International Women’s Day: 13 female leaders making moves in the Southeast

In March we wear green, make brackets and count down the days until spring can officially begin. And most importantly, on International Women’s Day, we celebrate the history and the feats of women who continue to radically challenge gender biases and disparities, unapologetically and with passion.

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One fascinating sector is female entrepreneurism, which continues to grow across all industries, ethnicities and age groups. It’s estimated 849 new businesses are started by women every single day in the United States. And over the past two decades, female-owned firms have grown by an impressive 114%. Even with this hopeful numbers, women only take home a small portion of the seed money available, regardless of the fact they’re more likely to turn a revenue than their male counterparts.

To celebrate International Women’s Day and the brave and smart ladies who went out on a whim to be their own #girlboss — we’re excited to announce and present the female entrepreneurs to watch in every state (and Washington D.C.) from New York to West Virginia to Ohio to Texas to California. These powerhouses are fashion designers, master chefs, marketing leaders, philanthropic badasses — and so much more.

We’ve divided our list of the 52 female leaders making moves in the United States into five geographical regions. This article will feature women from the Southeast.

Get inspired — and make sure you follow-up with these women. They’re just getting started:

Alabama: Stacy Brown, founder of Chicken Salad Chick

Founded in 2008 in Auburn, Alabama

Chicken Salad Chick

Why the company is cool: You can’t go South without having chicken … salad that is! As a twist on traditional Southern food that’s fried and fatty, Brown’s restaurant chain serves full-flavored fresh side salads, gourmet foods, signature sandwiches, desserts and of course, a dozen chicken salad flavors. To date, they have more than 100 restaurants in 13 states — and growing.

Where the idea came from: Right from her home kitchen … when Brown dabbled in selling her chicken salad concoction to friends and family. When she developed a recipe called ‘Classic Carol’, she knew she was onto something. So, with a basket on her arm and four flavors for sale, she sold door-to-door herself until a business was hatched.

How it’s growing: In the past three years, CSC has tripled in size, and the brand achieved $110 million systemwide revenue in 2018. People love it — considering their SMG score rating for customer service fell at 80%, which ranked them second in the fast-casual sector.

How she became successful: Being persistent and flexible. In fact, when the local Alabama county health department wouldn’t allow her to continue selling her chicken salad from her home, she launched a restaurant. Within two hours — she had completely sold out. Today, she’s still actively involved in the brand. (But no, she won’t share that prized chicken salad recipe!)

What’s next: CSC plans to open 45 new restaurants in 2019.

Arkansas: Robin Connell from PLANTation Services

Founded in 1980 in Little Rock, Arkansas

Why the company is cool: PLANTation Services, the largest interiorscaping company in Arkansas, is actually a story of two female entrepreneurs. When Tina Shelby was a little girl, she grew up fascinated by plants, and eventually took her entrepreneurial spirit and starter her own company. Fast forward 31 years, and they Shelby, along with her husband and business partner, decided to sell their beloved company to their operations manager, Robin Connell. She keeps their history alive and part of the company, as they expand in services in reach.

Where the idea came from: Right after college, Connell worked for PLANTation Service because much like Shelby, she had a lifelong love affair with Mother Earth. It was a quick hiring process and one that created instant synergy. When Shelby was ready to sell, her first pick was 28-year-old Connell. In an interview with the Arkansas Times, Connell shared: “They looked at the decision as they wanted to sell when they wanted to, not when they had to. They told me ‘we know that you’ve dedicated a lot of devotion and time and energy to this place, and we want you to have the opportunity to take it to the next level.’ They very much let me be the driver in how the deal was structured.

How it’s growing: She’s one of the states youngest entrepreneurs, now at age 31, and she continues to expand their reach, market and hire employees.

How she became successful: Through teamwork. In the same interview, Connell shared she loves being a business owner: “My days are always different, and I always do something different: budgeting, going out and placing pants, loading a truck, clearing a job, it’s a lot of different hats for everybody here. We’re all a team, we’re all going to wear all the hats. You never hear anybody say here, ‘It’s not my job, it’s all hands on deck, we all have the jobs.’ ”

What’s next: Continuing to be the go-to service in the states for design. Also, their blog is starting to take off, too.

Florida: Keri Higgins-Bigelow from livingHR

Founded in 2009 in Tampa, Florida

Why the company is cool: Retaining talent continues to be a top priority for most companies, and hiring the right team to advise best practices can often make or break a bottom line. That’s where livingHR comes in, as a culture-first consulting group that humanizes workspaces for thriving businesses. They’ve partnered with hundreds of clients across the United States, ranging in size and industry, helping them to rethink their approach to employee relationships.

