Market Mover, with a total of fifteen company award categories. There are also individual awards for Entrepreneur of the Year and Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Judges are industry and community leaders and entrepreneurs. This year, each industry category will have its own set of judges familiar with the industry.
The overarching theme of the awards is innovation. Kelli Nowers, the Community Coordinator at the Entrepreneur Center, likes that the ceremony “crosses so many borders. It shows you don’t have to be a certain size or a certain industry to be innovative in Nashville.” (3:58) Winners range from Dan’s Gourmet Mac and Cheese to Belmont University. “No matter what you do, there is a place for you in the NEXT Awards, in the finalists category.” (4:43) Kelli says her favorite part of the Awards is seeing a company that the EC has worked with win a NEXT Award. She is always rooting for the success of a company she knows and has watched grow.
With three to four finalists nominated for each category and four to five hundred guests in attendance, the Award ceremony itself has grown to be a very big event for the entrepreneurial community in Nashville. Corey Davis from the Nashville Chamber thinks “it’s real exciting. I enjoy having the spotlight on all those companies. I like it to be a big event because, again, it’s recognizing these people who are doing great things.” (4:08) His favorite part of the evening is the energy. “[The event] doesn’t feel like your average run-of-the-mill awards show, I mean everyone’s real excited. And like I said, these are a lot of companies that normally aren’t getting a lot of exposure like this.” (8:03)
Corey Davis thinks it is important to show support for the entrepreneurial community and give new and successful business owners recognition for their efforts. In line with these values, the Nashville Chamber of Commerce recently launched Business Studio, designed to support small businesses and introduce them to available resources, as well as shining a light on new successful businesses and showcasing collaborative efforts.
Davis has seen small businesses thrive under the kind of recognition that the NEXT Awards provide. He often sees a winner of the startup category return the following year in the next category up. “It means something to these companies, it means something to these startups to be recognized as an innovative leader in their industry and in their company’s stage.” (2:36) Corey says he enjoys being able to watch the growth of returning companies through the NEXT Awards.
While the competition becomes fiercer every year, the application process for this year’s NEXT Awards has been simplified. Many of the long answer questions have been removed in order to focus more on the growth and revenue in the past three years. This data will enable companies to be placed into categories more easily, rather than the companies providing information regarding the category in which they think they will be placed. Finalists are selected based on revenue numbers and employee numbers, both in terms of year-to-date and over the past three years (or since the company’s inception). Companies are also judged on qualifying factors such as innovation, giving back to the community, and company culture.
The Awards are open to any and all Nashville businesses; association with the Entrepreneur Center or the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce is not required. Kelli Nowers explains, “I think that’s the beauty of our partnership with the chamber, too, because we both pull in our own networks and skillsets and put on this ceremony that represents all of Nashville, not just the people who have been a part of the EC or just the people who are part of the Chamber. It’s very inclusive. ” (5:12)
This year’s NEXT awards are presented by the Lipscomb Entrepreneur Center, with support from Google, media partnership from TN Media, and data compilation and analytics by Kraft CPAs.
NEXT Awards applications are now open to new and thriving Nashville businesses in all industries. To apply to the NEXT Awards or to nominate an innovative company or Entrepreneur, visit www.nextawardsnashville.com.