Meet the 51 Finalists for our spring 2021 FellowshipRead More

🎙Podcast: What We Can Learn About Climate Justice From an Appalachian Accelerator

“Because we’re regionally focused, we’re helping our entrepreneurs to make those connections to new customer base, to mentors in the region, to impact investors, and to other peers. And that’s a critical piece that Echoing Green knows—that your peer network is so critical, when you’re out there toiling away at a thing, and you’re trying to solve for social and ecological justice.”

Inspired by the textile, farming, and forestry skills of Appalachians, and recognizing that the world of social entrepreneurship was expanding, Saraday Evans launched Accelerating Appalachia, the world’s first nature-based business accelerator. Accelerating Appalachia connects innovative businesses, investors, and mentors with the people, places, and prosperity found in Appalachia. Tune in to hear how Saraday’s lifelong love for nature and a career in environmental protection led her to supporting businesses working in unity with the land in southern and central Appalachia—one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. Learn how Accelerating Appalachia is inspiring other nature-based and sustainable businesses around the globe.

Listen on Apple Podcasts   Listen on Google Podcasts   Listen on Spotify


This podcast series is supported through a grant from the Citi Foundation and is presented as part of The Inclusive Social Entrepreneurship Initiative. With the support of the Citi Foundation, Echoing Green will accelerate leaders of color and leaders who represent communities of color by providing financial and leadership development support, creating visibility opportunities to amplify their voices and stories, and connecting them to Citi employee volunteers for advising and mentorship.

For more episodes of On Course: The Podcast from Echoing Green, visit anchor.fm/echoinggreen.

Episode Transcript

Eric
Hi, and welcome to On Course the podcast from Echoing Green that explores social entrepreneurship, and the pieces of people’s lives that they tend to leave out of their bios. Echoing Green is a premier global investor in new leaders who are boldly working to change the world, providing fellowships, community, seed-stage funding, and strategic support at that critical stage where they’re just trying to get off the ground. My name is Eric Dawson. I’m a father, husband, social entrepreneur, storyteller, and I have the distinct honor of serving as a chaplain for Echoing Green. I, along with my colleagues support fellows on their spiritual and emotional well-being as they mediate between who they often feel they need to be publicly with how they often feel privately. I’m a fraud. I’m not good enough. I don’t know what I’m doing. On Course is about the journey that these leaders take from the moment they decide to act, to create to change.

On this episode, you’ll hear my conversation with Saraday Evans, founding director of the social enterprise Accelerating Appalachia. Inspired by the textile farming and forestry skills of Appalachians, and recognizing that the world of social entrepreneurship was expanding, Saraday launched Accelerating Appalachia, the world’s first nature-based business accelerator, connecting innovative businesses, investors, and mentors, with the people places and prosperity found in Appalachia. Saraday, I want to start with the beginnings of your story. So often, when we think about social entrepreneurship, and we talk about leaders, it’s this beautiful linear line where all of a sudden, like, boom, there’s this moment of inspiration, you’re fully formed, you have this brilliant idea. And then, you know, two weeks later, you have $10 million in your bank account. And of course, that isn’t, that isn’t how it works. Right? And so, I want you to take us back to the beginning. Talk about your childhood, what were you like, what were some of those early inclinations of wanting to change the world?

Saraday
As long as I can remember I have been immersed in nature, in you know, mountains of the Appalachian region. Just sheer, it felt like just sheer magic to be in that world and as we all do, when we’re young, we think that’s the way that the world is. Not only did we live in this really beautiful place and my parents, we had what I call a free-range childhood, but my parents were political activists. And so there was always a conversation, debate, people food, music, poetry, all of that was happening. Going to protests, marches. There’s also trauma, seeing my mom and my little sister, who was only three get tear-gassed. It was really intense, and for me inspiring. But I don’t know that it was that way for my brother and sister so much. I just was born with the more outgoing driven personality.

Eric
I love this, this image of you and your life is a garden and being placed in this incredibly rich soil. So that the natural environment, the political environment, and then just your own innate justice and curiosity. Where has that mixture of those ingredients taken? You tell us about the path from that curious, nature-loving, politically active child? And what were some of the main landmarks that brought you to where you are today.

