Women Who Lead: Sara Giles with Anita Goodesign

Women Who Lead: Sara Giles with Anita Goodesign

Each #WomenWhoLead feature will be showcased on a wall mural in South End Charlotte. If you know a woman leader who you want to feature on the wall, please click the button to nominate her.

Not all people see the power of women in business. That’s just one reason 70 percent of senior management roles are held by men. But Sara Giles knew her boss was different. 

In 2013, when Giles started working at Anita Goodesign, an embroidery design company based in Charlotte, she got a “different vibe” from the company’s owner, Steve Wilson. 

“Steve respects women,” says Giles. “He says that we are better leaders than men — that we can multitask and handle more projects. Because of that, we’re essentially a woman-based company.”

Wilson’s progressive attitude created the perfect environment for Giles to climb the ranks. After five months as an event planning assistant, she was promoted to marketing coordinator and then organizational development director. Today, she serves as CEO, managing almost 50 employees and a worldwide enterprise. 

We chatted with Giles to learn more about how hard work, long hours, and a fresh perspective catalyzed her career. 


How did you land a job as CEO of the top embroidery design company in the world?

When I started at Anita Goodesign in 2013, I left a job that I had been at for five years. I just wanted a change. I wasn’t quite sure ​​what I wanted to do with my career, so I just started exploring and applying to jobs. I didn’t know anything about this company or embroidery, but I applied for the event planning assistant position. I was the very first person to apply out of like 100 people and they hired me. 

They were looking for someone to organize the whole system itself. Because of my background experience in Excel and just being a super organized person, I was able to listen to what they were looking for and implement it. Whenever Steve Wilson, the owner, asked for something, I was very quick to get it done. 

I just wanted to do a good job, and Steve consistently rewarded me for doing so. That was something I had never experienced. At most jobs, you work really hard and you get a very small pay increase, if any, in return. You have to leave if you want a bigger pay increase or a promotion. But at Anita Goodesign, I learned that if I worked really hard, never said no, and just kept learning, I would be presented with opportunities. Because of that, I was able to become CEO of the company.   


Many young professionals hop from company to company in search of higher pay and bigger promotions. From your perspective, what are the benefits of climbing the ranks at one business? 

I’ve been able to do so many different jobs at Anita Goodesign — from sending emails to planning events. Now as the CEO, when my team is presenting problems to me, I’m able to quickly help them come to a conclusion because I have the experience. I’ve been there before.  

Because of my experience, I’m more confident in the decisions I make. I know the customer. I know what to expect. I can guide an employee who is newer to the organization and give them information regarding what did or didn’t work well over the years. When you come from a lower position and move up, you carry all of that great company history. You can guide your team. 


After you took the job as CEO, was there anything about the role that surprised you?

I wasn’t expecting to be so involved in the “people” part of business. Since we’re a small business — we have 47 employees — a lot of the HR responsibilities fall under my to-do list. 

People aren’t afraid to come to me, whether they just need a new chair or they’re experiencing something bigger like an issue with a coworker. I hear everything and get a lot of direct interfacing with the employees. But the conversations aren’t just about their jobs. You learn a lot about their families and you also learn to be compassionate. 


On a related note, how would you describe your leadership style? 

Hands-on. I would never ask somebody to do something that I haven’t done or wouldn’t do myself. I think that people respect me a lot more because of it. I’m the type of person who, if I see something that needs to be done and there’s no one around to do it, I’ll do it. That’s helped me build a better working relationship with the people I manage because when I delegate a task, they don’t push back. They know I’ll get in there and do it too. 

Being hands-on is 100 percent the best way to be a leader. If you know how to pack a box, you appreciate the employee doing it each day even more. Being hands-on helps you realize that every role is important at the company. 


What are some specific challenges you have faced as a woman in business?

At my first job at a fashion company in Charlotte, there was one person who was pretty high up and he would make these very inappropriate comments about what I was wearing during meetings. I was in planning for children’s clothes and he would hold up a little girls’ dress and be like, “Oh, would Sara fit in this?” It was so ridiculous. 

Because I was so young and I was early in my career, I didn’t feel empowered enough to say something even though I totally should have. Older women who worked for that company would even come up to me and say, “He shouldn’t be talking to you like that.” But again, I was young and didn’t want to cause waves. 

From that experience, I learned that men are looked at differently in the business world. It has changed some over the years but women are still underrepresented in company leadership. 


Is there any advice you’d give to your younger self, besides maybe to learn to love accounting?

I wish that I had connected with a career coach, even before starting college. I wish I had a better grasp on the jobs that were available because I felt very lost going into school. I had just turned 18. I was still young and yet I was supposed to know what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I felt very lost with that.