Where the idea came from: As Higgins-Bigelow puts it, livingHR was born from three things: a conversation with a supportive spouse, $1,000 and a goal to answer the ‘why can’t this be done better?’ question. She didn’t want people to be commodities in the workplace, and knew there was a way to put humans back in ‘human resources’ — and set out to shift the industry.

How it’s growing: In 2018, livingHR was on the Tampa Bay Business Journal’s list of Best Places to Work, and since their inception, they’ve had a year-over-year increase of 40% to 90%. She’s also founded Fe League, which gathers female leaders and Talvibe, a talent-sentiment and feedback technology platform to give employees a voice.

How she became successful: She doesn’t compromise. She never wants to lose sight of the mission to remain human, and it’s something she’s been true to throughout her career. “By simply remembering this in every interaction, strategic conversation, and decision, we ensure the happiest, most engaged employees for our clients, and our clients see their businesses thrive as a result. The livingHR team walks the walk, leading by example from a place where brilliant work and a meaningful life are always encouraged to coexist without guilt,” she shares.

What’s next: They’ll celebrate a decade in business this year! They’re also expanding their locations from four to six across the United States, and continue to grow their suite of product offerings. Their next big launch is a cutting-edge digital market offering culture swag kits and products for the modern DIY people or business leader.

Georgia: Jasmine Crowe from Goodr

Founded in 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia

TEDxPeachtree Team

Why the company is cool: Though Marie Kondo is encouraging Americans to rethink the joy factor of everything they own — don’t forget about your trash can. Restaurants, grocery stores, and nearly all other businesses have tremendous food waste — and Crowe wants to change that. Her company, Goodr, is an app-based solution that reduces food waste and fights hunger, giving companies the chance to sign on with Goodr, instead of a traditional waste removal company. They’ll pick up unused food before it expires and delivers it to the needy. Not only does this feed hungry people and families, but it gives the company the added benefit of a tax-deductible charitable donation, too.

Where the idea came from: Crowe watched her peers experience food insecurity and realized this struggle hits most demographics, with seniors experiencing the brunt. She wanted to make a difference in a strategic, smart way.

How it’s growing: Recently, she signed NFL Environment as a client for the Super Bowl, as well as the busiest airport in the world — Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. She was also named one of the top 10 tech entrepreneurs outside of Silicon Valley by VentureBeat. And she raised one million in seed funding in August.

How she became successful: Passion and ethics. Lena Katz, a past partner who worked with Crowe on an activation event called her brilliant, charismatic and driven. “She will and has turned down offers from huge media companies to be on shows because she doesn’t feel it fits with her mission of feeding the needy. She’s expanding amazingly fast because even the largest venues and corporations see that she’s an agent of change,” Katz shared.

What’s next: She’s expanding to Washington, D.C. and Chicago — and beyond.

Kentucky: Tori Gerbig from Pink Lily Boutique

Founded in 2014 in Bowling Green, Kentucky


Why the company is cool: Talk to nearly anyone in your circle and at least half will have a side hustle. In an economy that relies heavily on gigs and freelancers, some entrepreneurs are able to take a side project and turn it into a career. Very few are able to be incredibly successful at it, and Gerbig is one of them. Her very feminine online store of women’s fashion and accessories has surpassed more than $50 million in sales in five years.

Where the idea came from: In 2011, Gerbig started the Pink Lily eBay shop, which turned into a maternity leave project two years later. She collected a Facebook following and noticed a demand for products, which inspired her and her husband to feed their lifelong entrepreneurial spirit and take a risk. They launched the digital storefront in 2014, and six months later, they both left their full-time jobs.

How it’s growing: As a self-funded venture, they took in $15 million in revenue in 2017, and had a 265% growth over three years. Today, they have 40 employees, a 25,000-square foot warehouse and one brick-and-mortar store locally.

How she became successful: She keeps herself accountable. “I’m a big believer in goals – professional, personal, mental and physical. My standards have always been high, and I was raised in a household that prized and promoted the can-do American spirit we all hold dear. I was taught that a strong work ethic is the engine that powers dreams no matter your origin story or circumstances,” she shares.

What’s next: They plan to continue exceeding their revenue goals, but also want to increase their contributions philanthropically. “We’re successful because of our strong relationships with customers and communities, our faith and our unparalleled work ethic,” she adds.

Louisiana: Kelly Fields from Willa Jean

Founded in 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana

Why the company is cool: Named after her grandmother, this fresh comfort cuisine is a must-visit in NOLA’s central business district. With an open and spacious dining room, they pair classic Southern hospitality with a modern, continuously changing menu that highlights local ingredients. It’s an all-day restaurant with an on-site bakery and welcomes everyone from digital nomads to travelers or folks on their lunch breaks.

