It’s hard to capture the energy of a room full of hundreds of women who are all there to celebrate other women. It’s an incredibly special feeling, one that every attendee of the 2019 WomanUP Award Celebration and Award Ceremony got to experience last Thursday. It was an intimidating and thrilling crowd of ladies: in total, 41 women were nominated for awards across 5 categories (Woman Executive of the Year, Outstanding Woman in Nonprofit Leadership, Woman Entrepreneur Best in Business, Rising Star Award, and the Suzanne DeFerie Lifetime Achievement Award). The morning also included Buncombe County Manager Avril Pinder, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs at Western Carolina University Carol Burton, Asheville City Manager Debra Campbell, and economics and futurist Rebecca Ryan, who served as the keynote speaker.
One of the most exciting parts of WomanUP is the opportunity to listen to stories, experiences, and thoughts from women who are actively making a difference and shaping the Asheville community. One interesting recurring theme in our members’ award acceptance speeches was that of intentional and mindful growth. Jane Hatley of Self Help Credit Union was awarded the Outstanding Woman In Nonprofit Leadership, and quipped during her speech that it seems like “you’ll get an award if you live long enough.” It may have been a joke (she deserves an award for so much more than just staying alive!), but Jane tapped into an essential truth of what it means to be a woman who strives for success: real achievement and recognition can take years…. and that’s okay.
Leah Wong Ashburn, recipient of the Woman Executive of the Year award, shared a similar sentiment during her speech, where she described her approach to growing Highland Brewing Company. She explained several opportunities that Highland had to scale its growth exponentially, and why she ultimately decided to turn down these opportunities; to Leah, mindful growth is more important than anything else. She chose not to expand Highland rapidly because in doing so, she risked losing the company’s connection to Asheville, its place of origin and meaning, and her own connection to her company’s core values. “I wanted to pull back and grow mindfully,” she said. “Never place growth as the number one value.” Her words of moderation come as a breath of fresh air. Highland Brewing Company’s continued success as Asheville’s first craft brewery is proof that Leah is doing something right.
Futurist, economist, and keynote speaker Rebecca Ryan had many inspiring words to share as well. Her keynote talk covered the past, present, and future of women and business, and was full of fun facts. Did you know that female founders of startups outperform their male peers, and female millennials outperform their male peers in earnings, assets, and more. What is the future of women, according to Rebecca? “If I was betting money,” she said, “It would be in the zone of high aspiration.”
Other inspiring tidbits from the morning:
Woman Executive of the Year (Presented by Mission Health): Leah Wong Ashburn of Highland Brewing Company | Leah left her job in the corporate world to work in sales at Highland Brewery, her family’s business. She has worked her way up to the role of president, and today, she leads Highland Brewing Company as its second generation, female, non-brewer leader, and focuses on positioning Highland to go beyond beer to make an impact in the community. Beyond Highland, Leah has served on the Asheville Chamber board of directors as well as on the boards of Buncombe County TDA, River Link and Asheville-Buncombe Technical College.
Outstanding Woman in Nonprofit Leadership (Presented by TD Bank): Jane B. Hatley of Self Help Credit Union | Jane is Self Help’s WNC Regional Director. Her work providing financial instruction and creating programs to encourage growth in small ventures has earned her recognition as 2018 N.C. Financial Services Advocate of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration. Jane has been involved in racial equity and women’s programs her entire career with extensive outreach to support projects that fund education, child care, and elder care programs – almost always started by women for women and their families.
Woman Entrepreneur, Best in Business (Presented by Webb Investment Services): Jennifer Pharr Davis of Blue Ridge Hiking Company | A long-distance hiker with 15,000 trail miles under her belt as well as an author and speaker, Jennifer is dedicated to empowering others – especially women – to have transformative experiences in the outdoors. In the past 12 years, Blue Ridge Hiking Company has grown from a one-woman operation to become a leader in Asheville’s booming outdoor scene with a robust team of a dozen expert guides, boutique gear shop in downtown Asheville and base camp for trail enthusiasts in Hot Springs.
Rising Star Award (Presented by Western Carolina University): Cristina Hall Ackley of Ginger’s Revenge | Cristina co-founded the brewery Ginger’s Revenge in 2017 with a brand that puts empowerment of women at the center. Ginger’s Revenge was rated the second fastest startup in the area at out 2018 Venture 15 awards, and this year, Cristina raised an angel round to expand Ginger’s revenge – one of the few women in this entire region to raise angel or venture capital money in 2019. Cristina has also been a community leader – leveraging the brewery’s space to bring communities together and supporting local non-profits with in-kind donations.
Suzanne DeFerie Lifetime Achievement Award (Presented by First Bank): Taylor Foss, recently retired from Mission Health | Taylor retired this year as Mission Health’s Senior Vice President of Organizational Transformation and Chief of Staff. Under her tenure, Mission was named a top 15 healthcare system six times and received recognition as “Top 50 most engaged workplaces.” Throughout her career, Taylor has worked to offer a “hand up” to women in her own organizations as well as in the community. For example, she was the driving force behind creating the United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County’s chapter of Women United and has served on a number of community boards.
WomanUP is an initiative created by the Asheville Area Chamber in 2016 for women in business who wish to build a strong network of other women to inspire and support each other and create a legacy in the Asheville community. WomanUP accomplishes this through networking events, professional workshops, and an annual awards ceremony to celebrate outstanding female leaders in the community.