Crafty: AWE teaches women artisans business savvy

One by one, the 22 women sitting in a circle shared their stories. A dollmaker who lost both her breasts to cancer said she’s struggled with making female figures since then but isn’t ready to stop doing art. Another woman eagerly anticipated her gallery’s upcoming opening, though she was sad her husband died before he could see it.
(photo by Megan Dombroski)

“People want to hear about you and your unique perspective,” Program Coordinator Yoko Morris told those attending the Aug. 1 meeting of Appalachian Women Entrepreneurs. “Your perspective changes as your life changes; that’s why it’s important to think about it. Think about what you’re going through, how it’s affecting you and how it’s affecting your work.”

AWE, a four-year-old project of the Asheville-based nonprofit HandMade in America, teaches business skills to women in the craft industry. This particular meeting gave them a chance to share their personal and professional lives in a supportive environment and to rehearse a roughly three-minute story to tell potential customers.

“When you’re a single small-business owner, one of the hardest things is that you wear so many hats. You don’t have those employees or other people you’re working with to motivate you, question or just help you with things,” Morris noted in a later interview. “This is a group where women can discuss their problems and get ideas, motivation and inspiration.”

Eliminating the fear factor

Western North Carolina is no stranger to the craft biz: We have more crafters per capita than almost any other region in the country, says Janelle Wienke, operations coordinator at HandMade. “We have a really rich craft heritage here, but in the past few decades it’s really become an identity of this area.”

These artisans, however, “think of themselves as artists or crafters, not businesspeople,” Morris observes. She aims to change that by encouraging them to shift their perspective on what they do.

“I try to take the fear factor out of having your own business,” she explains. “I want to take that whole ‘I’m just an artist’ mindset and say, ‘No: You’re artist and you’re a businessperson, and that is something to be proud of.’ You don’t have to make a million dollars, but being able to sustain yourself while doing something you love is definitely attainable and something to be commended.” (photo by Megan Dombroski)

Jeweler Amy Brandenburg moved to Asheville a year-and-a-half ago and decided to launch her own business. Lacking prior experience, however, she wanted to make sure she prepared herself.

“One of the first things I did,” she recalls, was take a Foundations course at Mountain BizWorks, another local nonprofit, that “talked about cash flow and marketing and all these things that I didn’t even think about. Finding HandMade in America and going to their free Craft Labs has just been sort of the icing on the cake.”

The Craft Labs teach promotional, organizational, networking and marketing skills. And when AWE, originally available only in rural counties, received a grant to expand into Buncombe County this year, Brandenburg enthusiastically joined.

“Have I done it all perfectly? No. Have I gotten it more into perspective? Yes. I know what needs to happen, and I know what’s the next step to make the business more successful,” Brandenburg reflects. “Learning how to keep the business afloat has been so beneficial; if I hadn’t had that, I don’t know what I would have been doing. I would have been making jewelry all the time and not selling anything.”

Fiber artist Linda LaBelle, who specializes in natural dyeing, says she considers AWE meetings “as important as working.” LaBelle says attendance has declined since the first session; she attributes this to crafters’ “not wanting to take time away from making. But you need the information they’re supplying to be successful.” (photo by Max Cooper)

Building community

Morris thinks attitudes about businesswomen may also keep some crafters from attending the meetings.

“There’s a stigma with business and being a businessperson in the arts and crafts,” she says. “I’ve seen it over and over again. People think they’re OK and they don’t need it, or they just want to do the fun stuff but think marketing and finances are over their head. They think they can’t do it, but they can. It doesn’t take a whole lot: It just takes a little bit of time and education.”

LaBelle owned a yarn store/studio in Brooklyn, N.Y., for 10 years, and growing up, each of her parents had their own small business. So while she didn’t find the business side as difficult as many newbies do, she still warns that it’s exhausting, saying, “If you can’t get enough money to hire people, then you burn yourself out.”

Nonetheless, she believes her New York business “would still be going if the recession hadn’t hit. It was like a bad storm: It was about the same time my book was coming out; my lease was coming up. When I closed the business last year, my rent was going to quadruple, and I just couldn’t do it anymore.”

Despite those challenges, however, LaBelle doesn’t regret her decision to enter the craft business.

“I was just so unhappy that I made a decision to leave hotel management to do what I wanted to do, whether I was poor or rich,” she reveals. “I’ve had good years and bad years, and probably more bad than good, but I’m not unhappy. No matter how rough it gets financially, I’m not unhappy.”

For Labelle, the best part of AWE is the sense of community she gets.

“It’s a conversation: It’s not just speaking at you,” Labelle explains. “It’s someone saying, ‘Well, maybe if you tried this, then it might help you, because it helped me.’ It’s a very supportive, community-minded approach from all the other crafters.”


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