Greenville Women Entrepreneurs: Building Community and Making Connections

We all belong to each other. If we have learned nothing else during these historic times, it is that “what I do matters to you and what you do matters to me”. The most basic human connection, sometimes only possible via Zoom calls and car waves, was the thing we clung to during those early days of the pandemic. It sustained us back then and if we pay attention to it, it could teach us a better way to live.

Melanie C. Gordon and Do-LOVE-Walk Collective

Melanie C. Gordon is a builder. Its creation lies in building a community rather than using a hammer and nails, but the result is no less solid than the strongest construction project. His consulting, coaching and advocacy firm, Do-LOVE-Walk Collective, serves non-profit organizations, faith communities, educational institutions and individuals who want to make a real connection in diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) and more.

It is a profound work, born of Gordon’s faith in the potential of others. An educator first, Gordon has taught students from preschool to adults. Along the way, she has always been committed to trying to understand people.

“With my children and the families I worked with, it was always important for me to connect them to each other because I saw it as our own little community in a classroom,” she says.

In addition to her work as a teacher in Greenville County schools, Gordon served as Director of Recruitment and Admissions at the South Carolina Governor’s School of Arts and Humanities, and she taught Religion and Ethics and served as Principal diversity and inclusion at Christ Church Episcopal School. She earned a master’s degree in theology with a focus on spiritual formation from Duke University and has extensive ministry experience. And that barely touches his list of accomplishments.

“In my career, I’ve always found myself curious about the next thing,” she says. “What’s the next thing we need?” My resume will show that I’ve held many different positions, and this is just out of curiosity. I’m even more curious than I have time to be. I love the idea of ​​better understanding how people interact and how we connect to each other.

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Gordon’s current role began as “a classic calling from God”.

“I had accumulated all this knowledge and experience from people at different stages of their lives in different circumstances,” she says. “What do I do now? And that led me to the seminary where I studied spiritual formation. I mainly focused on what connects us spiritually and how we apply this work in the world Although this is definitely a Christian background for me, I also took religion classes to better understand all religious traditions or as many as possible, and in this I realized that the human connection is offered to us at through the sacred, and how we are built and born for connection with each other, and how important that is.

Gordon saw this connection in healthy communities, including “ubuntu“, which stands for humanity. Ubuntu circles are spaces for this connection.

“There are a lot of people out there, great people who do diversity and inclusion really, really well,” she says. “The room where we find the gaps is the home room. What does it look like? There are not many models.

The ubuntu model has been around forever, as far as we know, a thousand years, so it’s an old model but unfamiliar to us here. I really wanted to go in the direction of deepening this work. With ubuntu, I thought it was something I was going to watch, but I realized that was it, and everything else fit into this ubuntu model of “I am because you are, I don’t am human only because you are”. ‘are human.’

Gordon brings this model to a variety of groups, including recent work with medical students. She sees relationships as the engine of true systemic change. The possibilities excite Gordon, even as she shapes her new role as a business owner.

I ask people to come into the room with an openness to seeing the humanity of the person sitting across from them, which they may not know anything about except that they have a shared space,” she says. .

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Mary Walsh, Jac Oliver and Swamp Rabbit Cafe

When Mary Walsh and Jac Oliver met, the combined elements of their work – Walsh in water and Oliver in farm stewardship – seemed destined to grow. This connection became Swamp Rabbit Café and Grocery, thriving after more than a decade. The couple met while working for Upstate Forever.

“We became friends and then ran into each other at the farmers’ market,” says Walsh. “It all kind of started with bumping into each other all the time and complaining that there was nowhere to go and buy food from the farmers except Saturday mornings at eight o’clock.”

It wasn’t long before they decided to create the thing they wanted to see. It had to have certain elements, including easy and safe access by bicycle since Walsh was an avid cyclist.

Jac Oliver and Mary Walsh, owners of the Swamp Rabbit Cafe and Grocery in Greenville.

“I would take a lot of back roads and see a lot of properties that other people might not have seen,” she said. “And then that’s where luck comes in.”

The Cedar Lane Road location was to become a scrap yard. Walsh and Oliver connected with a buyer who believed in what the adjacent Swamp Rabbit Trail would become, a “benefactor,” says Walsh, who saw their vision.

Today, the business combines elements of a grocery store, restaurant, bakery, and food hub, as well as pop-up shops for artisans and offerings that change with the seasons. Some things don’t change. Every day, all year round, the bakery makes its signature stecca bread, adored by shoppers.

Riders start, end or break their rides with a stop to refuel, and the playground is the source of cheers that punctuate the conversations that take place at picnic tables and along trails, around coffee and fresh donuts or sandwiches and soup.

All of this, and yet it is more than the sum of its parts.

“I couldn’t tell you what we thought would happen,” Oliver said. “But I didn’t think it would get this big and people would all know about stecca. It felt like it was a calling and we went for it. But that community support has been overwhelming. I was 7.5 months pregnant when we opened, and we started the store with things we would like to see and things we felt were needed.

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From there, customers provided suggestions and forged links with local producers.

“We’ve had two different customers call us from Goodwill — customers — who said, ‘I think we’re seeing some fixtures that would be great in your store,’” says Oliver. “I wish we’d gone and bought them back then, but we didn’t have any extra money to buy devices. But people were thinking of us and everyone was so supportive. The farmers told us, “You can’t sell products without a scale” and brought us a scale. »

The Swamp Kids zone exists because Oliver and Walsh took their kids with them to work. Volunteers helped build the playground fence and customers brought in oversized toys. Walsh’s mother is from Brazil, so the store began selling Brazilian cheese puffs, which led to an annual Brazilian night, which further reinforced the commitment to community involvement. Now there are dances and parties that raise awareness and financial support for nonprofits that serve upstate. And the couple have returned their support to local farmers by helping them develop a dedicated customer base and encouraging the use of local ingredients by other makers and artisans.

“I think a lot of the community building that we’ve done kind of happened organically,” Walsh says. “And I think it happened because we’re set up for people to interact.”

The rhythm and the atmosphere encourage this.

“You meet your neighbors, others meet their daughters, and you know, you meet your farmers sometimes,” Walsh says. “It’s just set up for people to form more relationships like that, and I think that allowed us to become who we are now.”

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Steven L. Nielsen