What’s so special about Santa Cruz? What makes us think our small community, just one thirteenth the size of San Francisco, is full of enough inspiring individuals to justify holding an event in their honor every single year?
Are the people in this town really pursuing such groundbreaking and life changing work that we need to spread out the red carpet and honor them with one of the only events in town that warrants dusting off your dress shoes, donning your best dress with heels and makeup, and trading in your jeans for a pair of freshly ironed slacks? That’s making an awful lot of fuss over a few over-achievers, wouldn’t you say?
Actually, it’s hardly a fuss at all when you look at the awe-inspiring work our deceivingly laissez faire beach community has achieved and keeps achieving, year after year.
Even though we may be small and our highly innovative culture is sometimes overshadowed by ‘hang loose’ vibes, Santa Cruz attracts world class people with the skills and drive to pursue their dreams and improve their community along the way. These are people who would be recognized in some way no matter where they lived.
“[NEXTies honorees] would be big fish no matter what size pond they were in.” ~Jeremy Neuner
“These people would be big fish no matter what size pond they were in,” says Jeremy Neuner, Executive Director of Santa Cruz Works and past NEXTies awardee, honored in 2012 for his work as founder of NextSpace. “These people are genuine, tenacious, and passionate about what they do,” and they’re passionate about doing it right here in Santa Cruz.
On the surface, the NEXTies is an awards show held to honor the work of several outstanding individuals. At a deeper level, it’s also an event that celebrates the Santa Cruz community and gives people an opportunity to connect, collaborate, and make a difference.
The Beginning of Create, Build, Inspire
The NEXTies was started in 2010 by Santa Cruz Next — a local organization co-founded by former Santa Cruz mayor Ryan Coonerty and NextSpace co-founder Caleb Baskin.
“The original idea was to highlight extraordinary people living and working locally, who were making a global impact with their work,” says Peter Koht, chair of the Santa Cruz Next board during the NEXTies’ inception.
Someone worthy of what has become one of Santa Cruz’s highest honors, creates, builds, and inspires right here within the community.
Coonerty explains, “There was this sense that if you were an ambitious professional and you weren’t in a major city, you were missing out. The idea behind the NEXTIes is to show that’s not true. People right here are doing world class work that’s having an impact on the world as well as the community and if we highlighted them, we could show what the possibilities are here.”
Over the years the event has held tight to its core values although the venues and leadership have changed. The main atrributes that encompasas a NEXTies awardee remain the same for many of the folks who have been involved with the event over the years.
Cliff Hodges, honoree in the second NEXTies and founder of Adventure Out, didn’t hesitate to describe his cohort as a group of individuals who are “working on something larger than themselves and something that’s built to serve the community.”
Says Koht, “The NEXTies winners, whatever fields they work in, are about more than just their individual labor or passions: they are united in striving for larger goals, organizing teams and communities and making an impact.”
“The NEXTies winners, whatever fields they work in, are about more than just their individual labor or passions: they are united in striving for larger goals, organizing teams and communities and making an impact.” ~Peter Koht
“NEXTies winners are genuine, tenacious, and passionate,” says Neuner. “They’ve discovered something that needs to be done in the community — a problem that needs to be solved — and they go for it.”
The founders of the NEXTies hoped the event would inspire others to work towards improving their community and motivate those honored to continue doing meaningful work right here in Santa Cruz. Something quite unexpected, however, also came out of the annual event.
Changing the Community Dialogue Through Collaboration
What Coonerty and the other founders didn’t expect was the strong impact the NEXTies would have on the community dialogue. The awards have brought together over 20 take-action individuals from diverse industries and sectors of the county. This unexpected collaboration has led to friendships between influential community members with diverse political and geographical backgrounds.
“[The NEXTies honorees] are people who love collaborating and doing good for the community,” says Jacob Martinez, founder of Digital NEST and 2012 NEXTies recipient. “Now, I can go to anyone from the NEXTies and ask them for a favor. We all have the same motives and goals: to improve our community, and we want to support each other in that.”
“[The NEXTies honorees] all have the same motives and goals: to improve our community, and we want to support each other in that.” ~Jacob Martinez
How the NEXTies Helped Put a Local Nonprofit on the Path to Success
Martinez is a perfect example of the strong impact the NEXTies can have on an individual and on the community. When Martinez won the award in 2012, the Digital NEST (a nonprofit that teaches technological and entrepreneurial skills to youth in South County) was mostly unheard of outside Watsonville.
“The NEXTies propelled me to the forefront of this county,” says Martinez. “It was the beginning of getting everything in place for the Digital NEST. It was a snowball effect. Without the NEXTies, I don’t know if the Digital NEST would have taken off.”
