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Strength in Numbers

By Kailey Houle

Andrea Marion

Andrea Marion says she’s surrounded by ‘bad-ass,’ powerful women at the Mill District.

Before the pandemic, Andréa Marion worked in the nonprofit world.

As it was for countless others, COVID became a period of reflection for her, a time to determine what was really important.

“I wasn’t happy and wanted a change,” she recalled. “I loved what I did, I loved working with and helping people, but I just knew it was time to see what else was out there and see what I can do. I have always loved fashion. I’ve always been into clothing, and style, and what it means to someone and how we represent ourselves with clothing.”

She took this passion for fashion, started a clothing boutique, and eventually took this fledgling venture to one of the pop-up events at the Mill District in North Amherst, where she hosted a table. Two months later, she is a far more permanent fixture at this home to a diverse mix of businesses, many of them owned and operated by women, including the mill itself, which was created by Cinda Jones, president of WD Cowls Inc., a winner of BusinessWest’s Forty Under 40, Alumni Achievement, and Top Entrepreneur awards.

“Being a woman in business at the Mill District has been very empowering.”

And Marion is rejoicing in both her success and business address.

“Being a woman in business at the Mill District has been very empowering,” said Marion, who sells mostly women’s clothing, but is hoping to expand her business to include male and non-binary clothing as well. “I have been a woman in business where I have been the only woman in the room, and that can be very lonely and tough. At the Mill District, I’m surrounded by so many bad-ass, powerful women and I feel like I’m at home. It sounds corny, but it’s so true. I couldn’t have picked a better spot.”

Marion is one of many who expressed similar sentiments — about both bad-ass, powerful women at the Mill District, and how that location has become a source of pride, inspiration, and a growing list of success stories. And about how much they like being part of all that.

Jessica Lavallee owns a Graze Craze location in North Amherst, a charcuterie-style takeout and delivery store that offers catering for events of all sizes. It was founded by a female Air Force veteran in Oklahoma, who recently franchised her stores through the United Franchise Group. The Amherst store is the first franchise in the Northeast, with the closest store to the North Amherst location being in Tennessee.

Lavallee is always looking for a new challenge and opportunities to give back to the community. “One of my favorite things to do is to entertain, and I love the concept of grazing; charcuterie boards fit into that perfectly,” she explained. “As a woman business owner, this gave me the opportunity to have a corporation for support, but make things my own at the same time. It gave me the opportunity to start a business in the food industry, which has always been something I have wanted to do.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked to several business owners and managers at the Mill District. Collectively, they touched on how they manage to inspire each other, but also about the many challenges and hurdles facing women in business today.

Location, Location, Location

Because women are the natural caregivers for their children, society often forgets that they are a person outside of motherhood. Once their children are graduated and out of the house, the mother often starts experiencing empty-nest syndrome. Another individual who works at the Mill District decided she wasn’t going to be that woman.

Kayla Diggins says she’s proud to be role model to young girls.

Kayla Diggins says she’s proud to be a role model to young girls.

Shannon Borrell is the store conductor of the General Store and Local Art Gallery in the Mill District. She explained that her job allows her to do many things around the store, such as a managerial role, building customer relations, putting up posts on social media, and event production for the art gallery.

The store has the nostalgic feel of an old-time general store. It sells a variety of items: household goods, gardening supplies, baking goods, children’s toys, art supplies, bulk candy by the pound, and more. The art gallery showcases art made by people within an hour of the store. Anyone that is interested can submit an online application, and once their work is approved, they can rent space by the linear foot. Artists keep 80% of the commissions, and the remaining 20% of the proceeds go back into the general store for classes that artists are interested in.

Borrell feels that now is the right time to focus on herself.

“I want to do something meaningful,” she said. “If you told me I was going to be working in retail and how you define that experience, I wouldn’t say that that was what I was doing. This space is more about creating community and bringing people together. It’s like retail with a mission — it’s art with an interest in community and getting people involved and an opportunity for more activity in this area.”

She said that working in the General Store and art gallery has challenged her in ways her previous vocation didn’t. As a para-educator, she wasn’t able to push the limit, as she called it. “There are no limitations in events or classes that the store wants to have, or how robust we want them to be.”

Another woman at the Mill District who is pushing the limits is Kayla Diggins. She owns an online clothing boutique named Harper James, selling women’s clothing, accessories, jewelry, and handbags.

Diggins went to school for fashion merchandising and has wanted to start her own business since her first job in the wholesale side of the fashion industry. Even though COVID-19 hit and she closed her shop for a few years, she felt it was time to reopen her boutique and give it another shot.

“It got to a point where I was thinking if I don’t try to do this now, I could regret this for the rest of my life,” she said. “In the beginning of the year, I hit the ground running — I got everything set up and started up again.”

Since starting her business, Diggins said she feels like she’s found her place in life despite the many ups and downs that are part and parcel to being an entrepreneur. Being in this season of life allows her to not only grow but be a mentor to her younger cousin who is following in her footsteps.

Jessica Lavallee with one of her charcuterie boards.

Jessica Lavallee with one of her charcuterie boards.

“It’s so empowering, and I’m extremely proud to tell people that I own my own business — it brings me a lot of pride, a lot of joy, and it is a really tough thing to do,” she said. “It has its ups and downs, but to be able to push forward and set new examples and standards is really exciting. My cousin is kind of in awe of what I’m doing. Being able to set that example and be a role model for someone that is younger and going through the same process means the world to me.”

Shauna Wallace, project manager for Cowls Building Supply and the Mill District General Store, and interim manager of the latter, also feels empowered in her position. Before coming to North Amherst, she worked for a construction company as the project manager and was one of the few women on the payroll.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for me because traditionally coming from the building and lumber industry, I didn’t get that,” she said, referring to the opportunity to work with, learn from, and become inspired by other women. “Now I am, and it is truly a gift to interact with so many wonderful women in the Mill District. It’s been a wonderful past year to be in a position of leadership and to be able to influence the culture of the store and the women I work with.”

“The most difficult piece is getting people to take you seriously. Often when people approach me about my business, I start talking about numbers and research or all of the effort I’ve put in to make this a successful venture.”

Alysia Bryant is starting her first business at the Mill District. Carefree Cakery is a bakery that focuses on taking care of people. All the ingredients used are fair trade, and all employees are paid a living wage. She started in the healthcare field before learning it wasn’t for her.

“I shifted my focus to ‘how can I use the skills that I have in order to help people?’” she said, “And that’s how I ended up here. I’ve always loved baking; I’ve always been good at making things, so I switched my major to business in college. I’ve truly built my life around this.”

While she enjoys working for herself and takes pride in her accomplishments, she acknowledged that it is “exhausting to be a woman in business.” Bryant just turned 28 and said she feels the need to prove herself to others when explaining she’s a business owner.

“The most difficult piece is getting people to take you seriously,” she said. “Often when people approach me about my business, I start talking about numbers and research or all of the effort I’ve put in to make this a successful venture.”

Progress Report

Bryant’s story reflects those of all the women we spoke to at the Mill District, as well as the other women business owners there, including Kim Rodrigo and Courtney D’Antonio, owners of the Lift Salon, and Mary Ellen Liacos, who owns Balanced Birch Studio.

Collectively, they speak of the desire to seek new challenges and to also find the strength and perseverance to overcome adversity.

They also speak to how there is now strength in numbers at this destination — not just in the number of “bad-ass women,” but also in the number of success stories they’re writing.

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