Saraday
Some of the main landmarks were getting married at a young age and moving to California and experiencing the bay area for eight years and that very stimulating dynamic environment of, you know, dreamers and doers. But also, there’s an underlying anxiousness for me that went with that because I felt so untethered. There, it was a little It was exciting and also scary. But during that time, you know, I hadn’t like finished college, I met my husband in college and it was because of him. That we moved out there and his school, had kids young and was, you know, busy working. I did this whole myriad of things as woodworker, a maid, I got a job as a truck driver, I was also just very curious still carrying that magic of nature and that political activism, but I was also, I was poor and so I was just working, you know. I had a very pragmatic side. Throughout all of this, I was always a singer-songwriter, as well. And then when my husband and I separated, I was 30, I moved back to Kentucky. And that’s when I actually got really grounded in finishing college and was inspired to be a geologist and especially a hydrogeologist because I’d always been so fascinated with water is, you know, this necessary elixir of life.

Eric
What was it like coming back to Kentucky?

Saraday
It was hard. It was really hard. It’s hard to say how much of it was Kentucky, how much it was just this year, just sadness of the end of my marriage, my two small children and what they were going through, you know, being separated from their dad who stayed in California. So I struggled with, you know, significant depression as many people do. The one thing that I could do, though, was that I could go to school, and I was able to channel my focus into finishing that damn degree. Because I knew I would continue to work, you know, $7.50 – $8 an hour jobs if I didn’t get that done.

Eric
You know, those moments in our lives where we experience pain, the crap, the hard stuff, is what can allow us to grow. So talk about the role that pain has played in your growth?

Saraday
Well, I’ve learned that I’m pretty resilient and I had so such a robust childhood and exposure to philosophers and so many books. Our house was weighted down with books, and but journeys into meditation, Buddhist practices, then good old talk therapy, and then deeper practices Reiki, you know, it’s been a, it’s just that alongside of actually doing the work I found that doing the work that inspires me is healing.

Eric
So let’s talk a little bit about the work. You started an organization, Accelerating Appalachia. Tell us about that birth.

Saraday
Okay, well, that was birthed out of a loss as well. After 17 years of working in government, I got my degree in hydrogeology, I ended up doing really well I got a scholarship that paid for my college, and I work for the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection. Really proud of the work that we did there and developing groundwater protection programs and funding for solid waste programs. 13 years into that I was offered a job in western North Carolina in economic development, and I had been wanting to you know, I’ve been walking that in eco ecology, environmental protection side for a while and felt like I’d really done some good work. What I was also, you know, always struggled with how we’ve broken up our society, our culture into, you know, here’s the environment over here, here’s the economy over here, here are community and people and it just, it didn’t ever feel holistic to me. I do feel like I had grown up in a fairly holistic fashion and that thinking, but it felt so compartmentalized and I was always feeling like I needed to somehow bring all that together. So but I went to that compartment of economic development and four years in, there’s a big political shift in North Carolina, and the Republicans won the house senate and governorship first time in 100 years and they just did major, major cuts. My program for sustainable economic development in rural communities that had been building was cut, along with other green and environmental programs. So I’m middle-aged by this time and it was devastating and I felt very lost. But you know, I had to continue on and had gotten a job, part-time job, and at that, I ran into some folks that were working on building an impact investing fund in food and forests that happened to be living in that region, originally from the Bay Area. They said, you should start an accelerator and I didn’t even know what an accelerator was. But I had been working already with these communities to help support a more sustainable regenerative economy, one that was grounded in place. And as I had been doing that work, I had seen so many of these businesses that were really quite beautiful, that were seeking to address our needs for food, clothing, natural building, health products, a lot of them were run by women, indigenous women, Black women. Then such a focus on you know, the producers of the raw goods, the farmers in the region, and there was in that region, especially western North Carolina, there’s a really robust network of small farmers and so that just captivated me and I was already seeking to help those in that region, that community, and when they said, hey, start an accelerator, I didn’t know what an accelerator was. They introduced me to folks and I started, I did about a year of research on trying to understand how that kind of a model could help to accelerate what I like to call nature-based businesses. That was just a term I came up with because I didn’t want to say, natural resources that all sounded so engineered to me. When I say nature-based I mean, these are businesses that were clearly thinking about the ecology that supports that production of food, the land, the biodiversity, it’s one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, southern and central Appalachia is. And so that is how Accelerating Appalachia was born. I used my unemployment check at the time and was able to get a grant to get it going and when we launched in 2013, we had over 100 applications from across the globe. It was kind of amazing.

Eric
Welcome back. I’m Eric Dawson. And this is On Course, the podcast from Echoing Green. Today, I’m speaking with Saraday Evans, founding director of accelerating Appalachia. 30, you started this organization to accelerate nature-based entrepreneurship in the region? Walk us through what that actually means. So I’m an entrepreneur, what are you providing me, what’s the experience like?

