Below is an interview with Lynn Caldwell who is the market manager at Atherton Mill Market. It is another one in my “Follow your Passion” series. Lynn gave a few of us bloggers in town a private market tour last fall. She is an extraordinary person that is making a huge difference in Charlotte. Hope you enjoy.
Lynn, thanks so much for talking with me for my series called “Follow your Passion.” So tell us all a little bit more about what you do at the Atherton Market.
Hi Jon. I do a little bit of everything at the market. I was originally engaged to vision it, and do vendor recruitment as well as manage day-to-day operations, but my role has evolved to encompass community building around the market, consumer education, and engaging other businesses and organizations in Charlotte in partnerships and shared efforts. I want the market to become a hub – not just for shopping and meeting tangible human needs but for creating connections between people. I truly believe that people want to be connected to each other in real ways and because of something meaningful. People want something to believe in, and that something ties them together. I spend a great deal of time listening. Sometimes it is interesting and sometimes it is not, and I’m sure the people who listen to me feel the same way. I am grateful for them, and for those who want to share some piece of their life – their passions or their dreams or their talent – with me and the market.
How did you identify this as a potential career path? What were you doing before you started this venture and why did you make the change?
Ha – if I tried to map my career journey it would only make sense to me, but I can truly say that what I am doing now draws from everything else I’ve done. I started on the restaurant scene in the late 80s, getting experience in the front and the back of the house. Let’s just say I have a short attention span and also like to explore every potential role when I am part of an organization. I left there to work for a company that does Human Resources support, and gained experience in accounting, training, and software support. I then went to work for one of our members – Microsoft. I was there for 9 years, both here and in Redmond. In the Northwest I came to appreciate good coffee and farmers markets. In my 9 years at Microsoft I did everything from support to user education to building an Office Developer community to marketing. I left to be a Mom, though I stayed on as a contractor for the press group working from home. I got tired of technology, and in a signature-Lynn move did a 180 and accepted an invitation to apprentice to an urban farmer running a CSA off of a half acre in Plaza Midwood. I learned a lot, but farming was clearly not my thing. However, in the many hours spent hoeing (there’s a joke there somewhere) and weeding, I began to hatch a plan with the farmer to start an urban tailgate market. I fortuitously attended a seminar in Fletcher, NC where I met Nina Planck, who continues to be my “muse” in regard to markets and “real food.” We had our first market on the little piece of green beside the Common Market in PM and that is where my market journey began. We operated two seasons there, two in South End until the tent from hell collapsed, and then an opportunity emerged to take my passion indoors at Atherton Mill and pull all of my skills together to do this thing.
I always hear people talking about the importance of not being afraid to fail. The idea that sometimes when you follow your passion or make a big change, there is no way of knowing how it will turn out when you start. How did you handle those thoughts? Did you have to take some risks along the way and was it hard to make the change knowing you were leaving a secure job?
There were many times in those first days in Plaza Midwood when I was sure people were laughing at me, not that I much cared. Days when no vendors showed up, or worse, no customers. I got more “nos” than affirmations when trying to establish partnerships. But I dug deep and decided to rely on my passion for writing to try and get beyond the early hurdles that sometimes felt insurmountable. I was fortunate to have a supporting and loving partner who was gainfully employed, and willing to let me try this.
I don’t do a lot of second guessing. I decide what I’m going to do and I find a way to do it. It doesn’t always work, and I’m learning when to back off. But in this case writing made the difference. I started a blog and got on my soap box. I got a few fans who were connected with what the market needed to grow. And I spent a great deal of time meeting farmers, getting my head around their issues, and taking a stand for them in a very public way. I still do a lot of that, for farmers and artisans who are creating products with integrity. I’ve upset some apple carts, but I am not afraid of change, taking a chance, or taking risks. Nothing worthwhile happens without that, whether it is an individual effort or a team.
I love hearing when people find a career that brings them real purpose. When I came by to visit you I remember you talking about your vision for the vendors you have at the market. That it really meant a lot for you to provide a place for their businesses to succeed and thrive. Can you talk more about this idea and why it is important to you?
I admire people who inspire me with their passion and aren’t afraid of hard work. Those are minimal requirements for any farmer or business who is bound for success. I have also spent the last handful of years immersed in educating myself about the importance of local food and building the local economy – most consumers aren’t aware that the infrastructure of big ag is crumbling. We need to have systems and resources in place at the local level to be ready to meet the inevitable demand. Sourcing from local small businesses will no longer be a luxury, it will be a necessity to survive. That is not chicken little. That is inevitable. We’re planning for the future.
How have you felt both personally and professionally about doing something you love since you started at Atherton Mill Market? How did it all turn out for you now that you have been there for almost 3 years?
We’ve been open since May of 2010. Personally it has been a rollercoaster – riding the highs of the good times and confronting the challenges. Experiencing a great deal of frustration in figuring out the Charlotte consumer mindset and attaching to their priorities, and maybe changing them a little. Meeting people where they are and embracing them (figuratively speaking and sometimes literally… I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with hugs). I have grown so much as a person. Learning to lead, guide, listen, building our tribe. Letting the spirit of the market whisper to us what is next. I have an idea of where we are headed, but I try to maintain enough flexibility to change as it becomes necessary. We’ve come a long way, which is easy to forget when I’m there, in it every day. We have a long way to go and grow, and I hope you’ll come along with us on the journey.
Any advice to readers out there contemplating a career change?
Don’t be afraid to follow your heart. Maybe try it as a side gig first, and maybe that will be enough, but life is too short to spend the majority of it slogging along down a path that drains the life juice out of you. Find ways to connect with people who are doing what you suspect you want to do. Surround yourself with people who can energize you and infuse you with confidence and direction. Don’t overthink everything. Don’t be afraid to fail boldly. And no whining.
So go see Lynn and her crew at the Atherton Mill Market. You can feel the energy she has created when you walk in the market. And her perspective on work and life is so refreshing. She really took a stand for what she was passionate about and then was intentional about causing the change to happen. And now she created a space for others to do the same. That is the essence of co-creating a world where one plus one is more than two. Have a great week.