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Change in West Virginia

Updated: Jul 31, 2019

I’m still coming to terms with the new title, “Business Owner”. One year ago, I was contemplating a Ph.D. in sociology. Instead, I left my job as a research analyst to pursue an independent career making natural skincare products.

To be honest, I thought a career in research would provide me with a solid platform to affect change on a social and economic level, here, in Appalachia. In retrospect, I became part of a bureaucratic system that does little to incentivize economic freedom, something that Appalachia, specifically West Virginia, is in dire need of. While our government may have the best of intentions, often times it falls short in the way of economic development.

I spent my time in graduate school studying poverty in Appalachia, and information and communication technologies (ICT). For years, I’ve been trying to understand the region’s natural resource curse, and how to achieve economic growth as coal production slows year after year. After dedicating my entire academic career to Appalachia, I debated simply leaving it. After all, most people my age do.

I made a conscious decision to stay in West Virginia, and for what reason? Well, some of those are still unknown; however, it is my understanding that most West Virginians and Appalachians alike feel deeply connected to their Appalachian roots. I’ve spent months traveling across foreign countries and across the U.S., but the placidity here in unlike any that I’ve yet to experience anywhere else in the world. It could just as easily be the comfort of home resonating within, but nonetheless, I like it.

What I don’t like is the lack of opportunity, and the sense of hopelessness I get when I imagine my younger siblings trying to make a life here, that is, if they decide to stay. West Virginia has one of the highest outmigration rates in the nation, meaning that most of its youth are leaving the state in order to find decent jobs and education, and with them, they are taking away the state’s most valuable human capital.

So, what do we do? It may come as a surprise to some people when I tell them that I am not passionate about skincare products, even though I’m leaving my career to launch my own all natural skincare line. It is true that I am an advocate for healthier, greener products, and I am invested in providing people with more options than what your local Walmart has to offer. But, this isn’t the real reason, either. The real reason is because I am tired of my own complaints, and it’s time I put my money where my mouth is, so to speak.

I’ve been preaching about economic diversification and encouraging entrepreneurship in order to enhance overall well-being in the Appalachian region, but my words really hold no weight if that is really all that they are, just words. So, now, I’m practicing what I preach: I’ve created a business of my own.

No, I have no prior business experience. No, I didn’t take out any loans. No, I didn’t have any help from family or friends or outside investors, for that matter. This was my cross to bear after deciding to stay here. With a few hundred dollars, I invested in minimal ingredients and I began making soaps, bath bombs, and body scrubs. I sold what I had by word of mouth and social media and then used the profit to invest in more ingredients. I kept doing this, and I kept improving my product and increasing my marketing. In less than a year, I had orders coming in from nearly every state in the U.S.

The company is still in its early stages, and it still has room to grow and to improve, but it is succeeding, and it is succeeding because I’ve received more support from my local community than I could have ever imagined. The most rewarding part of this journey is receiving messages from others in the area who have dreams of opening up a business of their own. We all need a place to start, we need guidance, and we need inspiration. This is a message for those of you who have reservations about creating your own path, for those of you who are financially limited, or those of you who want to see improvement in your community – it’s tough, but it’s not impossible – and, I know, you’ve heard it before.

The last year has been filled with twelve to fourteen hour work days, seven days a week. I’m sleep deprived, and I’ve bailed on my friends so many times that the invitations are now few and far between. I’ve been told by numerous individuals that I would fail not because I am incapable of running a business, but because our region is incapable of cultivating and sustaining business. The fact of the matter is that they’re wrong, and so many of them, and even myself, at times, has underestimated the power of small communities.

Perhaps you are wondering why you should even attempt to start your own business in a place like West Virginia. If I were anywhere else in the nation, I would be competing with similar businesses that have been established for years. This would be discouraging, no doubt. But, here, I already know a large percentage of my customer base, and we are equally invested in seeing our community thrive. This makes building consumer-supplier relationships much simpler, and in many ways, much more genuine. And if there is no better reason to start your own business for the pure satisfaction of being your own boss, then do it for your community, but do it right – go green! I'm not here to tell you that your business is doomed if it isn't environmentally friendly, but if you want a jump start on your competition, and if you want to prepare for the future, then you should go green.

Many of you reading this may roll your eyes, and I admit I am quite the romantic when it comes to the outcome of our future. Truth be told, I hold high expectations for all people, especially Millennials. I believe it is your generation that will not only find the means necessary to persevere, but to find a solution that is lasting and one that is not damaging to our environment, and subsequently, our welfare.

If this is the moment where you start to believe that I am a dirty hippie who has no common ground with you, please understand that we are in the same boat – my success is dependent on your success. I get it. West Virginia needs big industry in order to replace jobs that have been lost by the thousands. On a positive note, that industry exists, but it isn't one that we are familiar with. It's not supplied by fossil fuels, but by renewable resources. The bad news, West Virginia, is that we are a liability, and there are 49 other states ahead of us in the running to becoming the nation's primary green energy source. We have nothing left to lose and everything to gain, yet we resist change because we are too stubborn to acknowledge that coal, the pride and joy of West Virginia, has actually been our biggest downfall.

To sum it up, the dominance of coal production in West Virginia has hindered economic diversification and educational attainment. We became so dependent on coal that we were forced to accept the social, environmental, and economic injustices that have perpetrated our region, all for the sake of telling people that WE are who keep your lights on. In the meantime, someone turned the lights out on us. So, without it, who are we?

I’ll tell you who we are. We are an entire population left in economic distress, suffering one drug epidemic after another, but still refusing to give up on coal. We are proud, but sometimes I think we forget why it is that we are so proud to be the inhabitants of this mining state. Our ancestors fought battle after battle in order to gain control and to attain basic rights, but then we became complacent and we stopped fighting. We stopped fighting for our right to equally share in the profit of those coal mines that have now ruined entire ecosystems, communities, and our economy. I know we are desperate, but when will we stop being blinded by that desperation?

The rest of the nation believes we are desperate, too. Not only are we viewed as desperate, but we are viewed as ignorant and unemployable. That doesn't mean that is what we are, but it does mean that we have to start proving them wrong. By creating sustainable economies and green communities, we can transform our demographics, generate economic diversification and economic freedom and, in turn, attract new industry. If you would like to argue that we were in a much better situation before coal production slowed, then maybe we truly are helpless, but if you are tired of the argument, like me, then maybe it's time for a change.

This is where I would like to insert one of those inspirational quotes about change, but as a West Virginian, I’m pretty sure that would be ineffective, because like you, I know change requires more than just motivation. Perhaps, where you sit, I sound like a twenty-something white woman that hasn’t had a heavy dose of life yet. You could be right, but before you start to doubt me, or yourself, for that matter, know that I’ve overcome my fair share of obstacles. I grew up in poverty, too, and though I’m young, my childhood was spent outdoors, not in front of a screen. When I got to college, I was light years behind, socially and intellectually. I placed blame on my Appalachian roots, but remember, I’m stubborn, too. The point is I had to adapt. I had to make changes in order to succeed. Those changes transformed me, they didn’t erase me.

Many of you fear that this is what will be done to your history, but history is something that has already been made. It’s not something we can change, however we do have to recognize that without change, history can never be made. So, I hope you can get on board with SM Co, as a consumer, as a producer, as a West Virginian. But fair warning, we are headed for change.


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