Where the idea came from: As an esteemed chef, Fields always dreamed of opening up her own restaurant, and Will Jean is the culmination of her career come to life. She wanted to use her southern roots while also having an approachable, welcoming atmosphere with accessible menu items — a feat that’s gained her recognition nationally.

How it’s growing: The proof is in the accolades for Fields, who has brought home a laundry list of awards and recognitions. She was featured as one of Travel + Leisure’s favorite local bakeries around the world and took home Louisiana Cookin’s “Bakery and Beyond” Award. For four years in a row, Fields has been a James Beard Award nominee and a semifinalist for the ‘Outstanding Pastry Chef’ category. The city of New Orleans named her ‘Chef of the Year’ and gave her ‘Reader’s Choice Award.’ And that’s just a handful of ‘em.

How she became successful: By seeking inspiration. Once she worked with chef Susan Spice, she realized how passionate she was for culinary arts, prompting her to pursue a degree in baking and pastry arts from Johnson & Wales. Though she worked briefly in NOLA after graduation, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 prompted her to travel throughout Europe, the Middle East, and the Asian Pacific, giving her the opportunity to work with many international talents. Her career continued to grow when she returned stateside — and she credits her curiosity and helpful mentors along the way for her success.

What’s next: A cookbook!

Mississippi: Kristen Ley from Thimblepress

Founded in 2012 in Jackson, Mississippi

Why the company is cool: Created by a graphic designer, this company has all of the bells-and-whistles to be supremely creative. With bright colors, inspiring quotes, fun sayings, if you want to throw a party, you go here. In a time when everything from baby and bridal showers, to birthdays for dogs, to grand openings requires Instagram-worthy decor, Ley tapped into a market that continues to go viral.

Where the idea came from: This story starts in half of a garage with uneven foundation, a 1925 letterpress and a dog named Willow. Ley really wanted to get her hands dirty and explore her creativity without being tied to anyone else’s vision or deadline while she was working full-time as a designer and marketing assistant for a nearby school. After she wrapped up the work day, she’d work into the wee hours of the night — a practice she maintains even now. “There is something about working in the evening that is so freeing. There is a quiet peace in telling yourself that no one else is working; no one needs to reach me via phone or email. The night is simply me, my craft, and of course my Willow,” she shares. After a while, she opened up an Etsy shop with no intention of starting her own business but much to her surprise and delight, Thimblepress took off.

How it’s growing: To date, her work is sold in 1,500 retail stores internationally. She’s collaborated with Target, Hallmark, Speak Wines and Keds, to name a few. Recently, they launched their 33-product collection with Eccolo and a 12-greeting card collection with Calypso Cards. And hey, these are just a handful of numbers.

How she became successful: She’s doing what she was born to do. “Resting in that gives me the confidence to go after each day, being my true self and trusting in that. When I feel confident in the fact I am helping others and putting good out into the world, that is what makes me successful. I believe I am a part of a much larger picture to help bring more good into the world and foster more creativity and joy,” she shares.

What’s next: Last year, she launched KristenLey, a sister company where she consults larger companies, develops projects and shares her insight. This year, she’ll grow this area of her expertise, and work on upcoming partnership deals yet to be public.

North Carolina: Tonya Dalton from inkWELL Press

Founded in 2014 in Asheville, North Carolina

Why the company is cool: If you keep up with the latest-and-greatest travel trends, you’ve likely heard many rumblings about Asheville. This eccentric city in the heart of western North Carolina is becoming a gem for relocation, offering the great outdoors, craft beer and affordable living. This is where Dalton built her company, inkWELL Press, a certified woman-owned business. They provide tools and education to help females lead productive lives — at home and at work. Their beautifully-designed and strategic planners, notebooks and journals go beyond what you’d find at a big box store. And to make meeting goals even more seamless, they also offer an online course to help guide your focus.

Where the idea came from: In 2009, Dalton founded her first business while she was working from home, caring for two kids. Two years later, it was booming so much that her husband could quit his full-time gig. However, in 2013, she lost her passion for the company and although it was a risk — since she was the sole provider for their family — she didn’t want to waste time. “I spent time soul searching to find my passions – and I found them: empowering women, teaching and organization. Out of those three seemingly unconnected passions, I built my personal mission statement and used that as the springboard to launch my new business, inkWELL Press,” she shared.

How it’s growing: In 18 months, she grew her business to seven-figures with only three employees — including herself and her husband. In less than two years, her products were available at Office Depot and Barnes & Noble. She’s now launched a podcast that’s surpassed a million downloads. And because of their success, they’ve been able to donate more than $100,000-worth of productivity tools to teachers, and donate to battered women’s shelter and treatment rehabilitation centers.