Saraday
Okay, well, you are an entrepreneur, I’m going to also just put the caveat on that, that kind of entrepreneurs that we look for, are entrepreneurs that are, they may not be all of those things, yet, they want to get there. And so you’re a few years into your product, you’re kind of like, wow, people actually like what I’m doing, I have demand, but how do I keep up with that? I don’t have enough cash flow to do that. And that’s when a lot of entrepreneurs and businesses do start to look for investment. And we look for entrepreneurs that are at that growth stage, but we don’t necessarily insist on investment at all. So what we do when we get our, you know, round of applications each spring, actually in the late winter, and then we spend a month or so with our team, board getting in our mentors vetting those applications, once you are accepted into the program, that’s generally you know, anywhere from eight to 10. We’ve had as many as 12. And we host training sessions over an eight-week period in the spring. The structure of that is eight weeks, but we’re holding four-day intensives with our entrepreneurs in different cities in the southeast. So because we’re regionally focused we’re helping our entrepreneurs to make those connections to a new customer base, to mentors in the region, to impact investors, into other peers. That’s a critical piece is Echoing Green knows that your peer network is so critical. When you’re out there toiling away at a thing, and you’re trying to solve for social and ecological justice. We do four of those intensives over that eight-week period and within that, we are training them all the while. So we’re going through all of their, you know, levels of financials, marketing, legal aspects, accounting, all through the lens of resiliency, regenerative, you can, you know, I know these are kind of buzzwords these days, but we really mean it and we have amazing folks who do these trainings.

Eric
How many projects have you supported today?

Saraday
Over 100. We’ve had 50, go through the full accelerator, but then we also work one on one, with businesses throughout the year, who may need just a special targeted approach. Like, for instance, they’re already are sourcing from or bridging to growers, but they don’t really have their equity, inclusion in sight and that, that that they might need. Or they just might have everything all together, and they’re seeking investment. And we help to prepare them for investment. And we generally tend to, you know, to select about 75% of our businesses are women and women of color, but I’m going to distinguish that indigenous and Black women when I say women of color.

Eric
You have this great perch, where you’ve seen so many entrepreneurs, and probably some folks who would not naturally call themselves entrepreneurs, and certainly not social entrepreneurs. What has surprised you the most in your work today?

Saraday
Wow. So many surprises Eric. The most? Oh, just like you’re asking me my favorite color? Like, how do I even answer that or my favorite song? Um, I’m gonna change that question. I’m gonna change that question and say what delighted me the most. Because the way that these businesses bond and lean into one another, and relish in knowing one another and having each other there for one another, and the bonds that form and not it’s not all the, you know, flowers and roses, but you know, but overall, that was just, it’s just, it fills my heart to see that. And I want to do more of that, like really helping them find one another. Any other all the feedback that we’ve gotten from him through the years was that that peer network was just like, finding one another. This is the same the world over with entrepreneurs.

Eric
Talk to me about the challenges. I mean, it sounds like you’ve had a remarkable set of successes. What’s been hard?

Saraday
Well there’s been just as many failures as that there have been successes to my mind. What’s been hard, number one, I hadn’t had a background in entrepreneurship, except for starting my own little business and I’d run you know, I started an event business, and I’d run my little music. But as far as like, I didn’t have that background. I had work in economic development, I didn’t really understand all the nuances of investment and then the cultural difference in risk aversion. When we’re a program set up, and we have this network we built work really hard to have this network of truly values-based impact investors, and finding that there’s a lot more skepticism around that and having put all that work into building this and then people like yeah, I don’t know, I think I trust my local bank better. That was a real eye-opener for me, too, is thinking, Oh, you know, but these impact investors that you know, are going to give you more patient capital, they’re going to really lift you up in that world of impact investing, lift up your business, but a lot of businesses don’t want equity and so the flip side of that is that I was also really disappointed to see so many that talked the talk, but didn’t walk the walk when it came to what I would consider the triple bottom line of impact investing that so many as I poked through that, you know, that sort of pretty picture of what this was that, no, they still wanted to see a significant return and they wanted in a fairly short amount of time. So I just sort of started dropping people from that network if they didn’t fit our criteria and it’s gotten better too. So during, as we were learning and developing, so was impact investing and I think there are definitely many more impact investors now that actually hold the line on supporting just equitable businesses.

Eric
I appreciate the courage it takes to say no, particularly when you’re relatively new when you’re facing institutions that have a lot of power and resources.

Saraday
Yeah, I mean, I would call, what was it they call me? A disruptive influencer.

Eric
Disruptive influencer.

Saraday 
Yeah, yeah, I’m pretty straight. You know, I was always pretty direct and that didn’t always serve me in this world of schmoozing?

