When I finished college in New Orleans in 1992, my parents said I had to find a job. I’d genuinely thought they’d just keep paying my bills and making donations in my name to the alumni association. Starting a business hadn't even crossed my mind.
The only work I could find that was related to my mass communications major was at a free monthly tabloid called Health & Home New Orleans. I had no idea when I applied that being an account executive meant I’d be selling advertising.
A year later, the sales manager became editor in chief, and the publisher offered me her job. But since they were playing musical chairs with staff, I said I’d rather try my hand as art director.
The incumbent was fired the next day. And though I'm pretty sure she was already on her way out, her quick departure meant I had less than a month to learn how to lay out the paper, direct a cover shoot, send the files to press and all the other things I didn't know I didn't know. I was impressed that I’d so easily talked my way into a new job till I realized my salary had gone from $9.50 an hour plus commission to $8.50 an hour, period.
My first work experience was also my first time working for a woman-run business — and my first chance to watch one fail miserably. The paper owed its printer $40,000; every month the tab just got bigger. Eventually, Health & Home was simply taken over as payment.
The whole staff lost their jobs except me, who persuaded the printer to keep me on to design the newly re-christened Health & Fitness New Orleans. My pay decreased again, to $7.50 an hour, but at this rate, I figured I would soon talk my way into a zero-dollar-an-hour job and be able to resume my parent-supported lifestyle. Meanwhile, the work gave me valuable insights into printing and distribution.
Over the next 10 years, I worked on a dozen independent periodicals. Not all of them were woman-run, but most did eventually fail.
Increasingly, my thoughts turned to running my own paper someday, but it wasn't till I moved to Asheville that I knew what I wanted it to be.
You gotta laugh
In 1999, I became friends with an eclectic group of Asheville professionals: massage therapists, yoga instructors, engineers, gardeners, chefs, artists, students, teachers and politician wannabes. At weekly parties we would catch a buzz and good-naturedly make fun of the town we loved.
In 2001, I teamed up with Delhi Pietrala Fine, a very funny, intelligent woman, to put out two issues of a 60-page newsprint humor zine called the Asheville Hyena, sold exclusively at Downtown Books & News.
The next year, I launched the Asheville Disclaimer, a free, monthly satirical newspaper. Needing a downtown office, I gave up my one-bedroom apartment and moved home, thus finally achieving two long-sought goals: owning my own paper and returning to a parent-supported lifestyle.
I hired a mostly female staff, paid in PBR (or unpaid if they didn't drink) and sank my life's savings into office supplies and the Disclaimer's first edition.
In 2003, Tom Scheve showed up on the doorstep and never left; his car was packed with everything he owned, and he moved into the office that very day. (Contrary to popular opinion, I let him stay because of his writing and publishing experience, not because I thought he was totally hot. Nonetheless, he’s now my husband.)
But after three-and-a-half years of publishing the Disclaimer, Tom and I realized that our lives were out of balance due to the constant demands of marketing, selling ads, producing and distributing the paper. All we really wanted to do was create content.
Shifting from an indie publication to a weekly feature in Xpress was a difficult decision, but it was the right one. It freed us up to explore other creative media and inspired projects (including, in my case, managing the band Trapdoor into Dinosaur Pit) and to start a family. We now include Zoe, our amazing 3-year-old daughter, in many parts of our eclectic work and artistic life.
Finding that elusive balance
Becoming a mother has made me more curious about how other women balance business and family, particularly those with highly creative, nontraditionally structured businesses. I’ve been inspired by the many amazing Asheville women I know who seem to manage this successfully.
One Disclaimer staffer used to bring her two child prodigies, ages 5 and 8, to the office. We became part of the home-schooling regime, and the children's contributions to the paper ranked among the most popular pieces.
Occasionally, during meetings, we’d forget the kids were even there, quietly drawing amid our spirited debates. But afterward, some of us (usually me) would be presented with hand-drawn "cussing demerits" humorously depicting our potty language via stick figures sitting on a toilet. These amazing children still remind me that it's OK to be myself (but also to watch my language around my girl).