Why she became successful: She followed her passion. “I dedicated my time, energy and focus to finding a path that truly inspired me. That is, helping women fight the feeling of overwhelm and achieve their big goals and dreams. Today, everything we do and everything we create is focused on this mission and my team works tirelessly to ensure that the quality and design of our content and our products are second to none. Because of this, we have cultivated a group of fiercely loyal fans who support us with the same tremendous enthusiasm and help spread the mission to others looking for a better way,” she shared.

What’s next: A book, coming out in October. And expanding her online training to include more course options.

South Carolina: Rita Patel from Hotel Trundle

Founded in 2016 in Columbia, South Carolina

Why the company is cool: A new breed of travelers who value experiences and quality has challenged the hospitality industry to think deeply about their brand. If you want to attract influencers, after all, you have to create spaces that are worthy of attention. Patel has definitely done this in the capital of South Carolina, turning a three-building site into a gorgeous destination. They aimed to continue her family’s brand and operate independent hotels within the wealth of historic buildings around Columbia — but ended up creating her own, alongside her husband. They opened their doors to the public almost a year ago on April 9, also known as National Unicorn Day, which you’ll find in their logo. The property is defined by its laid-back, tasteful and family-oriented atmosphere, with an eclectic, 20s-era Art Deco style.

Where the idea came from: Patel and her husband, Marcus, have careers in architecture and were involved in construction projects until the recession forced them to switch focus in 2008. They started working with her family’s hospitality business, where Marcus eventually became a GM at a property. Eventually, Patel moved to an architecture firm and then back to her family’s company, giving her a plethora of experience to inspire Hotel Trundle. “The business was primarily composed of large brands with recognizable names, but the opportunity to create a unique boutique hotel among Columbia’s historic architecture and booming tourism industry was the impetus for Hotel Trundle’s creation,” she shares.

How it’s growing: The recognitions speak for themselves! Hotel Trundle was named the Best Hotel by Columbia Free-Times, Best Hotel by Columbia Met Magazine, and has received multiple American Institute of Architecture Awards. With mentions on The Travel Trannel and Garden and Gun, superior ratings on Yelp and TripAdvisor, they’re creating buzz and fanfare. They even exceeded expected occupancy in freezing January.

How she became successful: Timing and community. “Our Downtown Columbia location is right in the heart of a trending, tourist and local friendly district. What really sets the Hotel Trundle operation apart from our counterparts is the overarching commitment to partnering with neighboring local businesses. Relationships with community allies have been helpful in improving name recognition as well as expanding our support system to include an assortment of suppliers and collaborators,” she continues. “From the lobby artwork to the mattresses, to the Pimento Cheese served with our evening Sip N Nibble, Hotel Trundle is filled with products and artifacts provided by local partners. Marcus and I pride ourselves on being community-focused business owners.”

What’s next: No official word yet — but rumor has it they’re sniffing around for a second Hotel Trundle location. TBA.

Tennessee: Maneet Chauhan from Morph Hospitality Group

Founded in 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee

Why the company is cool: You’ve likely heard of Maneet Chauhan if you watch Chopped on the reg. But even if you don’t, you’ll definitely start to hear more about this budding influencer. She founded four restaurants in Nashville, including Chauhan Ale & Masala House, Chaatable, The Mockingbird and Tánsuŏ. Her concept was to fill in the missing gaps of the culinary landscape in the area, which she has done effectively. Reading through Yelp reviews or paging through Instagram, and it’s easy to see why she’s created a fan base with mouths that water.

Where the idea came from: It all came with the purpose of igniting diversity in this budding destination. Since she’s originally from India but moved to the United States to develop her career, she has a unique perspective to offer kitchens. In a typically male-dominated world, she’s made her mark, created job opportunities and has completed the hard task of putting Tennessee on the map as an industry front-runner.

How it’s growing: Four restaurants in four years speak volumes.

How she became successful: By pushing through limitations. As more and more female chefs challenge the industry’s bias, Chauhan as the front of the pack. Never allowing herself to be held back, she’s received the renowned James Beard Foundation Broadcast Media Award and has been featured in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today, to name a few. Her philosophy is to be “100% present in everything she does”, giving herself space to learn and grow with each opportunity.

What’s next: Growing those four restaurants — and publishing her first book.

