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Austin is collaborative rather than competitive. It welcomes the innovative and offbeat, and it supports the little guy (or gal). Talk to people in Austin’s creative economy about why they love their city, and you’ll hear similar themes. Here, seven artists, entrepreneurs and innovators share the projects that drive them and why Austin is the perfect place to pursue their passions. 

By Robyn Ross | Photography by Morgan Printy

 

Brad Carlin ’02

Managing Director, Fusebox Festival

Brad Carlin knew he wanted to be part of the Fusebox Festival when he arrived for the 2011 kickoff event: a performance by the orchestral band Mother Falcon, accompanied by 100 string players in the Seaholm Power Plant building. “It blew my mind,” he says. “There were 2,000 people in there and a line going all the way around the building.”

Carlin now manages the business side of the annual “hybrid arts festival” that brings boundary-pushing performances, installations, discussions and even food tastings to Austin every spring. One of three full-time, year-round staff, he raises funds, markets the festival and helps develop the calendar of events. 

The seeds for Carlin’s relationship with Fusebox were planted while he was attending St. Edward’s: Festival founder and artistic director Ron Berry cast then 19-year-old Carlin in his first off-campus play. 

While Austin doesn’t have the arts resources of a place like New York City — the museums, the Broadway theaters — Carlin says it has something else: adventurous audiences. “Maybe this comes out of Austin’s live music culture: the notion of going to a club, maybe not knowing the band that’s playing there, and feeling the immense reward when you discover something new and exciting,” he says. “I think that has laid the foundation for the way audiences value exploration and experimentation in other art forms.”

 

Jenny Larson ’01

Producing Artistic Director, Salvage Vanguard Theater

When Jenny Larson came to St. Edward’s, her concept of theater was informed by what she’d done at her South Dakota high school: Greek classics, Shakespeare, musicals, Neil Simon. 

But in Austin, she discovered a different kind of theater that experimented with form, structure and narrative, and that probed ideas about race, gender, power and identity. Salvage Vanguard Theater (SVT) was producing the kind of work she liked, and she started an internship there in 2001. Larson worked her way up to literary manager, resident artist, associate artistic director and, in 2008, producing artistic director. 

“We do gritty, garage-band theater,” she says. “It’s not theater that tells people answers. There’s no preaching; there are no pointed political statements. It’s more about having an open space for questions.”

Salvage Vanguard is both a theater company and an arts venue. Larson curates the season at SVT, choosing the plays and hiring the directors, designers and crew for each show. She also curates the venue itself, which has two theater spaces and a gallery that host events including comedy, improv, film screenings, puppet theater and yoga.

While some of her peers moved to New York City after graduation, Larson was more compelled by the do-it-yourself culture and eclectic art scene in Austin.

“I’ve never been the type of person who felt like ‘making it,’” she says. “That means different things for different artists, but for me it never meant going to L.A. or New York. To me, ‘making it’ means you actually make the work and have conversations with other artists, and that’s how you grow as both a human being and as an artist.”

 

Luke Duncan ’13

Head of Customer Support, Ticketbud

Jack Meredith ’11

Head of Business Development, Ticketbud

Working at a startup is like earning an MBA through independent study, say Jack Meredith and Luke Duncan of Ticketbud. The Austin company is an event registration platform that helps organizers promote their activities and sell tickets. Now that the founding member of the company has moved on, Meredith and Duncan are two of the most senior people on its seven-member staff (which includes four St. Edward’s graduates).

“We have to learn on the go all the time,” Duncan says. “I’ve learned how to code a little bit, how to interact with customers, and how to deal with business development and sales.”

It was amazing to swipe someone’s credit card for $100,000

While Ticketbud-supported events range from free parties to VIP charity fundraisers, the company typically works with small- to medium-sized organizations. “We like the DIY, creative events because those fit perfectly into what we offer,” Meredith says. Last year the company was approached by organizers for the inaugural Pop Austin, a show and sale of high-end art. Ticketbud built a custom platform for sales and also sent staff to the event to handle check-in and process transactions.

“It was amazing to swipe someone’s credit card for $100,000,” Duncan reflects. “It was stressful but rewarding at the same time.” 

The Austin startup scene, which includes Ticketbud, has a similar intensity, the men say, with daily meetups, speakers and networking events. Meredith says it’s important to balance those opportunities with focusing on the actual work of running a young company — 
“or you can get carried away with the excitement of being part of this culture.”

But the work itself is motivating, because it allows for autonomy, flexibility, and the chance to focus on projects of personal interest, he says. “Since we’re a small team, everyone has a say in any decision that we make. It’s nice to see results and be able to say ‘that’s directly because of us and no one else.’”

 

Julia Strawn ’11

Founder, Evergreen Chai

Julia Strawn’s interest in tea began when she went to Japan in high school. “The way they prepared it, the tea tasted perfect every time,” she remembers. “I became enchanted with the whole practice of sitting down and taking a moment for yourself to drink a pot of herbs.” 

