#CCIspotlight: Mike Walbert, A3C Festival & Conference

Atlanta is filled with incredible people and organizations doing meaningful work throughout this city. Their efforts change the way our city designs solutions for the challenges we face in education, art and culture preservation, criminal justice and reform, workforce development, and food security. 
The Center for Civic Innovation aims to be a place that supports and showcases these community leaders to the world. This blog series will highlight one entrepreneur or organization from Atlanta every week. We hope their stories will inform and inspire.

Tell us a little more about yourself. What was the source of inspiration for the work you do? How did you get to where you are today?
I grew up in the Atlanta area, listening to hip-hop, and was influenced by Atlanta artists and the broader culture from the very beginning. I attended Paideia School, and I credit the school’s approach for exposing me to the really different ways people learn. I think that lesson was really important to what I have done and what I do today. After graduation, I moved out to Los Angeles and went to school at the University of Southern California. In LA, I studied Business and Entrepreneurship, while doing things like DJing for the student-run radio station. 
After graduation, I moved back home to Atlanta and took up a position as a marketing director for a small company. However, my entrepreneurial background pushed me to follow ideas that I had. I remember starting Hotlanta Sauce Company, and pushing a couple other ventures. Eventually I became known as the “dude who knows how to start a business” in my circle- I tried starting and consulting on about a half dozen enterprises. Then, two buddies of mine asked about starting a music production company. 
Our first project was a compilation of Atlanta indie hip-hop artists. This really got us on the map. We were able to get around 20 artists on this record, and it really galvanized a pretty siloed community. We continued putting together these projects, and the release parties started becoming big events. This helped us build some experience in designing hip-hop events and shows, consulting for the business, and managing some artists. Through my partner at this company, I met Brian Knott, the founder of A3C (All 3 Coasts) after a trip to South by Southwest. The stars had aligned; I was really excited about the conference-festival format where the hip-hop community was really underserved. So began my journey of trying to create something in Atlanta.

Tell us about the venture you are working on. Where did the idea for your venture come from? How are you driving impact? 
A3C allows the hip-hop community to learn, connect, network, and grow through a music festival and conference format. The conference is really unique and allows the hip-hop community to make connections, get jobs, and grow through the conference. We were definitely inspired by SXSW and built off of this existing model. 
Before I joined the team, A3C was not a conference or a festival. Instead, it was more of a get together for Brian’s record label and its connections. Numbers wise, we would fill around half of a 500-person occupancy hall with around 30 total artists. I joined in 2009 as the Artist Director. By then, A3C had expanded to a lineup of 75 artists and a larger venue. We doubled in size for the next four years.
Since 2010, I have managed the strategy and team. We have grown A3C from a regional showcase to an internationally recognized institution in hip-hop culture. To me, the broader A3C team is the larger hip-hop community. I am focused on empowering people in this community to take their ideas and run with them. For example, A3C’s conference supports creators by allowing them to curate their own events and pitch them to us. The vision truly is driven by the collective. We look at opening the conference to event curation as a game changer.
An uneducated creative community can really be a detriment to themselves and their community. As entrepreneurs, creatives are targets and can be net negatives without the knowledge to succeed. A really educated, knowledgeable community will be a driving force of the city. A3C wants to educate, connect, and grow our hip-hop creatives. We want to be a part of the movement that allows these creatives to come in and invigorate our city.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing Atlanta today? 
If you look at Atlanta on paper, our biggest export is Coca-Cola. And that is great. The city has always touted the corporations that were founded here and continue to have presences here. But those corporations are not Atlanta’s biggest asset. In reality, Atlanta’s biggest export is hip-hop and the culture that it creates. To me, hip-hop is Atlanta’s most influential brand. I lived in LA for five years and I have seen that first-hand. Atlanta’s hip-hop is played in every single party in the world, and in that sense is our most valuable export. Imagine if hip-hop left? Atlanta needs to be courting the culture and needs to give hip-hop with the value it deserves. 
How has the Center for Civic Innovation supported you in your work?
A3C is going on 2+ years in the space now, and honestly, CCI has been home. The space has been amazing, and being around programming like the Leadership Breakfasts and the events that pop up is great. The energy here is so motivating and inspiring as well, working alongside the other co-workers in the Center. CCI has also been an incredibly valuable partner for the A3C Action Summit, where Rohit moderated a panel for us, and additionally, all around support for the A3C Pitch Competition.

What advice do you have for Atlanta’s newest social entrepreneurs? 
I think that in this line of work, it’s super important to build strategic partnerships. Go out and look at who is already doing it. Take the steps to be friends and build those relationships. Ask for help. It is so easy to grow into your silo and allow that to limit your work. That kind of outlook and approach destines you for failure. Break from the silo mentality and build partnerships with those already doing the work around you.
Check out Mike’s recent sit-down with Bitter Southerner to discuss Atlanta's growing role of hip-hop and tech here.
A3C is currently unveiling their lineup and programming for their 2017 festival and conference. Headliners such as Nas, Ghostface Killah, Just Blaze and up-and-coming artists Joyner Lucas, SABA, Kirk Knight and Jay IDK have already been announced as part of the lineup. Applications for the 3rd annual A3C Action Pitch Competition, a partnership between CCI and A3C, are now open, and you can apply here. 
We are really proud of Mike and the A3C team and are honored to collaborate with them through A3C Action! For more stories of inspiring entrepreneurs, be sure to check out our blog. We’ll be updating with a new profile every week!