Virginia: Kisha Frazier from Hummingbird Macarons & Desserts

Founded in 2014 in Norfolk, Virginia

Why the company is cool: If you remember a decade ago, cupcakes were everything. Though there will always be an occasion (or a craving) for this treat, leading bakers are taking a different spin. One of those is Frazier, the woman behind a popular Virginia-based shop. Specializing in French macarons and desserts, her retail and manufacturing company doesn’t just sweeten up her local community but ships nationally. Buzz about her approach to this beloved masterpiece continues to grow — making her a personality and talent to be watched.

Where the idea came from: After owning a bistro, Frazier wanted to pursue her lifelong passion and goal of having a dessert establishment that served fine teas. It was a leap of faith that all entrepreneurs must make, but one that has paid off in dividends. Not only was it the first macaroon shop in the area, but it continues to be the most beloved.

How it’s growing: They grow 15% in sales year over year — and their social following is on the upswing.

How she became successful: Family and support. “While I do believe that hard work, tenacity, passion, and perseverance are hallmarks to success, we are most effective when we surround ourselves by people who encourage us and whom we can also encourage. I became successful because when I failed I had people around who held out a hand to help me get back up. I am successful because customers love our products and continue to come back. I am successful because I love people, and the great things that happen when businesses and communities thrive,” she shared.

What’s next: They’re opening up another venture, the Pagoda Garden and Teahouse through the Friends of Pagoda Foundation.

Washington, D.C.: Alisha Ramos from Girls’ Night In

Founded in 2017 in Washington, D.C.

Why the company is cool: Think of this Insta-famous company as the opposite of FOMO. Instead of worrying about what your pals are doing, you’re craving a night inside, by yourself or with a bestie, decompressing and relaxing. Ramos has created a community and brand that’s redefining and rethinking self-care. In addition to a widely-red newsletter, they also host events and book clubs in multiple cities across the country.

Where the idea came from: In her late 20s, Ramos says going out wasn’t her thing anymore. Instead, she preferred staying in because it allowed her to “develop more intimate and meaningful connections with my friends, who I’d invite over for a night in.” Experiencing first-hand how impactful the experience was, she set out to capture this ethos with GNI, encouraging people to really savor those moments and evenings.

How it’s growing: When her first newsletter went out, it reaches 300 or so subscribers in her network. Since then, she’s grown her database to 100,000 — and growing. Most of this has come from word of mouth and recommendations, a feat she’s proud of. Her offline community now reaches ten cities in America and Canada via monthly book clubs.

How she became successful: Hitting a chord. “I think people are now more overwhelmed than ever and are searching for more moments in which to better take care of themselves and the people around them,” she shared.

What’s next: They’re doubling down on their mission of helping people relax and recharge, especially offline. You’ll see more of GNI this year — just keep an eye out. Oh, and follow them on Instagram.

West Virginia: Nellie Rose from Nellie Rose Textiles

Founded in 2013 in Thomas, West Virginia

Why the company is cool: Raised in the mountains of West Virginia by parents who nurtured a sustainable living mindset from an early age, Rose says she spent plenty of time running around naked as a child. However, as Rose does now, she watched her parents cut, dye and sew silk, memories that would later inform her career. Fast forward a few decades and she found herself in Osaka, Japan, as a Fulbright Scholar. Here is where she refined her technical skills and studied under Hiroko Harada, learning how to hand-paint in the ‘shibori’ fashion. Now, she creates masterpieces — and teaches others how to explore their own creativity.

Where the idea came from: Once she returned from Japan, she opened the doors of her home — which also serves as her studio. — in Thomas, inviting others to be part of the process. She’s also an artist collaborator at Lamplight Gallery and travels to display her work. The idea was the give others the same permission to let their imagination roam from the muted, fascinating streets to Japan, all the way back the mountains who made her. As Rose puts it, she opened her company with “an insatiable desire to make, play, and clothe women in a positive, intentional way.”

How it’s growing: Slow and steady, with a predicted 2% year over year.

How she became successful: She listens. “I listen to my own voice and am always trying to find what I have to say that is worth saying. This goes along with a belief that my best work will rarely be found in engaging trends or following the whims of commercial fashion. I know these two things have helped a great deal in bringing original work out of me. I’ve found an incredible community of makers and artists who are dedicated to this same approach to creativity. Living in this environment there’s a kind of foundational value on always pushing yourself to make good work and make work that you really believe in,” she shares.

What’s next: They’re opening a boutique and studio in May 2019!

— — —

Click below to read more from our series celebrating female leaders in the United States:

International Women’s Day: Celebrating the female leaders making moves in the Northeast

International Women’s Day: Celebrating the female leaders making moves in the Midwest

International Women’s Day: Celebrating the female leaders making moves in the Southwest

International Women’s Day: Celebrating the female leaders making moves in the West

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