I did enjoy fashion, so I went to school for fashion merchandising and marketing. I intended to be a buyer and I didn’t end up there. I think some additional career planning or coaching would have helped me understand what I’m good at and what I ultimately wanted to do.


So how did you eventually discover your unique strengths and talents?

Honestly, by working at this company and doing everything through trial and error. At Anita Goodesign, I was given the opportunity to learn everything from how to order boxes to inventory. I got to figure out that I’m good at the planning and organization piece — knowing a little about each department, reeling it in, and getting it done. 

Sometimes when you have so many departments working on a project, you need one person who can be the glue to stick it all together and finish it. That’s what I’m good at. I can anticipate what’s coming and get it done.

What’s one way you are continually growing and evolving as CEO?

We recently had a shift in our billing admin roles. I started looking for someone to fill this position, but our business has changed so much because of the pandemic that I decided we don’t need this position anymore. We can instead rely on our accountant and some internal people to complete the job.

We’re all learning the ins and outs of finances, accounting, and taxes — which sounds very exciting. Honestly, in all of my business classes in college, I hated accounting the most. Now, here I am, and I have to do it. It’s part of my job. So that’s a new skill that I’m learning, even if I don’t necessarily want to be. 

Women Who Lead: Vickie Smith with Infinite Beginnings

Women Who Lead: Vickie Smith with Infinite Beginnings

Each #WomenWhoLead feature will be showcased on a wall mural in South End Charlotte. If you know a woman leader who you want to feature on the wall, please click the button to nominate her.

Vickie Smith’s career only truly began when she was fired. 

In 2007, Smith was let go from Brookdale Senior Living after advocating for residents whom she felt were being discriminated against. Jaded by for-profit politics and red tape, Smith dove into the nonprofit sector, supporting children and adults with intellectual disabilities at an organization called LIFESPAN. 

Smith is now the founder and CEO of Infinite Beginnings, a nonprofit that provides comprehensive progressive health services like psychosocial rehabilitation, “hands-on” assistance for persons with mental illness, medication management, and more. 

The need for compassionate caregivers was my primary motivation,” says Smith. “I felt called to provide something different in the world of mental health and substance use.” 

Today, after more than ten years as CEO, we spoke with Smith to see what it takes to provide the Charlotte area with quality care.  


Mental health is a taboo in our culture, so what was it like founding a company that centers around something many people don’t even want to talk about? 

It was very much a challenge. I literally had nothing. I had no bank loans. The ones that I did apply for, I got denied. I had no investors. I had passion, a good credit score, and people who knew my character and believed in me. I got lots of mentoring from people within my circle, but as far as logistics, I had no funding other than working a full-time job and my own personal lines of credit.


Did you always want to focus your career on mental health? 

I’ve always known that I wanted to be in the helping industry. I’ve always been servant-minded. As a child, I wanted to be a doctor, an advocacy lawyer, a teacher — I’ve always wanted to help people. Landing in mental health and substance use was a natural progression from working with adults with intellectual disabilities as well as personal experiences with veterans, substance use, and mental illness. 

I knew that to make an impact, I needed to dispel the stigma around mental illness and substance use disorder. So ten years ago, I decided this was what I would really focus on — eradicating the stigma. 


What freedoms did opening your own practice afford you? What can you do now, as CEO of Infinite Beginnings, that you couldn’t do working for someone else?

I’ve struggled with red tape and politics. The one and only time I got fired was with Brookdale Senior Living. I’ve always been an advocate, so I was advocating and it went downhill. I wasn’t playing by the rules. That’s how I got into the nonprofit world because the for-profit politics just burned me out. 

That was a big motivation for me. I always knew that when I started my own agency — and I’ve always known I would because I come from a family of entrepreneurs — the red tape needed to be eliminated. It gets in the way of providing care. I’ve never been into paperwork. I’ve always been focused on providing the highest level of care to the people I’m serving. 

If one of our clients’ lights are off because they may have, truthfully, blown their money on drugs or impulsive spending, I as the CEO can say, “Okay, let’s get the lights back on and get to the root cause of what’s going on.” Drug use is a symptom to mask something, so let’s really focus on why that person feels like they need to use drugs to numb themselves. That’s one of the biggest freedoms — helping people and meeting them where they are. 


For many people, getting fired is their worst nightmare. How did you turn that negative experience into motivation?

I believe everyone deserves to be treated with the same dignity and respect, regardless of their financial means. It was a socioeconomic issue at Brookdale. I didn’t feel like the residents were being treated equally. I was loud about it and they didn’t like that. That’s why they fired me.

When I got fired, I was really mad. I mean, really mad. I was so mad that I emailed the CEO of Brookdale. I felt like they had done a disservice. But he never responded. I always said that I would never be that CEO. I would never be the CEO who refuses to hear employees. 