Now she’s enchanting new tea drinkers with Evergreen Chai, an herbal tea sold in bottles at Wheatsville Co-op and served mixed with milk and steamed at Austin coffee shops like Seventh Flag Coffee Co. and Caffé Medici. She and her business partner brew and deliver about 72 gallons of chai a week.

A global food issues class Strawn took her senior year at St. Edward’s inspired her to work in sustainable food: on farms, at cafés and bakeries, and at a local produce and grocery delivery service. She then decided to start her own business that would be “a sweet indulgence for people, but would have herbal benefits.” Chai was a product she could streamline; once she’d perfected the recipe, she could scale up, produce a consistent brew, and still have time left in her life for other pursuits.

Sustainability is paramount for Strawn, who uses all organic ingredients and, after brewing, composts the spent spices in her backyard garden. She’s looking for biodegradable packaging and other ways to make her business zero waste. One day she’d like to run a sustainable farm and learning center where people could see herbs growing, and perhaps open a commercial kitchen that could host Evergreen Chai along with other companies.

“For me, it’s important to know where your food comes from,” she says, “and the Austin community has been really good at supporting local food products.”

“I’ve never been the type of person who felt like ‘making it,’” she says. “That means different things for different artists, but for me it never meant going to L.A. or New York. To me, ‘making it’ means you actually make the work and have conversations with other artists, and that’s how you grow as both a human being and as an artist.”

 

Wes Hurt ’05

Founder, CLEAN Cause

With frosting, sprinkles and entrepreneurial instinct, Wes Hurt launched one of Austin’s most successful food trailers in 2007. Hey Cupcake! opened in an Airstream parked on South Congress Avenue and expanded to six locations by the time Hurt sold his majority stake in the business in 2014.

What most people didn’t know as they were enjoying the sweet treats was that there was a disconnect between the business and its owner’s life. Hurt, who had struggled with addiction and alcoholism for 20 years, was drinking and using drugs every day.

“The whole concept of Hey Cupcake! — the whimsical nature, the free-spirited feel of the Airstream, the nostalgia, the innocence — that always represented something I wanted to feel but was never able to manifest in my own life,” he says.

Last year Hurt committed to getting clean and repairing his relationships. His next move was a new venture, CLEAN Cause Water. The premium purified and sparkling mineral water proudly explains its purpose on the sides of the packages: 50 percent of profits support recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. The company will expand by hiring employees who are in recovery, “to give them an opportunity to stay productive and build self-esteem,” Hurt explains. He calls it “a for-profit, with a social twist.”

The company launched in March and the water is sold in stores like JuiceLand that Hurt calls “Austin brands.” “Our target market is people who are open minded and willing to have the conversation about it, which is really the goal,” he says. “It’s a conversation starter to de-stigmatize addiction and alcoholism in the [United States].”

Hurt is betting that in a city like Austin, residents and visitors alike will reach for a bottle of water that can make a difference over one that doesn’t.

 

Carlos MartÍn ’12

Founder and Chief Concept Coordinator, The Z Bottle

The Z Bottle was invented at the end of a long, busy shift at a Sixth Street bar. Carlos Martín, then a junior at St. Edward’s, was responsible for restocking the beer, which involved bringing it from the upstairs room where it was stored to the bar on the floor below. About one box short of filling the cooler, Martín stopped to rest and had an epiphany. “I thought, ‘Man, I really wish there was some way these bottles could be more efficiently packaged so I don’t have to go all the way back up for another case of beer,’” he remembers.

He started designing a bottle that would take advantage of the space left unused when cylindrical bottles are packed into a box. The design, for which Martín has a patent pending, is rectangular, with one convex and one concave side that help the bottles fit neatly together. They’re also designed to interlock when stacked on top of one another, which saves more space.

Martín calculates that a box packed with a dozen cylindrical 32-oz. bottles wastes about 38 percent of the space. The same box can be packed with 15 32-oz. Z Bottles, which leaves only 13.1 percent of the space unused.

In other cities, Martín says, “everyone’s competing against each other, but here, everybody helps you out, no matter what industry you’re in.”

While Martín’s original inspiration was for a better way to move beer or liquor, he’s currently discussing partnerships with a local water company and a vinegar and olive oil retailer. Looking ahead, he’s decided to focus on the bottle’s applications in the medical field — an idea that came from conversations with entrepreneur Chris Ragland ’05, MBA ’10. That’s the latest chapter in the Z Bottle’s very Austin-based story: Martín first developed the concept in his Entrepreneurial Practicum class at St. Edward’s, and he has fine-tuned it in consultations with his business professors and at the local entrepreneurial hub Tech Ranch Austin, which he says exemplifies “Texas friendliness.” In other cities, he says, “everyone’s competing against each other, but here, everybody helps you out, no matter what industry you’re in.”