Another mentor is Christine DiBenedetto, who launched Wink: Heads & Threads with business partner Gilda Santiago in 2005. The popular Biltmore Village salon/boutique carries clothes, jewelry, accessories and gifts while showcasing the work of 30 local designers. It’s been recognized in the Xpress “Best of WNC” readers' poll every year since.
After directing the YWCA’s Women's Resource Center and creating The Rebelles female burlesque troupe, DiBenedetto says (only half-joking) that having lots of ideas and being "bossy" is what eventually drove her to "do something" on her own.
She and her husband, Tommy Calloway of Feral Chihuahuas fame, live in Woodfin with their children: Hennie, 2, and Xavier, 17 months. The balancing act, she notes, is a continuing challenge. "I have an amazing man who helps cook and clean. I have great girlfriends who make it easy for me. … And I have great kids who excite rather than exhaust me. Most importantly, I keep my eye on the long-term goals, so I can have more family and private time."
Owning a business, DiBenedetto says, means “You must always be prepared for anything. It isn't 'turn the lights on in the morning and turn them off at night.'" But she describes most women she knows as loving, hard-working, compassionate "and, of course, multitasking. ... You can achieve great success with those qualities."
Her advice for women just starting out? "Know yourself." Oh, and be sure to get a good accountant, lawyer, bank and be 100-percent involved in your finances.
Having a partner can really help. "When I'm down and out, my business partner comes in to pick me up and remind me why we did this in the first place," she reveals. But it also brings additional challenges. "Know what each of your strengths are from the start," DiBenedetto advises, “and honor them. Get ready for a wild ride."
Embracing your inner entrepreneur
Laura Blackley has been a respected Asheville musician for a dozen years. She fronted the Laura Blackley Band for seven of them, and is currently one of The Swayback Sisters — an all-female harmony troupe including Nikki Talley, Lyndsay Wojcik and sometimes Cary Fridley.
Blackley also organizes a singer/songwriter night at Carmel's every Thursday, along with producing and hosting two shows on WNCW: Local Color, featuring regional music, and Southern Sirens, celebrating past and present music-making ladies from the great American South.
In addition, she and partner Cindy Jordan run the Jordan-Blackley Farm and the Treetops Apartments. Their six-acre organic farm in Candler features award-winning honeybees, free-range eggs, blackberries, black and red raspberries, and blueberries. They also offer farm tours, pick-your-own (in season) and guesthouse rentals. "It needed a ton of work, so we hunkered down and went about the business of … learning things the hard way,” Blackley reports.
“Needless to say, all that dust got me itching to drink red wine and play music again — which is the short version of how The Swayback Sisters got together."
Co-parenting 19-month-old Mavis, notes Blackley, has "created an opportunity to shift priorities." Until recently, she explains, “Cindy and I switched back and forth between 'momma' and work outside the home or on the farm." They also rely heavily on friends. "I can remember Swayback Sister rehearsals where we'd just bundle Mavis up and put her in the middle of all of us — she'd either nap or, once in a while, try to find a harmony part!"
Blackley says her partner inspires her every day. "I've never met anyone who works as hard as she does. She understands the farming business, because her family ran a dairy farm for generations. She also thinks like a farmer, which I'm pleased to say I am beginning to do as well."
One big challenge for Blackley, she reveals, has been a tendency to overcommit and spread herself too thin. "Don't know if that's a woman thing, but I've certainly talked to other women who do it. I feel like I've learned some valuable skills since embarking on these entrepreneurial ventures — like taking care of myself and having something left over to give back."
On the other hand, taking a conventional job just never worked for Blackley. "Every time, it's felt like putting a leash on a dragon." And eventually, she realized that she’ll probably be chasing down a gig of one sort or another until her final days. "As soon as I began to make peace with that, well, opportunities started to open up."
— Michele Scheve lives near Asheville; she can be reached at email@example.com.