Retired sales professional, Dawn Walker is anything BUT retired. Since she moved to Asheville, she’s been staying extremely busy sharing her business savvy and wisdom as a mentor and now Co-Director for Venture Asheville’s Elevate, an entrepreneurship development program designed to help high-growth, early-stage ventures scale more rapidly. We’ve been lucky enough to connect with Dawn recently over tacos and learn more about her vast experience in the world of food and beverage sales and how through it all she’s always given back to others.
Thank you for allowing us to interview you for our Coffee Talk series. Could you tell us a bit about what you did before moving to Asheville?
Being born and raised in Minneapolis, food product manufacturers were a big part of my early career. I started in sales with Aramark, Pepsi, and then Pillsbury calling on national chain restaurants, some convenience stores, and a few big box stores. After Pillsbury, I did a stint running the capital campaign for The Boys and Girls Club of Minneapolis for two years.
Volunteerism has always been an important part of my life, including six “littles” through Big Brothers and Sisters over the years. In fact, I was with one of my “littles” for 20 years!
After my time with Big Brothers Big Sisters, I went back into corporate America and worked in sales with a connector company, dispensing equipment company, bag company, and supply chain company all calling on McDonald’s globally and other national chain restaurants. My job with them was as “the bag lady” for liquid products — think Coca-Cola, ketchup, ice cream, smoothies, and frappes in a bag. While I was there, I had the opportunity to introduce smoothies and frappes to Europe, Shanghai, Brazil, and Costa Rica!
You’ve done some incredible work in the community, supporting many small businesses and helping them to ‘elevate’ to the next level. Can you share a couple of your favorite success stories?
When I moved to Asheville six years ago, I was contacted by the former director of the Elevate program, Josh Dorfman. Elevate is an MIT-based program run and supported under the Asheville Economic Development Office and is now expertly managed by Jeff Kaplan. Elevate matches experts, a.k.a. volunteer mentors, with particular skillsets to new startups in Asheville. Each startup’s founder is given three to four expert mentors who meet with them once a month to help them grow and expand their business with the goal of hiring more Asheville residents and providing jobs.
I have to admit, I’ve absolutely LOVED this program. The caliber of mentors now living in Asheville and participating in the Elevate program would make anyone’s head spin. These creative and industrious founders are simply incredible. Because of my food and beverage background, I have been fortunate to be on mentor teams for Poppy Hand-Crafted Popcorn, Ginger’s Revenge, SoulKu Jewelry, Sarilla Carbonated Tea, and others.
It is very rewarding to work with such tremendous individuals and I am very grateful for the experience and having these people in my life. One year ago, after being named a Mentor of the Year, I was asked to be Co-Director of the program alongside Mr. Robert Anoff, and that has been great too!
We understand you are a big advocate for helping entrepreneurs scale their business. What’s the one piece of advice you always instill upon your mentees?
Follow your passion and take the time to learn from others. People want to help you succeed! Also, ask for help or hire help if you can. No one person can be good at everything. Be honest with yourself on what you are good at and allow yourself the gift of off-loading what you are not good at to others who are! Be honest with yourself and delegate!
Follow your passion and take the time to learn from others.
People want to help you succeed!
It’s been a wild year and a half with the pandemic. How are small businesses surviving and thriving during this time? What do you think is most important for them to thrive in the coming year?
Pivot to what will work in this new environment. The companies that have thrived didn’t attempt to conduct business as usual, they looked at what changing needs were occurring and they developed solutions for the new environment.
What song/artist is playing on repeat for you right now?
My musical taste is pretty Indie. I love going to live shows at The Orange Peel, Grey Eagle, and Rabbit Rabbit. In the last couple of months, I have seen Band of Horses, Jason Isbell, Lucero, Trampled by Turtles, The Connell’s, and Mt. Joy. I also have become a concert promoter during Covid (hardly!), but I have scheduled outdoor neighborhood concerts since the pandemic and have hired local bands like Andrew Scotchie, Life Like Water, Jesse Barry, and Jackson Grimm.
Podcast or Documentary? Which one is your preference and do you have a favorite?
My sister told me about Southlake and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s about the Texas School Board — “You can teach about the holocaust but only if you also teach the opposing view also.” — It is unbelievable and a must-listen.
Are you reading any good books right now?
I love the book The Go Giver, A Little Story About a Powerful Business Idea, it’s a business book written by Bob Burg and John D. Mann and tells a story about the power of giving. The other book I love is Tying Rocks to Clouds: Meetings and Conversations with Wise and Spiritual People by William Elliott.
Favorite thing to do when you’ve got some downtime?
Listen to music. I am also a Guardian ad Litem which is the voice for abused or neglected children in court. I also started an Asheville Women’s Business Owner monthly gathering that includes some of the most amazing women that I have ever had the good fortune to call friends.
If someone was coming to visit you here in Asheville, what would be your top three places you’d be sure they had to see while they were here?
I ran an Airbnb in my basement for almost four years and people would ask, what restaurants would you recommend? What I told them was the food in Asheville is just spectacular everywhere, even the food trucks. White table cloth or inexpensive to-go, the food in Asheville will not disappoint. The same goes, I feel, for the hikes, music, and our artists — just incredible talent in Asheville! We are so fortunate.
Bringing it back to business for a minute, what type of business would you love to see join the Elevate program that you haven’t seen yet?
I have been astounded and thrilled with what people are coming up with on their own! We just accepted three new companies last week, an artisan ancient corn and bean importer marketing to restaurants and distilleries, a luxury real estate marketing platform marketing to individuals, and a new ingenious product company to help organize your small stuff. I couldn’t possibly be more creative than these wonderful new startup founders!
What’s something people would be surprised to learn about you?
I am dyslexic and have zero memory. It is amazing that I can function! I have had to put lots of systems in place to compensate for these challenges.
Find Dawn at:
Just LinkedIn, I’m super low tech and enjoy face to face much more.
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