Eric
No, I love it.

Eric
Disruptive influencer Saraday, and I know that one of the influencers in your life and your work has been the poet and farmer Wendell Berry and I’d love to hear the story of meeting them.

Saraday
Okay. Sure. And I want to note that there are two Kentuckians that really influenced, I would consider my more well-rounded approach, which is Bell Hooks, who is a poet, cultural critic anti-racism, essayist, influencer of 40 some odd years, was also Kentuckian who I met almost 20 years ago now and we became friends. As much as Okay, I grew up with a family that was involved in, in, you know, political protests and civil rights. This is an onion that I am constantly unpeeling and even through Bell’s works, still, you know, still I could continue to learn about the really deep policy, design, systems design that continues today is so deeply racist in this country. So, Bell, Wendell, he’s been preaching good soil health for as long as he’s been, he’s 85 now and he’s written 50 plus books and essays and poet books of poetry. But he, you know, yes, is a long-standing, influencer in sustainable farming and not just that, but community and rural families and the loss of the family farm and his books are really beautifully written. His novels especially really drew me in around close-knit rural communities and so just, you know, knowing him and having these conversations through the years, influenced me to better understand the critical nature of soil health.

Eric
That was Saraday Evans, a social entrepreneur and founding director of Accelerating Appalachia. We’ll be back with more after a short break.

Eric
Welcome back. I’m Eric Dawson. And this is on course, the podcast from Echoing Green. I’m speaking with Saraday Evans, founding director of accelerating Appalachia. So Saraday, what’s next for you? Where do you go from here?

Saraday
So well, I am excited to tell you that we are starting a, I know this is exciting, it’s such a surprise to hear that we’re going to do an online program. Clearly, everybody’s doing an online program. But I’m excited about ours, I mean, as I described the accelerator, you know, this is close-knit stuff. We’re in rooms together, we’re traveling in cars, we ain’t doing that. Okay, for a while. We will continue to work one on one with businesses in that sort of phase of their growth, but I’m excited about the online incubator as opposed to an accelerator because that will enable us to support many more nature-based businesses across our region because we always get more applicants than we can work with and a lot of them are earlier stage and the incubator is designed for just that. It’s to introduce these concepts in an affordable, manageable incubation program, which is going to be about 40 hours of online content launching in 2021. Leading up to that, we’re starting a little media company where I’ll be interviewing people over the next six months, that are doing this amazing work, the beautiful businesses that have been through our program, and then plenty of others too. And those folks will be from across the globe. And because we have had interest in our program, from other regions, we will also be able to make this available. So we’re really excited to launch our online incubator that will serve early-stage businesses in the same sectors of food, clothing, shelter, and health products, people just getting going though, and it’s still regionally regenerative, equitable, and just incubator focusing on those lenses. But we’ll also be able to make it available to other regions because we have had other regions through the year say, hey, we’d like to do this nature-based program here, Southern California, Sweden, Northern Colombia, when Echoing Green took us there. We made some great connections there. But I’m excited to announce that our incubator will be Gritty Works. That’s G-r-i-t-t-y w-o-r-k-s. And I love Gritty Works because literally, grit is kind of my middle name. And it’s you know, and it’s gritty, it’s soil you know. I had a rock garden when I was a kid, I was a child of the dirt, I ate dirt all day long. I’m like, well, you know, this, this just is a good fit for what we’re getting ready to do.

Eric
Saraday for so many entrepreneurs, we get focused on bigness, right? Growth, scale, longevity, been around forever endowments. What would the world look look look like if you didn’t need to exist?

Saraday
Well, we’d be living more regionally connected, robust, inspired, neighborly loving lives, we wouldn’t, we wouldn’t be overconsuming so much of the things we don’t really need that you know, COVID is really bringing into focus for us. I think our dependence on this global supply chain that is fragile, that is extractive and is so, so vulnerable. I think it’s just bringing that more into focus. That rather than depending on so many jobs through one or two big industries, we’ll have a multitude of small to regional businesses that are supportive and with whom we have relationships. And he other thing about COVID is we’re seeing nature because we’re not scurrying about nature is starting to recover. There’s evidence of it all over I’m sure you’re seeing it just like I am wildlife coming back to places that haven’t been there. And so that future world where I don’t need to do this, and I can just sit around writing poetry and playing music, yack it up with my friends is that it’s diverse. And I just want to say, you know, diverse in every way and it’s beautiful because it’s diversity in nature, which is how nature is designed anyway, its diversity in communities. We’ve got a diverse array of hundreds of businesses rather than a few big industries we’re leaning into, we’re healthier. Soil health leads to food health, food nutrition improvement. We have sequestered a good chunk of our carbon are the numbers are dropping on climate impact. You know, I’m hoping that I get to see a lot of that. I mean, who knows, I am hoping that I can see more and more evidence, over the next 10 years. And at this, you know, I’m not the only one doing this kind of work. But that so many people that are losing their jobs, through all this big shift, I want them to have a place where they can, you know, turn to, to, if they really, you know, want to solve a problem in their community in their region, and that this model would be helpful to them.

