Forward Fest highlights the best of Madison’s entrepreneurial spirit

Madison isn’t alone in its quest to identify and retain local entrepreneurs and startup companies. Practically every city in the country has a similar goal. You’d be hard pressed to find anything quite like the Forward Festival outside of Madison, however.

As it’s grown, from humble beginnings as the Forward Technology Conference in 2010, to a full-blown eight-day event with the tech conference at its center, the Forward Festival has sought to capture what’s great about Madison and turn the city into an ideal landing spot for entrepreneurs of all shapes and sizes.

Matt Younkle, who founded the Forward Festival with fellow Madison entrepreneurs Bryan Chan and Nathan Lustig, credits his colleague Preston Austin, with whom he co-founded of, an online music marketplace, for the idea of combining several separate but related events into one big festival.

“Preston noted when we were first putting this together that there’s the High Tech Happy Hour the week before, and Madison Magnet has got this other event, and Accelerate Madison has a different event,” Younkle says. “There were about three or four events taking place in like a 10-day window, and Preston suggested we turn the conference into a festival. I thought that was a brilliant idea. Folks kind of travel in their circles and you have a lot of different organizations that just cater to their own members. The idea became it’s summer, it’s August, let’s just take one week out of the year and encourage these various organizations to host open events so that everyone can experience what everybody else is doing and thinking.”

This year’s Forward Festival, August 20–27, focuses on two main issues: location and family.

The idea of why location matters — and why Madison should be that location — is no small matter. 

“The discussions we’re having aren’t necessarily a celebration like, ‘Yeah, we’ve figured it out. We’ve got this utopia for starting and growing businesses!’” Younkle notes. “We want to have a practical discussion on how we can improve in a way that’s authentic to Madison. Madison shouldn’t aspire to be the next Austin or Silicon Valley. We need to make Madison better in a Madison way. Madison is one of those places where it doesn’t have to matter if you’re young, old, black, white, male, or female; if you have a great idea, Madison can be a place for you to turn that idea into reality. That’s one area where Madison can shine.”



Younkle points to the other main area of focus for the festival — family — as an example of how Madison can provide an ideal fit for entrepreneurs.

“Madison is always in the national news as being a great place to raise families,” he says. “That’s another unique element that we have. The lifestyle is such that you don’t have a huge commute time so it’s not impractical to have your own business and have kids and be able to succeed as a parent and an entrepreneur.”

The idea of “parentpreneurs” will be highlighted with a special networking August 21 specifically for entrepreneurs or business owners looking to meet other business professionals who seek work/family balance.

“There aren’t any easy answers for how you juggle everything,” Younkle notes. “For everyone who’s doing it, it’s a work in progress. We want to have this be an active point of discussion for folks. If you’re married and thinking about having kids and you have a business, you might wonder how you can manage this, or if you should wait a couple years until the business is further along. What are the tradeoffs there?”

Younkle says panelists who have successfully raised kids and grown a business will share their stories about what works and what doesn’t, sharing tips and tricks for how to make it all work.

“We’re going to have a discussion about the challenges that come with being somebody who’s starting and growing a business and having kids,” Younkle explains. “Those are areas of strength for Madison, and areas we can build on to create a vibrant ecosystem for entrepreneurs.”

Also on tap for the eight-day Forward Festival:

  • A one-of-a-kind mentor match event on August 24, presented by the Doyenne Group, where mentees and mentors will come together and meet to discuss the path toward success.
  • neXXpo, the Madison Chamber’s reimagined business expo, where attendees can see and experience what’s next in business products and services at various exhibition booths.
  • Pitch Night, which includes a Shark Tank-style business pitch contest called Pressure Chamber, as well as the Startup Showcase.
  • The 2nd Annual Clash of the Tech Trivia Titans, where participants can show off their knowledge of IT, biotech, hard sciences, the local startup community, and tech-pop culture.
  • Yum Yum Fest, which showcases some of the top chefs in town, as well the Edible Startup Summit.
  • The Social Good Summit, a daylong event that looks at the value of social good in the work we do.
  • The Forward Technology Conference, August 25, is a day of networking with some of the area’s top entrepreneurs and hearing from experts on a wide range of topics relevant to technology businesses.

A complete schedule of the 2015 Forward Festival can be found at

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