Western Women’s Business Conference celebrates diversity and empowerment

ATTENTIVE AUDIENCE: Over 250 businesswomen listen to a keynote speaker during the Western Women’s Business Conference. The sellout conference brings together businesspeople ranging from restaurateurs to attorney recruiters gathered for a day of workshops, networking and female empowerment. Photo by Molly Horak
ATTENTIVE AUDIENCE: Over 250 businesswomen listen to a keynote speaker during the Western Women’s Business Conference. The sellout conference brings together businesspeople ranging from restaurateurs to attorney recruiters gathered for a day of workshops, networking and female empowerment. Photo by Molly Horak

Sandra Suber has always been a lover of hats.

The bolder and brighter the hat, the better, as she sought out the latest styles and trends to wear to Sunday morning church services. But traveling twice a year to Greenville, S.C., Spartanburg, S.C. and Burlington to restock her hat supply got to be too much, and that’s when Suber decided to do something drastic: In 1995, she opened Ianodell’s, her very own hat shop out of her garage.

“There was a need for it, a demand. And when I opened the shop that first day, it was phenomenal — when the cars started coming in, you should have seen the smile on my face. The racks were just about empty,” Suber recalls.

BOLD AND BEAUTIFUL:  At Ianodell’s, hat-lovers can shop the latest trends and purchase a hat for any occasion. This spring, bright colors and decorations were popular, owner Sandra Suber says. Photo by Molly Horak
BOLD AND BEAUTIFUL: At Ianodell’s, hat lovers can shop the latest trends and purchase a hat for any occasion. This spring, bright colors and decorations were popular, owner Sandra Suber says. Photo by Molly Horak

In the years since, Ianodell’s has flourished, selling Sunday morning finery and hats galore. Suber networks among African-American churches, sells her goods at conventions across the Southeast and runs charity fashion shows in the Asheville area. Yet she also remembers the challenges that come with starting a business.

Addressing a crowd of 260 at the Western Women’s Business Conference on June 22 at U.S. Cellular Center, Suber shared her story. Like many in the room, she never went to college, nor had she ever taken a business class. “I want to speak today to anyone who has ever dreamed of going into business but has been too afraid to try,” she said.

Now in its third year, the Western Women’s Business Conference drew a capacity crowd of aspiring entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds for a day of workshops, presentations and networking. In collaboration with the Western Women’s Business Center and the A-B Tech Small Business Center, business owners in fields ranging from event planning to photography, legal services to restaurants gathered to celebrate and strengthen their female-led companies.

Fostering empowerment

“I see all of us women that are here to change the world. We choose to be unstoppable in doing this important work,” said Carolyn Wallace of Life Story Catcher in her opening remarks. A theme of self-empowerment ran throughout the conference — from jotting down a personal quality attendees hoped to grow in the upcoming year to listing their biggest professional fears and regrets, breakout sessions in Spanish, to a Zumba dance break midway through the afternoon — and the phrase “Her story, her journey” remained a focus.

IN THE GROOVE: High heels came off and Latin dance rhythms moved in when Salvador Chavez, owner of Luna Zone Zumba Studio, led conference participants in a Zumba workout midway through the afternoon sessions. Photo by Molly Horak
IN THE GROOVE: High heels came off and Latin dance rhythms moved in when Salvador Chavez, owner of Luna Zone Zumba Studio, led conference participants in a Zumba workout midway through the afternoon sessions. Photo by Molly Horak

Female entrepreneurs are growing more prevalent in the region, explained Jill Sparks, executive director of the A-B Tech Small Business Center. Forty percent of all new businesses within the last year were started by women, she said, as women were “getting fired up and thinking bigger.”

The “sea of wonderful, beautiful and exuberant faces” sitting in the U.S. Cellular Center conference room revealed a diverse group of women and a sprinkling of men. That’s one of the program’s greatest accomplishments, says Sharon Oxendine, executive director of the WWBC. Last year, 95 percent of participants were women, 17 percent were Latino, 9 percent were African-American and 5 percent were veterans, and organizers expect this year’s crowd to share similar demographics.

Angie Stegall, owner of Yukon and Bean travel blog and a keynote speaker at the conference, sees the emphasis on diversity as an important step to removing prejudices in the workplace. “For all the networking events I’ve gone to and classes that I’ve taught, it has predominantly been middle-class or upper-middle-class white people, mainly men,” she says. “It’s a really white audience, for the most part. And it doesn’t need to be because there are plenty of minorities and disadvantaged folks that just need a little direction, some ‘You can do it’ support, and they become the hardest hustlers that I’ve ever met.”