Eric
I think it’s fair to say that 2020 has been a challenging year for all of us, but particularly for small entrepreneurs, small business owners, what have you learned navigating this period, both for yourself and for your partners, the folks that you love on every day? And what advice do you have for us as we go into 2021?

Saraday
Well, keep loving on those people and keep building your regional support, and your close-knit support system. And we’ve got to shift what I’m painting, this beautiful, rosy picture I’m painting of a future that I’d like to see isn’t is not happening right now. Small businesses are struggling. We’re not there yet with true justice. And so because of the policy and politics, around economies, that favor big industries, then asked to change. I guess what I want to note is a hopeful, hopeful guide, is paying attention to the values of people 35 and under, as a generation, they get this. It’s just, of course, this is how it needs to be justice and equitable, and resilient. Of course, it is. They’re not heavy consumers, you know. So that’s what we need to look for is how those values start to shift our culture and our society, and how can we support that?

Eric
For those who are listening and inspired by your work? How can they learn more?

Saraday
Well check out our website, acceleratingappalachia.org. And then please reach out to me, you know, on Facebook, Instagram, or you can reach me through email.

Eric 
So today, we’re gonna wrap up with a set of fast questions. So, you’re singer. If your life had a soundtrack right now, what would the song be?

Saraday
Leaving Louisiana in the broad daylight.

Eric
What’s something that’s made you made you laugh out loud recently, something that’s brought you joy.

Saraday 
Oh, my son, who’s come through you know, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2006. And it’s been this long journey. But he’s like, fully himself. And he is funny as hell and he is this dry wit that just keeps me laughing. He and my mom are my little germ pod, as I call it, and that’s who I spend all my time with.

Eric
What’s a book that has shaped your life?

Saraday
Oh, so many um, well, all about love Bell Hooks’s book All About Love has been a really important book for me.

Eric
If a meteor came down and gifted you with one superpower, what would that be?

Saraday
Um, well, well, the superpower to sequester carbon through… that I could magically make it easy and fun for all farmers to stay on the land and adopt practices so that we’d have this massive shift, and we would sequester all the carbon that we generate, and we’d be in good shape.

Eric
I love it. Saraday. What do you grow in your garden?

Saraday
Haha, I had this conversation with my son today. I’m not a good farmer. In fact, I killed a succulent. That’s why I surround myself, my best friends are farmers. I grow some tomatoes. But I’m not that person. I’m a geologist. I love rocks. I love farmers because they seem to have a magic that I don’t have.

Eric
Saraday Evans, entrepreneur, a singer, songwriter, succulent murderer, the Jennifer Lopez of social entrepreneurship.

Saraday
haha and I’m so hot, I’m just so hot like Jennifer.

Eric
Disruptive influencer, lover of nature. Curious justice seeker, it has been such a pleasure to have this time with you. I want to reflect one thing and then leave us with a poem. This, this image of being able to take what most people disregard dirt, decay, an empty piece of land and turn it into something that is life-sustaining, is ultimately what farming is about. Right? It’s in our own way getting to play God to be creators. And I see you in this way, bringing together raw ingredients that so much of the world disregards a region of the world that people dismissively call flyover country, entrepreneurs who are often not seen that way, even by themselves. And to find that beauty and to build that magic together. I appreciate you and I appreciate the work that you do. And I want to leave with, I know one of your favorite human beings and poets Wendell Berry, who writes, “it may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work. And that when we no longer know which way to go, we’ve come to our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.” Saraday Evans keep singing and I look forward to seeing what song you bring us next. Thank you.

Saraday
Absolutely. Thank you all so much. It’s my pleasure.

Eric
To learn more about Echoing Green, go to echoinggreen.org. And don’t miss any of our episodes. Subscribe where you get your podcasts. And don’t forget to leave a rating so other listeners can find us. I’m Eric Dawson stay on course.

Tagged

Leave a reply

Your comment has been submitted and is awaiting approval.

GET OUR BIG BOLD IDEAS IN YOUR INBOX