Today, my organization is primarily funded by Medicaid. What people don’t understand is that someone can qualify for Medicaid because of their mental health status. It’s not about financial means all of the time. We have clientele who come from various backgrounds, not just poverty. But regardless of their socioeconomic status or mental health status, we treat them as people because that’s what people want — to be treated like individuals. There’s no magical formula to what I’m doing. It’s really simple — I just treat others how I’d like to be treated.


What advice do you have for someone who is experiencing an ethical quandary in their workplace?  

It starts with your value set. What is your personal “why”? If you’re not clear on what makes you who you are, you’re going to be at the mercy of others. Integrity is my number one core value so I’m not going to allow myself to be in any environment, personally or professionally, that compromises my integrity. That’s always been very clear to me. 

So when anybody is in a situation where they feel their values aren’t in sync with the organization, I truthfully tell them they need to leave. They need to reset. It’s not always about financial means. Sometimes it’s about opportunities and finding what your true calling is. That’s why I got fired — our values weren’t in sync. They were financially motivated and I wasn’t. 

Financial motivation still isn’t an issue for me. I tell my team, “If you take care of the people, the bottom line will take care of itself.” We’re going to do right by people first. People over paperwork. That’s always something that has motivated me. 


You mentioned you always knew you would start your own organization because you come from a family of entrepreneurs. Can you talk about that more? 

My mom and dad are both immigrants to the United States. My mom is a citizen now and my dad is deceased. My dad had a third-grade education but he started a business in 1960. My dad wasn’t a man of many words, but I didn’t even know he was functionally illiterate. I always thought he was always wanting me to read things aloud to him because that’s what dads do.

He had a septic tank business and he hired people from all walks of life. If they needed work for the day, he put them to work. He would tell them, “Just show up.” These were people who might have been homeless, might have been struggling with mental illness or substance use. Black or white — it didn’t matter. He gave them work. He required me and my siblings to respect them. The workers were “Mr.” and “Mrs.” Regardless of who they were, we were to treat them with respect.

My dad also taught me about loyalty. He would always go to the same business for everything. Well, one particular business moved 30 minutes away. I was like, “Dad, why are we going all the way up there?” He said, “Stick with the people you know. That’s what relationships are about. You support the people you know.” I always remember that lesson. It’s all about loyalty and respect and building relationships. 


How has your father influenced your management style?

At my current company, my employees get paid before I get paid. There have been many days when I don’t get paid. But that’s what you do — you do right by people. My team knows that I’ll give to them before I give to myself. That has created mutual respect and loyalty. They know that they are very important to me and that their families are very important to me. Those principles come from my dad. There were many weeks when there was nothing left over for my family. We had no money. I remember my mom being very upset about that. But my dad always made sure everyone got a little something. He has definitely been my biggest inspiration.    


What are some new lessons you are learning today as CEO?

What I’m learning most right now is listening to what God is trying to tell me and how he’s trying to order my next steps. Whenever I’ve needed to make changes, it has boiled down to me being still, being patient, and being obedient. It has worked and that’s what I’m going to continue to do. I’m going to continue to go until God says, “Okay. This is enough.” But he hasn’t said that yet. 

Recently, I’ve also been working on being vulnerable. In the business world, we wear this facade of, “Oh, I’m CEO. I’m invincible.” But there’s real value in being able to say, “You know what? I’m human too.” 

How do you define success?

Success is defined by what makes a person happy. Whatever makes you happy and fulfilled qualifies you as successful. It’s not about material things or titles. It’s about what fulfills your life. It’s about getting up every day and doing what you’re called to do — that’s success. 

Women Who Lead: Danielle Patterson with Family Office List

Women Who Lead: Danielle Patterson with Family Office List

Each #WomenWhoLead feature will be showcased on a wall mural in South End Charlotte. If you know a woman leader who you want to feature on the wall, please click the button to nominate her.

Few women dare dip their toes into the male-centric waters of the financial sector. But Danielle Patterson is different.

Patterson is co-founder of Family Office List, an online investor database designed for clients looking to raise capital. Since 2016, when she and her husband, Warren, purchased the business from founder Douglas Fathers, Patterson has made waves in an industry dominated by men.

“In the financial sector, there are fewer women in management roles,” says Patterson who, as the company’s Director of Marketing and Sales, oversees operations and business development. “But I think change starts within ourselves. We have to change the perception that women can’t assume these types of positions.”

We spoke with Patterson to garner some insight into what it takes to understand the investment objectives of high net worth family offices. We also waded into the topics of technology, sexism, and self-confidence.

How did you get involved with Family Office List?

