A West Virginian Son’s Journey
As an Appalachian native, it is hard to articulate the sense of pride and protectiveness I have toward my state.
Inspiration comes to each of us differently. The soothing and addictive attributes of West Virginia have always provided an unending well of creative and spiritual nourishment. They also produced a longing in me that has called me from afar saying, “Come home.”
Initially, I left my home state for college and career opportunities, but my goal was always to come back. After a decade away, I received some entrepreneurial inspiration and decided it was time to make my way back home and start a small business.
In 2008, pitching an apparel company that would use USA Manufacturing and Recycled Textile Technology was not an easy idea. But thanks to my family and close family friends, encouragement triumphed over my trepidation and I eventually moved back home. Quite literally, I was living in Manhattan before my move back to WV. As a struggling entrepreneur, my parents’ house is all I could afford. I praise God for my amazing family and their incredible generosity and encouragement. And, as it turned out, the idea wasn’t as farfetched or out of reach as it seemed.
Fast forward seven years to today, and SustainU just launched its first line with Major League Baseball to provide millennial-focused apparel made in a unique and sustainable way. This concept (and now company) has retained and created jobs in traditional industries in both the South and Appalachia. I want to share this vision because I believe there are incredible opportunities for employment and community reinvestment in Appalachia.
I am often asked, “Why did you go back?” or “Why do you stay?” Misconceptions about Appalachia are as old as the region. National stereotypes of Appalachian people seem to have unfortunately been deemed socially acceptable, even with the rise of political correctness.
Stereotypes have forced Appalachians to stick together, creating communities that are incredibly tight-knit, loyal and selfless. But, this stigma has also given many West Virginians a false, negative self-image that has divided our thinking on the future of the state. Some have adopted a more closed off mindset to some areas of change. This stubbornness can be hurtful for future generations when we do not take steps to actively encourage entrepreneurism across various disciplines.
My hope is that this generation can help break free from this cycle with a renewed state pride around optimism and the welcoming of new ideas. The new identity of West Virginia and other Appalachian states should be one that embraces its hardworking past and encourages out-of-the box thinking from within its non-uniform borders.
Brief History of Appalachia
Timbers from Appalachian forests helped frame our country from a group of colonies to an independent nation. Once the forests had been conquered, mineral extraction became the hidden fruit of the region. Buried in beautiful canyons and along majestic ridge lines, the power source of the 20th century lay in waiting.
The coal mines of Appalachia fed the steel mills of the North, creating incredible public works and critical infrastructure across the nation. These bridges, buildings and tunnels connected people previously separated by natural barriers throughout the country and helped an economic food chain create some of the more diverse communities in the United States within the mountains and hollows of the coalfields.
Exploitation of both human and environmental capital has been too common of a practice for the residents and resources of Appalachia. Environmental barriers first isolated this region but since the Civil War it has been economic isolation that has since afflicted WV.
Coal companies owned towns and communities, from homes to the currency used by worker residents. Some coal operators employed the cheapest, fastest method for extraction, no matter the environmental and social impact. Many of these communities were used for their natural gifts, and then left for cheaper labor and cleaner coal without a contingency plan for its residents. As this exodus of industry continues to play out in West Virginia, more than ever, these communities are in need of hope and a renewed spirit.
A Case for Appalachia and SustainU
I believe that there are inherent advantages and strategic opportunities waiting to be uncovered in the towns and communities of West Virginia. I believe Appalachia can lead in ways not yet fully realized.
My hope is that businesses like SustainU can help shed light on the potential of Appalachia. In the 21st century, places like WV will become vital to the needs of a growing country and world population.
Our state possesses assets that will continue to increase in value in the global market. Here are three very brief examples:
- FOOD – Family farms that have been left behind can become agricultural incubators for the dietary needs of the United States and the world. Agricultural Innovation can be a game changer for Appalachia and we have the farms to do it. Land that once was mined can be repurposed through innovative reclamation practices. West Virginians are accustomed to providing critical resources to our nation, and in the next fifty years this skill could be applied to food.
- LOCATION – Many places in WV are located within nine driving hours of two-thirds of the US population. From a distribution and manufacturing prospective, WV could be the most ideal hub of the 21st Century for fast fulfillment. In addition, the access to major waterways and the close proximity to major harbors allows this region to be ideal for exportation to global destinations.
- WATER – 40 out of 50 state water managers expect water shortages in some portion of their states over the next decade. WV contains major rivers and headwaters, and the incredible importance of water cannot be overstated. Watersheds in WV that can be rejuvenated will reap both economic and incredible social benefit.
Today, we should not abandon the natural gifts we have been given (including coal and natural gas), but the days of exploitation have to end.
Stewardship for the residents, landscape and waterways of Appalachia can no longer be a secondary thought. We should lead with holistic sustainability as this services both the needs of today and those of our future generations.
As we transition into new industries we need to be extremely sensitive to the social, economic and environmental needs of the communities that first molded our state. How we respond to the problems and prospects of the coming years will be remembered by future generations.
We take incredible pride in our lineage because of its legacy of hard work, resiliency and service to our communities and our nation. With the encroachment of the unknown, we should stay.
Instead of retreating to an easier path of the immediate, I urge Appalachian residents to rethink their region. The attributes you admire are available to you now and in this generation. It could be time for you stay where you are or come back home to be part of the solution.