Who Runs the World? Women.
Since starting at Mountain Laurel Digital in June, I have surrounded myself with women who are leading their own initiatives. As I learn & lead by their example, I’ve stumbled on a few gems regarding the culture and values of local women leaders. While working with the entirely female team of MLD, I’ve been given consistent encouragement to become an expert, swallow self doubt, and set goals higher than my expectations.
This culture is new for me, and still missing in so many industries where women are excelling without notice or acknowledgement. We still hear narratives around women in the workplace that are misrepresented and skewed.
It seems women must choose between several prescribed roles. You are either a lady boss or intimidating, career-oriented or dependent on someone else. In reality, as Anea, one of the women contributing to this article, said, “no one fits into a box,” and discovering how women manage multiple identities is a necessary conversation.
“No one fits into a box.”
Anea Copney, Brothers with Attitude
Thus, I want to highlight some local women’s successes & struggles to learn how we can grow within, and beyond, the Western NC entrepreneurial community. I talked with 3 Asheville area women from a variety of industries & asked them to reflect on their experiences of imagining, building, and growing their initiatives. These are the common inspirations & wisdoms I found throughout my conversations!
You don’t have to wait for permission.
Anea Copney, one of the founders of Brothers with Attitude, was inspired to start the group after brainstorming with her then-boyfriend, who became trapped in the criminal justice system. “He was on probation, and said, ‘I can’t do much right now, but how can I help this community?’” While raising two children & supporting her family, Anea began Brothers with Attitude because of a lack of programs focused on young men’s emotional & leadership development. With no money in her pocket, Anea recruited 14 young men to join her start-up group, and over a year later, Brothers with Attitude continues to grow.
Anea is often questioned on why a woman would be leading a group of young men, to which she responds “...because someone has to. With our men typically taken out of our communities by the prison system, the women become the breadwinners, the mothers, & the leaders. I think it’s important for a woman to teach these young men what they are capable of-- being capable & strong.”
You can break the mold.
For Sadrah Schadel, co-owner of No Evil Foods, an Asheville-based and nationally carried plant-based meats company, her experiences from childhood are what inspired her to start a business. Sadrah realized that high school was limiting her capacity to be creative. She broke the traditional mold of schooling and graduated at age 16 to pursue college, which taught her to break other standards within business. When she and her partner, Mike, started No Evil Foods, they were determined to build an ecologically conscious brand that promotes justice & animal welfare. No Evil Foods doesn’t follow a triple bottom line for marketability. Instead, they believe in transforming the way people eat and providing new alternatives to people’s diets.
Combine your strengths with others’.
Much like Sadrah, Connie Mattisse of East Fork has found joys & lessons in starting a business with her life partner, Alex.
Alex was formally trained in pottery while Connie was building her agricultural skills on a farm when they met. When Alex began dreaming about a pottery business larger than art galleries, Connie didn’t want this opportunity to be his alone. She drew on her strengths as an innovator, content creator, and fellow dreamer to help found and run East Fork. Her skills inspired the creation of a brand culture supportive of their workers. This culture & foundational brand development are the backbones to East Fork’s success, as they push to provide their workers with more equitable conditions and benefits that include childcare and healthcare. As Connie put it “getting big isn’t selling out. The starving artist ideal is unsustainable for everyday people. We are building a new perspective on the pottery business.”
“Getting big isn’t selling out. The starving artist ideal is unsustainable for everyday people. We are building a new perspective on the pottery business.”
- Connie Matisse, East Fork
It’s fine to challenge the status quo and take a stand.
When it comes to getting 14 young men to willingly engage in emotional conversations, Anea is able to build trust and cooperation with the boys in her program because “...they respect me. I’ve seen everything… I have told them my whole life story, the good and the bad.” After having a child at 19, Anea has been determined to become a capacity builder in her family & in the Asheville community.
“I want these boys to be resistant to being stigmatized for their color or where they come from & instead recognize that they are better than prejudice.”
- Anea Copney, Brothers with Attitude
Brothers With Attitude empowers young black & brown boys to not only talk about their feelings, but to see themselves as a support system for their fellow brothers & community members. “I want these boys to be resistant to being stigmatized for their color or where they come from & instead recognize that they are better than prejudice.” Anea encourages her BWA boys to call out injustice & bullying, in hopes of growing their power even if it makes others uncomfortable.
Creating a large brand can present challenges to one’s values & purpose. As East Fork grew its operations, Connie recalled an important moment where East Fork’s values were not aligned with its actions. “A year ago, I looked around & everyone working for us was white.” That moment was a catalyst for a partnership with Green Opportunities, a local organization that supports marginalized communities to achieve sustainable employment.
As Connie states, “Asheville is segregated. We have to be real about the gentrification happening & expand our community intentionally.” In leading by example, East Fork Pottery is showing that businesses cannot ignore the gentrification happening in Asheville, and that they have a responsibility to respond to it.
“Work/life balance” is unrealistic.
The elusive “work/life balance” idea is difficult to understand, and often more difficult to perform within one’s routine. So many women are both mothers, leaders, and so much more. All 3 women I spoke with were insistent that their life was not separate from work, but rather that they create work that enriches their life.
While building a passion-filled career can become all-consuming, Connie believes that “...workers do not have to be fulfilled by their work, they just need to be supported enough to find what fulfills them.” A work culture that emphasizes individual pursuits & goals and allows individuals quality time with their families & hobbies makes “work” more sustainable and supporting.
“...workers do not have to be fulfilled by their work, they just need to be supported enough to find what fulfills them.”
- Connie Matisse, East Fork
Sadrah said it best, that “...the term is misleading, it implies that you can perfectly manage your business, family, and personal life in equal portions. You can’t, and women should not have that expectation, because you’ll never measure up.” Instead of creating unrealistic standards, Sadrah chooses to delegate and ask herself “Am I building a life and business that my family and I will be proud of?” By setting her own goals for her personal life and her burgeoning food empire, she becomes accountable to herself instead of an ideal of productivity.
“...the term is misleading, it implies that you can perfectly manage your business, family, and personal life in equal portions. You can’t, and women should not have that expectation because you’ll never measure up.”
Sadrah Schadel, co-owner of No Evil Foods
Through these stories of vulnerability and resilience, 3 local women business and community leaders revealed the growing pains & emotion behind some of Asheville’s most adored brands. While these stories are only the beginning of how these women are creating new lives for countless people, I hope this glance into local initiatives, in addition to the work we are doing at Mountain Laurel Digital as a women-led team, reclaims the narratives around women in business!
Shared Experiences Via:
Connie Mattise is the COO & one of the Founders of East Fork Pottery. She is a cultural innovator, digital creative with an eye for simplicity, & mother of 2.
Anea Copney created Brothers with Attitude, a local step dance team that empowers young black men to build leadership & confidence skills. Anea is a family-centered racial equity activist in the Asheville area!
Sadrah Schadel is the Co-Founder of No Evil Foods, a national plant-meat company transforming how people eat & think about their meal's environmental impact. Sadrah is a brand boss & animal rights advocate making delicious products with a focus on justice.