My husband, Warren, is an entrepreneur. He’s always on the lookout for a particular business model where there’s recurring revenue, low overhead, and flexibility. Five years ago, he saw this business and thought, “There’s a lot of potential.”

My strengths lie in marketing and business development. I get excited about it and I’m able to get others excited too. My husband jokes that I sprinkle my “fairy dust” on it. So, we made an arrangement with the founder of Family Office List to purchase the company.

It was an awesome opportunity. For me, at that time, it was about not being afraid to say “yes” and learn something new that was outside my comfort zone. It’s about being brave and then working your butt off.


Can you talk more about why you decided to take this leap of faith?

Warren is the risk-taker in the relationship. I am the details person. I often have paralysis through analysis. At the time, he was going through a business transition — he was selling his company— and when there is uncertainty in the future, you want to protect yourself. This was his backup plan.

Today, Warren and his new partner are completely happy. They’re like brothers. We joke that sometimes they talk more than Warren and I do. But I saw that Family Office List was a great opportunity to make a difference, so I took over right away. I made it my baby. If I am going to work hard and build something, I will give it everything I have.


Is your husband still involved in the company?

Warren is a big-picture thinker, so I consult with him, especially when I feel out of my element. He’s almost like a board member now. I come to him for things beyond my knowledge.

But day-to-day, I’ve got it. There are definitely mistakes, but you just learn the hard way. There are days when I have to be patient with myself. We live in such a fast-paced society, but it’s important to be patient and know that it’s a gradual journey. As long as you’re moving forward, you’ll get there.  


Have you always been passionate about marketing and sales?

It’s really interesting. Being an art major, I first managed a gallery for a National Geographic photographer. I hosted workshops for him and learned database management and built his marketing outreach. I learned the basic art of crafting an email and doing e-blasts. I wore every possible hat. It was all about having a “can do” attitude and I think I surprised him with my capability. I remember one day he realized that the thousands of books that once lined his shelves were gone. It just hit him. He was like, “Did you sell all of those?”

But sometimes opportunities lead you to different sectors. When we first moved to Charlotte, I was trying to find an art career but it just wasn’t a thriving arts community. I was given the opportunity to do business development for a pediatric dentist, of all things. It took off, and after seven years we had opened multiple locations and doubled the business a few times over. That experience helped me build this arsenal of knowledge that I then could take and apply to anything.

I look back at my professional experiences and think, “They’re so random — they’re not interconnected at all.” But they really are. They all built this foundation and this confidence. They made me capable.


Of course, technology is always evolving. How do you ensure that your business is keeping pace?

That’s such a valid question. Even the way our data is being used has changed. It used to be that everyone did email campaigns but then email became so saturated. Then, at the beginning of the pandemic, everyone was targeting LinkedIn profiles. Then those campaigns became oversaturated. It’s about continuously finding ways to think outside the box. I see that our competitors are evolving but I don’t just want to follow suit. I want to be one step ahead. I think, “What can I do that’s different and better?” It’s about reinventing value for our customers.


Do you have a community of peers and mentors that provide advice or encouragement?

This is a little off-topic, but early in the pandemic, I joined this group of women who worked out together. We all needed encouragement and held each other accountable. What I loved about it was that the group included women from all different avenues but we could all relate to one another and support each other in positive ways. I now feel encouraged to seek out other females in the financial industry. 


Do you have any tips for a female entrepreneur who is afraid to step outside her comfort zone?

What’s helped me get where I am today is surrounding myself with people who can do things that I’m not good at. It’s about admitting your weaknesses and finding teammates who actually enjoy doing those tasks. Then you need to give them the tools to do those things well. Don’t overmanage people. Trust them. Communicate at all times.

Also, don’t be afraid that people won’t respond to who you truly are. Just be yourself, be honest, and work hard. Your path will come.

How are you, as a businesswoman, currently growing and evolving?

For too long, I’ve hidden behind having a male founder. But I’ve been doing this for five years and the company has grown substantially. So I’m working on truly stepping into this role. I need to embrace the position and the title.

Women Who Lead: Mattie Finch with Sage Marie’s Coffee and Tea

Women Who Lead: Mattie Finch with Sage Marie’s Coffee and Tea

Each #WomenWhoLead feature will be showcased on a wall mural in South End Charlotte. If you know a woman leader who you want to feature on the wall, please click the button to nominate her.

Mattie Finch believes your morning coffee should be a ritual, not a routine.

As founder of Sage Marie’s Coffee and Tea, a Charlotte-based purveyor of premium coffee, espressos, teas, and beauty products, Finch takes java very seriously. Eschewing mass production, her all-woman team roasts each bag of beans by hand, just like Finch’s mother did when she was a child. 

