ASHEVILLE — At HandMade in America’s Appalachian Women Entrepreneurs conference Tuesday, the programming centered on hats.
Not that the 50-some participants all made hats — these artists from Western North Carolina explored mediums as varied as candles to films. These hats weren’t made; they were metaphor.
Greg Walker Wilson, the interim director of the Asheville nonprofit, dedicated to growing local economies through craft, said the organization aims to help the AWE members entrepreneur “hat fita little better.”
These efforts are “so that you can stand in your power and say, yes you are a business person,” he told the conference crowd Tuesday morning. “This is meant to be a supportive environment.”
For Linda La Belle, the Appalachian Women Entrepreneurs coordinator, the day-long conference — featuring networking and educational sessions — was also designed to “bring together all of these women and celebrate who they are.”
And part of who all of these women are, despite their differences in age, location and business experience, is that they all wear “a lot of hats.”
“They are creators and makers, but they are also their own PR rep and retail person,” for instance. “I hope the conference will help remove some of those hats or make them lighter on their head.”
AWE is a grant-controlled program of HandMade in America developed to support rural Western North Carolina women interested in creating or growing their small business. The AWE program connects these women with one another, with resources and markets, in a place where quality jobs are few, according to the HandMade in America website.
This year, the nonprofit became a member organization due to cutbacks in funding.
“The AWE program has 67 members, and there is about 300 members in HandMade,” La Belle said. In 2011, she joined the AWE program and took over as coordinator this year.
This group, she said, “is very brave.”
“In this economy, and in this culture, where there is so much craft going on, they still want to do something,” La Belle added.
La Belle is a fiber artist. She taught classes in the field at her store in New York City before moving to Asheville two years ago. She continues to teach: La Belle hosts monthly educational programs for AWE members throughout Western North Carolina.
The most recent session focused on how to create professional product shots; next month’s class centers on how to reach customers and handle difficult clients.
“They learn from each other; I learn from them,” she said. “They are an amazing group of women.”