By Sarah Mansheim
Like it or not, the West Virginia economy is changing, and women are grabbing hold of the reins.
Lewisburg business women gathered last week for a roundtable discussion focused on the changing roles of women, West Virginia business, tourism and agriculture. The roundtable was sponsored by the Greater Greenbrier Chamber of Commerce and was well attended by area women who work in such diverse fields as education, nonprofits, media, tourism, law, medicine, retail and whiskey making.
Keynote speakers Chef Mary Brent Galyean, Deputy Secretary of Commerce and Commissioner of Tourism Amy Shumer Goodwin, Social Media Senator and poet Crystal Good and beef cattle producer Jennifer “Tootie” Jones were on hand to talk to the local business women about a new era of work in West Virginia, one that requires more cooperation, more gut checks, more social media, and, most importantly, according to Good, more broadband internet.
Galyean spoke first, having just served a gourmet breakfast of salad greens with crab and sweet potato, Low Country cornbread with West Virginia honey, salmon bacon, grits with scallions and chocolate cake baked in an iron Dutch oven. Galyean is an expedition chef on the Gauley River and competed on the television cooking competition “Chopped: Grill Masters” last summer. She’s also a personal chef.
Lithe and muscular, in a short dress and no makeup, Galyean started off with a joke.
“I’ve never spoken to a respectable crowd before,” she quipped to the women who surrounded her, as they ate the breakfast she’d prepared.
She turned to the Chamber of Commerce’s Ashley Vickers, and said, “Ashley asked me to talk about the most important spice in my spice kit, and, I have to say the most important spice in my kit is me.” Galyean shared that she is a recovering alcoholic who ended up in rehab four years ago as she was caring for her mother, who was dying of cancer.
“I am my own recipe, but I’ve got to give credit where credit is due,” she said, pointing toward the heavens. “My mom.”
“Another tool in my spice cabinet are my friends who picked me up off the pavement.” Sobriety, she said, forced her to seek out better quality friends, and with those new connections, came success.
“My business started with feeding friends,” she said, and, from there, those friends recommended her to their friends, and now, she’s a busy chef, travelling around the state and the world cooking for everyone from working families in Charleston to hikers in Nepal.
“West Virginia’s best natural resource is its people. You cannot epically fail, or succeed, in this state without the entire community behind you,” she said.
Galyean laughed at the idea of her being held up as a “success” during the roundtable discussion, but noted that in a new economy, we all must think outside the boxes we, and others, place us in. “I can’t believe I’m up here speaking as a ‘successful business woman.’ I live in a Jetta full of cutting boards and Dutch ovens. I’m homeless! But, I am 100 percent invested in what do,” she said.
Being homeless, she said, and living at expedition camps and in the homes of those she cooks for, helped her shed her expectations about what she, and society, thought she should be. “I had lots of pretty, expensive knives, because that’s what I thought chefs should have. Now, I have a couple old knives, a couple Dutch ovens and five rules: don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t cheat, don’t drink and give more to the world than what you get back.”
Galyean also talked about making decisions based on a gut feeling, a “gut check,” as she called it. “Your gut knows what’s right, if you listen. Everything you are is completely within your control.”
Gut checking, and the idea of defying expectations, was continued by the next speaker, Crystal Good. The self-proclaimed Social Media Senator (“I just made it up”) spoke not only about using social media to affect democratic change, but about approaching a changing economy in West Virginia from a new perspective.
“I have two boys. Before a ball game, I don’t tell them, ‘you’re going to go out there and play your hearts out, but you’re going to lose,’ “ she said. “But that’s what we do in West Virginia. It’s time to change. We have to change our mentality. Our greatest enemy in West Virginia is the way we think.”
Good said she uses her role as social media senator as a “hub,” or a connector, bringing the online concerns of West Virginia citizens into a forum for real change. “Social media is a powerful tool, but the question remains, how do we harness it for good?”
She called the emerging economy in West Virginia, as the coal mines begin to cease production one-by-one, the “West Virginia Renaissance.”
“That phrase evokes possibility. Just like the term ‘social media senator’ evokes possibility. We are creating choices, and not everything is black and white.”
Good used herself as an example. Tall, elegant, half-Black, Good said when she meets people from out of state, they often say, “You don’t look like someone from West Virginia.”
“If people would really look at West Virginia, they’d see a little America. Look at me, at all of us: mixed race, Democrat or Republican, male or female,” she said. And, as we move forward in the West Virginia Renaissance, she asked, how do we carve out a new identity? And, How do we engage the political system in the 21st Century?
For Good, that means fresh ways of looking at ourselves as West Virginians and utilizing new ways of communication. “Things are in flux in Charleston, which is good. It’s a point of creation. What I know is, when I’m in the presence of West Virginia women, I know everyone is on my team. The time of the ‘Old Boys Club’ is over; our time as women is now.”
Unfortunately, she said, widespread economic change and development will be impossible without the wide extension of broadband internet in all areas of the state.
“We can’t move our economy forward without it,” she said. “We’ve got to lay this road.”
Expectations, gut checks and broadband continued to rear their heads when Goodwin took her turn to speak. As the state director of tourism, she said she sees how often West Virginia defies the expectations of visitors to the state. Yes, she said, they expect amazing outdoors activities, but they don’t expect the luxurious accommodations and great food and shopping.
Defying expectations is her job, and in order to draw visitors to the state, she has to highlight all West Virginia has to offer, but without artifice. Travelers, especially millennials, place value what they perceive as “real,” she said, and are turned off by phony-seeming marketing ploys. That same thought process can be applied to marketing all types of business.
“You know what’s real,” she said to the audience. “Trust your gut.”
And as far as social media and internet? Goodwin was straight to the point. “I don’t care what you do. If you don’t have social media, you’ve blown it.”
The caveat, she said, is broadband access. You can’t tweet from Snowshoe. You can’t take a selfie at Silver Creek. This may sound minor, she said, until you consider that a person who may be thinking of purchasing a property at either ski resort may decide not to because of the lack of internet access.
“Guys like to go to their ski vacation home with their families and stay for a couple of weeks, working via the internet. If there’s no internet, they’re going to buy a house somewhere else. It’s not just a tourism issue. It’s a business issue.”
So, as the men in the business world try to find a second mountain home with enough bandwidth to telecommute, perhaps women, using the power of social media, can convince Charleston to get its act together regarding broadband. After all, it’s a new day and a new economy – a West Virginia Renaissance – and our guts tell us it’s time to take the lead.