“My mother worked at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston for 45 years in labor and delivery. She started her morning with the best cup of coffee possible — she would get up an hour early each day just to prepare it,” says Finch. “I didn’t understand the big deal, but eventually I got it.”

Other people are starting to get it too. Today, Finch’s customers include the likes of diplomats and scientists attending the Concordia Annual Summit, a yearly conference hosted by the United Nations where Sage Marie’s is contracted to serve specialty drinks. But the brand also caters to regular, everyday people who want quality products. 

We shared a cup with Finch to hear more about how a music major learned to hit the right notes in the coffee industry.  


How much did you know about coffee or tea before you started your own business?

I knew a little about coffee roasting. I grew up watching my mom roast coffee by hand and I would say to her, “Why do you do this? It’s so tedious. Just go to the store and buy some.” She would say, “No. There is nothing better than having a fresh cup of coffee.” 


What about roasting makes it taste so much better?

It’s an experience. You can get a cup of coffee from Dunkin’ or Starbucks, and it will fulfill the need, but there’s something different about fresh-roasted coffee. It has a different taste and a different flavor. I call it “love in a cup.” When you have coffee prepared the way it’s supposed to be done—the way it is done in Ethiopia, where coffee originated—then you understand. 


You are obviously very passionate about good coffee. But which came first—your passion for coffee or your passion for business? 

When I was old enough, I started traveling the world and I would bring my mom coffee from different countries because that was her thing. When I brought her back some beans from Blue Mountain Coffee in Jamaica, she said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just travel the world, buy beans, and roast them for a living?” I looked at her and said, “Let’s do it.” 

I was on medical leave from my job at the time and when I got my first check, it was barely enough money to buy dog food for my dog. I knew I had to do something different. I started watching coffee blogs and talking to baristas and roasters. I decided to go grassroots and learn how to start home roasting. I found a coffee warehouse in Kernersville, North Carolina, called The Captain’s Coffee. So I got out of my sick bed and drove an hour and a half to Kernersville. A lady opened the door and explained that they don’t really have customers show up at their door — they are a warehouse. But I told her my story and they let me pick from thousands of beans. That’s how I got started.  


What was it like in those early years? Did you instantly have a knack for roasting coffee beans?

In the beginning, I was roasting beans in a popcorn popper, setting them on fire, and running outside to throw them onto the lawn. My husband was spastic — he was like, “You’re going to burn the house down!” He eventually bought me a roaster because he couldn’t take it any longer. But he also saw my dedication.   

I started to roast using the roaster and taught myself using videos. Then, for about two years, my business partner and I just traveled to learn everything we could learn about beans — the different regions, where they come from, the taste, the notes, all of that good stuff. I started pitching to small mom-and-pop coffee shops around town but many of them were afraid to buy outside of the main coffee bean supplier in North Carolina because it’s such a huge conglomerate. 

But I pitched to one coffee shop on Central Avenue. They were Ethiopian women and they were intrigued. They took me under their wing and did a coffee ceremony for me — which is a very prestigious event in the Ethiopian community and is only done for very important people. When I saw this, I couldn’t believe what I was watching. I was like, “This is incredible. Why are we not doing this more?” It changed the trajectory of how I roasted. I knew I had to figure out how to incorporate hand roasting into the coffee world. Everybody has their own blends and creates their own magic but no one was roasting coffee in the traditional way. 


Being self-taught, did you ever feel like you didn’t belong in the coffee industry? Was imposter syndrome ever a problem for you?

Yes. At first, I didn’t think anyone would take me seriously. I studied music — I didn’t come from the coffee world. People often gauge how good of a roaster you are by the awards you win or the places you travel to. I was intimidated by that until we were contracted by the Concordia Summit, United Nations (UN). They came to us and said, “Listen, we have these events we do, and we’re looking for a coffee company like yours to supply our coffee.”

Still, in the beginning, I definitely felt like nobody was going to take this girl who is singing seriously. But you know what? Now I sing and roast coffee, and it’s good stuff. When you hand roast, there is a set of skills you must have. You have to listen, you have to smell, you have to know when to take it off the heat and when to put it back on to get the right roast. So I feel like you can take me seriously or you can choose not to, but when you take that first sip of coffee, I’m pretty sure I will change your mind. 


Wow. Can you talk more about working with the UN?

So the UN puts in ther huge events throughout the year. The major one we do is called the Concordia Annual Summit and it’s where all these world leaders converge in New York City every year. We’re given a room and we essentially set up a coffee shop. Between 1,000 and 1,500 people come each day and that’s all we do all day — we serve coffee.

Once people saw what we did at Concordia, we had different branches of the UN contact us for different events. We have had people from all over the world tell us that our coffee is the reason why they came back to Concordia.


Besides learning how to make that perfect cup of coffee, you surely had to learn basic business skills, right?