Suber agrees. As an African-American business owner, she sees that racial barriers are indeed out there. “I could name the number of African-American-run businesses that I know of on my hands — there’s not near enough. And I’ve seen some come and go. I’ve seen so many that have tried and didn’t succeed.”

Stories of Success

Interspersed throughout the conference were success stories of entrepreneurs who have used services provided through the WWBC and the A-B Tech Small Business Center.

Brandy Mills dreamed of opening a cupcake shop but didn’t think she could ever make it a reality.

“My whole life has been filled with people who see things in me that I don’t see,” she explained to the crowd. “Often, I don’t wake up with my confidence drawn on me. When we decided to start a business, the things in my head, like how you grew up or what you looked like said, ‘Owning a business is not for you. The world is not for you. Don’t do it.’”

But Mills didn’t give up. After being turned down by several banks — which she attributed to bankers hearing her “African-American voice” — she stumbled upon the WWBC.

“No matter how much I struggled with writing my business plan, no matter how much I wanted to give up because I was working full time and a mom full time, the people at the WWBC never gave up on me,” Mills says. And last October, her cupcake dream came true when T.B.M. Smallcakes opened in Biltmore Park.

There was the story of Meredith Bennett, who recently opened a business that sells handcrafted products for pets and pet lovers called Devoted Human. Taylor Greg shared the story behind Chestnut Ridge, her soon-to-open wedding venue that she worked to launch while pregnant with twins. Gloria Llanser, owner of Sacred Souls Birthing Doula Services, talked about the challenges she faced learning English after moving to the United States from Colombia, and how she found her passion in the doula community in Asheville.

And there was the story of Andrea Wright, who moved back to Asheville after splitting from her ex-husband. After becoming ill and retiring early from a career in business development, she decided to open My Sisters and I, an event planning and catering company.

“I had the opportunity to reflect on my childhood, and my family would always cook. The meeting place was in the kitchen, of course, and they would cook these wonderful meals — macaroni and cheese, a four-layer chocolate cake, cathead biscuits with homemade applesauce,” she recalled with a laugh. And after working with her sisters on events such as baby and wedding showers, people started to offer to pay them for their work. The idea for the business was born.

“They understand you, they listen to you,” Wright says of the WWBC, which helped her with marketing, networking, creating contracts and even hired her as the center’s event caterer. “Whatever your wants and dreams are, they become the WWBC’s wants and dreams,” she says.

Be Brave, Be Bold

The need for female business owners to support one another was reiterated throughout the conference. In a male-dominated, often competitive world, several of the speakers shared advice for how to deal with gender-based barriers.

WORTH HER SALT: Selina Delangre, CEO of Celtic Sea Salt and Selina Naturally, addressed the conference and also received the Bubbles Griffin Award for Generosity of Spirit. Photo by Molly Horak
WORTH HER SALT: Selina Delangre, CEO of Celtic Sea Salt and Selina Naturally, addressed the conference and received the Bubbles Griffin Award for Generosity of Spirit. Photo by Molly Horak

“There is definitely still a gender ceiling out there where women have to present themselves a little bit differently,” says Selina Delangre, CEO of the Celtic Sea Salt brand and Selina Naturally. “There’s a saying that goes, ‘If a woman is being assertive, then she’s a bitch, but if a man is assertive, then he’s just a really good businessman.’ There’s this huge illusion of how to be assertive in the work field but also to have the authority to bring that confidence through to your employees.

“And don’t play the comparison game. It’s like eating acid,” Delangre emphasized. “When you go out there and compare your successes or your capabilities to others, it will eat you alive, and that’s something I have struggled with throughout my business career.”

In her speech, travel blogger Stegall entertained the crowd with stories of a 16-day rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. To manage her fear, she counted the length of time it took to run the rapids, which was roughly 14 seconds. “The more I did that, the more comfortable I got, and the more fun I was able to have. Be brave, even if it’s just 14 seconds at a time.”

For hat purveyor Suber, the best way to start is to find an encourager, get out there and follow your dreams. “I know there are so many things that people think about in their minds that may prevent them from doing a business or scare them off, but I want to encourage them that if you have a mindset that you want to do it, you can do it.”

Below, watch the performance Suber gave during her keynote speech. As a music minister at churches across the area, Suber explained to the crowd that she felt more comfortable singing about her experiences than giving a speech to the audience. 

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About Molly Horak
Molly is a sophomore Journalism and Political Science student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is spending her summer working with the Mountain Xpress, exploring in the mountains, and drinking excessive amounts of coffee.

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