Today, the NEST serves over 200 youth per month and is a familiar name to most everyone in Santa Cruz, whether you’re from South County or the heart of downtown. Martinez was even invited to speak about his work at the White House in April of this year.
Although not all the awardees owe their success to the NEXTies, the community as a whole has benefited from the network of talented entrepreneurs that it creates.
“Santa Cruz has this stereotype of being full of beach bums, but we have extremely inspirational and forward thinking individuals creating game changing new businesses and ways of doing things in our town.” ~Tyler Fox
“It has a hugely positive impact on the community,” says Tyler Fox, founder of Santa Cruz Waves and NEXTies honoree in 2014. “Santa Cruz has this stereotype of being full of beach bums, but we have extremely inspirational and forward thinking individuals creating game changing new businesses and ways of doing things in our town.”
A Reminder of Our Potential
Bringing these forward thinking individuals into the spotlight, reminds us of our untapped potential and hopefully inspires future generations to take the torch and continue doing great things right here in Santa Cruz.
When Santa Cruz Next asked Matthew Swinnerton of Event Santa Cruz to take over the NEXTies last year in 2014, he knew he wanted to really bring the youth of our town into the conversation. He didn’t want the event to just be a place for those already established in their professions. He wanted to welcome the younger generation — those wonderfully idealistic youth who are still actively searching for their calling in life — to be a part of the event as both attendees and honorees.
“The NEXTies is about inspiring the younger generation to pursue their goals.” ~Matthew Swinnerton
“It’s about inspiring the younger generation to pursue their goals,” says Swinnerton. “We’re recognizing the awardees because we notice they’re doing something great and we want people to leave at the end [of the event] thinking, ‘what am I going to do?’ ”
The Fresh New Faces of The 2015 NEXTies
The awardees this year are guaranteed to inspire a wide range of youth and adults alike. The list is longer than in years past (five individual honorees plus a band of six musicians) and, as always, the honorees come from all different industries and parts of the county.
These community members stand as reminders to what is possible if you follow your dreams, pursue your passions, and take a risk. They either drive home the reason you’re doing what you do or they are your wake-up call to take the reins and start doing something that will make a difference. As 18-year-old 2015 NEXTie honoree Courtney Laschkewitsch puts it, “I want to leave a legacy and you can too. Ignore society. Take a risk. Change someone’s life.”
You can expect more inspirational words like Laschkewitsch’s at this year’s event plus live music and the special release of James Durbin’s Santa Cruz music video. Swinnerton plans to put on a show buzzing with energy and excitement that won’t wear off as soon as you kick off your heels or tear off your tie at the end of the night.
You’ll be eagerly searching for new, life-changing business ideas, or at least some community service projects, after hearing from this year’s lineup:
Andrea Mollenauer will talk about creating her incubator kitchen,
that provides small-scale food and drink purveyors
a place to share their tasty creations with the community.
Martijn Stiphout will share his experiences as a master craftsman and co-founder of Ventana Surfboards.
Monica Karst will speak about her role in Santa Cruz Socialites, empowering women to build their own business.
Paul De Worken will share his passion for uniting his community in South County through free, public murals.
Courtney Laschkewitsch, only 18, will inspire all ages to pursue their dreams through her story of starting her own business.
And lastly, members of the local band Coffee Zombie Collective will show how you can make big waves in your community by just doing what you love.
“A life without happiness, isn’t a life at all. Don’t live your life in a job you don’t want to be in. Live in a career that you can’t live without.” ~Courtney Laschkewitsch
A Power to be Reckoned With
The NEXTies is about all of us. You can be working in any field and have an impact. According to Martinez, you just have to be “innovative and community focused, whether it be with your business, restaurant or nonprofit.”
You can be having the time of your life, playing live shows in a band like the Coffee Zombie Collective, and still benefit the community in a big way. As Laschkewitsch puts it, “A life without happiness, isn’t a life at all. Don’t live your life in a job you don’t want to be in. Live in a career that you can’t live without.”
Now that this year’s honorees have been added to the inspirational group of entrepreneurs from years past, there’s no telling what they might achieve. “It’s an alumni network that’s growing and it’s going to be a really powerful force to be reckoned with,” says Neuner.
Fortunately, this force only uses its power for good.
Remember to get your tickets to the 2015 NEXTies here!
Written by Molly Lautamo, a freelance writer and content strategist. She came
to Santa Cruz almost ten years ago to attend UCSC and never left. To
check out more of Molly’s writing, visit mollylautamo.com or follow
her on Twitter @mlautamo.