Oh, in the beginning, we made a lot of mistakes. I did everything on the fly. I was literally running around town to get our business license. We had to get insurance, I had to get business accounts set up, I had to call the Department of Agriculture to get inspections. There were so many things we had no idea we needed to run a business. 

We were fortunate that we got this big deal with the UN that made us get it together very quickly. Every time they asked us for something, we delivered. But behind the scenes, we were like the mouse at the wheel. We definitely learned from that.  

Can you briefly discuss what you did professionally before entering the coffee world? What was the appeal in self-employment?

I started in music. I traveled the world, had my own record deal, and did that for a short stint. But when music took a turn, I went to work in corporate America. I knew it wasn’t something I would stay in forever. I felt like I had all of these skills that I couldn’t use the way I wanted to use them. That’s why I say you have the ability to create whatever type of job you want to create for yourself. Because only you really know what’s going to make you happy. 

In the end, I’ve worked in all these places and have seen people that come to work every day unhappy. I want to create an atmosphere where people come to work for us, and they get up every day happy to come in and do the job because that’s what they love to do. I don’t believe that you will reach your full potential until you’re happy.


Your business makes you happy. But is it hard to balance running a small business and your mental and physical wellbeing?

In the beginning, it was hard. Unfortunately, when you start off small, it’s your baby. You have to do work when nobody else wants to. Everyone else may be asleep, but you’re up roasting or packaging orders. It was definitely hard in the beginning to find that balance but I just had to figure it out. Because if I go down, who is going to run it?

I now choose one thing that makes me happy and during my day I have to do that thing. I don’t care who needs me or what needs to be done, don’t bother me for those 30 or 45 minutes. For instance, I love naps so I will just shut down for half an hour. Even if I don’t sleep, I will just lay still for 30 minutes and refocus. When I get up, I’m ready to go. 


Who inspired you to pursue your dreams?

I got my entrepreneurial spirit from my grandfather. My grandfather came to Boston from Alabama at nine years old with no formal education. He couldn’t read or write, and he didn’t learn until he was in his 50s, but he made something of himself. He was a Merchant Marine and he built his own cleaning business. After he bought his first house, he bought a second one to turn into a rooming business. He took all of that money and invested it in himself. My grandfather created this amazing legacy. 


Are there any new skills you’re currently learning?

Well, I’ve become somewhat of a chemist. Our line of beauty products is made all by hand. Everything is natural, so you have to know what goes together, what doesn’t work well together, how much of each ingredient, how to preserve the products and more. I’ve actually been working with a chemist on some of our products because they have to have a shelf life if we get to the point of being in stores like Target.

Women Who Lead: Emily Newton with SlemFit

Women Who Lead: Emily Newton with SlemFit

Each #WomenWhoLead feature will be showcased on a wall mural in South End Charlotte. If you know a woman leader who you want to feature on the wall, please click the button to nominate her.

It’s hard to imagine Emily Newton feeling self-conscious.

The Charlotte-based fitness guru is outspoken, taking to her Instagram account, @slemfit, to debunk misconceptions about nutrition and to provide her nearly 2,000 followers with tips for building muscle. As the owner of SlemFit, an online coaching business founded last June during the pandemic, Newton challenges America’s $96 billion fitness industry — an industry that “promotes ideas that aren’t necessarily true.” But there was a time when Newton lacked confidence.  

“I used to not be comfortable in my skin,” she says. “I was always known as the shy child, so I had to overcome a lot of things when it came to my self-image. I know there are thousands of other women like me, and I know not being confident can stop you from reaching your potential.”

Newton now dedicates herself to empowering women through exercise and healthy eating. We spoke with her to learn more about how a quiet girl from Columbia, South Carolina, grew up to make waves in the Queen City.


Have you always been interested in fitness?

Initially, I wanted to become a physical therapist because they make a lot of money and I was taught that, going to college, you’re supposed to get a high-paying job. Jobs in clinical settings are also glorified in our industry. That was where my mindset was at. But after getting my degree in exercise science at the University of South Carolina and getting some experience, I realized I didn’t like physical therapy. 

Life kept leading me back to this path as a personal fitness coach and I just had to accept that. I love what I do, but for some reason in the past, I was in denial. Though I’ve been in the fitness industry for about six years, it was just part-time on the side while I worked a 9-to-5. But then, almost a year ago, I decided to leave corporate America and pursue coaching full time.  

For young people who want to start their own business, college can seem like a barrier to entry. Do you think a four-year degree is necessary?

I don’t think so. Looking back, I only needed two years of my college education. The first two years were just general education — revisiting the subjects we learned in high school but at a higher level. What I needed from my education was technical know-how like anatomy and physiology. I wish I had taken those courses at a community college, to be honest.

So no, I don’t think you have to go to college but I do think it’s important to have the right support system. For me, it was important to be around people who already had some type of success that I wanted, whether that be spiritual success, financial success, or even the way they treated people or the way they expressed themselves. You need people who will believe in you but also people who will keep you in check. Brutal honesty is the highest form of kindness. 

The fitness industry is huge. How do you stand out in a fairly saturated market?

What has been helpful for me is to have a niche — to know who my target audience is. I have an ideal client and I’m at the point now where I don’t have to necessarily take on every client that comes to me unless I feel like I can provide the support they need. I had to get very clear about the type of person I wanted to help. 

My niche is women, ages 25 to 45. Many of these women are working 9-to-5 jobs but they are also pursuing entrepreneurship outside of work. They don’t come in very committed, motivated, and always confident but they do have a strong desire to change. The women who need my help the most have a hard time being consistent and creating lasting change by themselves. I help the unmotivated create beautiful transformations. 

I think a lot of my desire to work with women comes from my mom. Growing up, she was an artist and musician and always looking to empower women in whatever way she could. Being around that for years and years, it just rubbed off. 

Starting a small business is hard — that is no secret. But starting a small business during a global pandemic seems nearly impossible. What was the secret to getting your business off the ground?

When I quit my job, I only had one to two clients. I had to be really consistent, get out of my comfort zone, talk to people, and put myself out there because a lot of people didn’t know what I was doing. I also had to honor the gifts that I have. I’m good at connecting with people and providing inspiration and motivation through movement. Many of my clients and I are also really good friends. 

I’m also good at bringing people together. Eventually, I want to bring other trainers on who have the same values that I have. I can’t do this alone. I am going to need help impacting the number of people I want to reach. I think I offer a different perspective than what you may find on another trainer’s page, but there’s just not enough of us out there right now holding that united front.

Do you face any unique challenges that your male counterparts do not?

Yes, subtle sexism is a big one. When I used to work in a corporate gym, there would be men who wouldn’t want to work with me or have me run their fitness assessments. People just automatically assume the male trainer is more knowledgeable or better. 

Your time in corporate America seems to have a strong influence on how you operate SlemFit. Do you think smaller businesses like your own are better able to serve consumers?

I think it’s a choice, to be completely honest. If you run a big gym and you want to know what people actually need, you just need to do more community outreach. There is a way to figure it out, there just needs to be a desire to know. That desire comes from actually caring about people.

You have to value people over profits — that’s one of my favorite sayings. If it’s the other way around, it’s just going to be like a regular, stereotypical gym where people go in and don’t see results. I was at a corporate gym long enough to see people come in five or six days a week and look the same a year later.

But I’m not interested in starting a brick-and-mortar gym. I am currently in the process of learning how to build an online business. That will give me more free time but also help me reach more people.

Many of your posts on social media focus on debunking claims marketed by the fitness industry at large. What is something you wish you could tell everyone who is interested in fitness?

It’s important for people to know that all people have challenges with their confidence and self-image. I weigh 160 pounds and experience the same confidence issues someone who weighs 300 pounds might. I have been around overweight people who just assume that smaller people are born with certain amounts of confidence. But that wasn’t true for me. It’s kind of like the assumptions we make about celebrities. Just because they are famous doesn’t mean they don’t have personal issues they have to tackle.   

Also, being fit isn’t as easy as the fitness industry makes it out to be. It took a lot of hard work to get to where I’m at. Eating healthfully isn’t easy for me. I love pizza, ice cream, and processed foods. So we, as nutrition coaches and trainers, have a lot more in common with our clients than people might automatically assume. 

That’s why I always encourage my clients to incorporate foods they love into their nutrition, no matter what. It’s a big issue when people are too restrictive. You have to eat ice cream every now and then. Even I eat ice cream at least once a week.


What motivated you to take the jump and start your own business?

I worked for a corporate gym here in Charlotte for two years and I got tired of having to listen to people who I didn’t have a connection with. People above me never asked their employees what people in the gym actually needed. There was a big disconnect. I felt like I didn’t have a choice. I was extremely unhappy and it was beginning to affect me mentally and emotionally, which was affecting the important relationships in my life.

Women Who Lead: Caitlin Dobbins with Honey + Thyme Events

Women Who Lead: Caitlin Dobbins with Honey + Thyme Events

Each #WomenWhoLead feature will be showcased on a wall mural in South End Charlotte. If you know a woman leader who you want to feature on the wall, please click the button to nominate her.

Caitlin Dobbins identifies as a cowgirl, and it is little wonder why. 

After serving as a ranch hand in the rugged North Dakota Badlands, Dobbins cantered off into the world of event planning, working for a catering company in Minnesota and then a coveted venue in South Carolina. In 2019, after ten years in the industry, she founded Honey + Thyme Events, a unique and intentional wedding planning and design studio. She is also the co-founder of the Charlotte Microwedding Collaborative

“It’s so special when I go to a wedding and see these amazing moments,” says Dobbins, who now spends more time wrangling logistics than horses. “It’s because of our team — because we’re taking on all the duties of setup and breakdown — that the couple is going to remember this day for the rest of their lives. That’s why I love it.” 

We sat down with this midwesterner to learn more about what it takes to be a cowgirl-turned-wedding planner in the Carolinas. 


Have you always wanted to start your own business?

When I worked for an event planning and catering company back in Minnesota, I worked with a lot of powerful, independent, just really motivated women, and I always picked up on the things they did and learned from them. 

But ultimately, my mom has an entrepreneurial spirit — she started a nonprofit — so I think it’s just in me. I hate to use this word, but it’s almost a burden. When I was in other jobs, I was always wanting to do more. I wanted to be involved in this and that and they would be like, “This is your job.” I’ve always had that excitement. So when I had this opportunity, I just said, “Let’s do it.” It’s been so great. Of course, it’s like a roller coaster every single day but it has been so fun. 


Starting a business requires so much forethought. When did you take the leap and decide that you were ready to branch out on your own?

When I was the Venue Sales Manager at Anne Springs Close Greenway, couples kept asking me if I could help with the planning. It was becoming a lot. I was working a full-time job and pregnant. I decided I couldn’t do all three, so I just jumped right into my own business. I had that spirit — that entrepreneurial spirit — and the timing felt right, even though it was terrifying. But any decision in life is a little terrifying. I knew I just wanted more.


Were there women who were formative in shaping the kind of business owner you are today?

My mom and sister were largely a part. They have both started their own projects and businesses now. But also the women who managed me at Chowgirls Killer Catering in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and my horseback riding instructors — I’ve been riding my entire life, ever since I was little.  

Also, right when I moved here, I had a manager at the Anne Springs Close Greenway that was so impactful. She was a mom of two and a manager of a very large department. The way she balanced all of that was inspiring. She always said, “You’re not always going to do it perfectly. It’s not a balancing act – never perfectly balanced. You’re going to have a little more over here at times and a little more over there at times.”

I’ve kept that in mind because, as a mom and a business owner who is trying to have a personal life and trying to stay mentally and physically healthy, it’s a lot, especially during a pandemic. But those women impacted me more than they’ll ever know.  


Speaking of balance, do you find it is challenging to juggle raising a daughter and running a small business?

Yes, definitely. This year, because of the pandemic, we basically have two years of weddings in one. I have a team of about ten girls that are either assisting or planning, and we just launched another branch of the business for general events. So we have a lot going on. 

But I’m trying to be better at balancing my work and personal lives. When I’m home, after a certain point, I let business go. My daughter and husband are so important. So is riding my horse and remembering who I am. After all, when you take that time, it gives you the space to brainstorm and think. 


The pandemic forced many businesses to pivot. How has Honey + Thyme Events adapted over the past year?

We certainly adapted by starting the Charlotte Microwedding Collaborative. It’s actually a little crazy. A week or so before the pandemic, I was grabbing coffee with Rachel Hopkins, owner of Black Moth Bars. We were talking about how much we loved intimate weddings and how we’d love to start something that offered an all-inclusive package for couples who might not want to spend $80,000 on a wedding and might want a small, intimate group. 

So the Charlotte Microwedding Collaborative was our brainchild during the pandemic when everyone was forced to have micro weddings. We’re hoping to keep that going. We just had a micro wedding two weeks ago up in the mountains and it was gorgeous. It was the epitome of why we started this. 

We also founded the Olive Branch. It is named after my daughter, Olive, and includes all of our non-wedding events. We just met with a client this morning who wants to plan a 40th anniversary for her parents. It’s just so special. We love the stories. We want to create these custom, authentic experiences. 


You are so positive, even after having experienced what may have been the hardest year in recent history for event planners. Any tips for staying optimistic?

I just don’t see the point in being negative. Of course, if you ask my husband, not every single day is positive. There are certainly days when I come home in tears. But I just love building relationships with my brides. 


If you could give your younger self advice, what would you say?

Don’t take everything so seriously. You learn as you go along. Don’t worry. Have more confidence in yourself. 

Do you have any advice for women who want to start their own business?

Just go for it. Looking at my past, there were so many times I wanted to go for it but I only took that jump when events in my life basically forced me to. So I would say to chase those dreams. You only have one life. I also always emphasize the importance of having a support system of family and friends. I always joke that my mom is my business coach but she really is.