Welcome to Coffee Talk with the Darby Crew, where we get the inside scoop from our favorite voices in the outdoor, fitness, and wellness industries. This month, we’re checking in with Noah Wilson on his dreams for the Outdoor Economy Conference and why Western North Carolina plays such an important role in the outdoor industry.
Thanks so much for being willing to chat with us for Coffee Talk with Darby! So to kick things off, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your new full-time position at Mountain Bizworks and what you’ll be doing?
I’m now the Director of Sector Development for Mountain BizWorks, where my job is to help develop and grow the outdoor recreation, food, and craft industries in Western North Carolina. That means a lot of work helping to grow and support entrepreneurial networks like the Asheville Food Guild, Outdoor Gear Builders, and NC Outdoor Recreation Coalition; coordinate with funding partners (including our lenders at Mountain BizWorks) to make sure businesses have the capital they need; and gather groups of key stakeholders like the Growing Outdoors Partnership to determine how we can best address challenges and opportunities for these industry sectors. That’s become even more important recently, as you can imagine.
In all the work you’ve done in the past 3 years, what accomplishment are you most proud of?
I’d say that leading the efforts around the 2019 Outdoor Economy Conference was incredibly satisfying and inspiring. The 2018 event had 250 people, largely locals. The 2019 event brought 540 people from an incredibly diverse set of backgrounds here to Asheville from 20 states. That required a monumental lift—we had over 100 people volunteer their time and talents to make it happen, including a core team at the Growing Outdoors Partnership and Mountain BizWorks.
What makes me most proud is the fact that our hard work generated so many connections, so many new projects and partnerships. Over 95% of the attendees we surveyed afterwards said they gained valuable connections and/or information, they’re looking forward to coming back, and they’ll recommend the event to their friends and colleagues. That’s a sign that we got something right.
Let’s say it’s a sunny, 75 degree day in WNC, where would we find you?
My family and I get out for hikes as often as we can. My 7-month-old daughter’s first hike was the day after we got back from the hospital, and even in winter we were getting out twice a week with her bundled up in a little fuzzy bear suit.
Now that the weather is gorgeous, the hiking definitely continues. We live in East Asheville, so our typical spots are usually along the Blue Ridge Parkway or Mountains to Sea Trail, or a local Pisgah National Forest access point. We also love driving into Old Fort and Black Mountain to hit up the trails there.
On an ideal day trip though, we’d head into Brevard to hike a pluton or hit up DuPont, and then end the day at Twin Dragon Buffet for Chinese food and Tsingtaos. I was born in NYC Chinatown, so that’s my comfort food, and I love eating (sometimes too much), so a day like that’s pretty much my best life. I can’t wait until I can go to a buffet again…
Your favorite watering hole in the 828?
Such a tough one! I miss MG Road—that place introduced me to some amazing cocktails, like the Eva Peron, which I swear I could drink a pitcher of on a hot day. But given that we’re mostly drinking at home right now, buying from local distillers (and brewers, and cideries, and ginger beer makers, and…) is where I’m spending my booze $$. My favorite is Oak and Grist Distilling Co.; they make some incredible grain-to-glass spirits, and I love that they support local farmers and malters with everything they do. Their barrel-rested gin is particularly amazing. Full disclosure: the people there are good friends, but that just means I know firsthand how hard they work to source local, make an excellent product, and do something almost nobody else is willing to do. Making local supply chains the core of your business is hard.
What are you reading right now?
So many books! Social distancing has been great for catching up on novels 🙂
I’ve really enjoyed reading Nnedi Okrafor’s Akata Witch series, along with Naomi Novik (Uprooted, Spinning Silver), and S.A. Chakraborty (City of Brass). They’ve all got brilliant, complex female protagonists; bring new ideas to an oft-formulaic genre; and their settings in Nigeria, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East (respectively) allow me to travel and get a chance to dive into other cultures when I’m stuck in my living room.
I also read a lot of science fiction (John Scalzi is a favorite, as are Annalee Newitz, Cory Doctorow, and Martha Wells). I love science fiction because it helps us think about things that haven’t happened yet, and how we, and our societies, would deal with them. Fantasy is my escape hatch; sci-fi is my thought experiment.
How about podcasts, anything you’re really into these days?
The audiobook for Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book, “Talking To Strangers” is really well produced—basically a book-length podcast, with tons of original media mixed in. The format is next-level, and the book is totally fascinating, diving into a lot of our unconscious biases, how they play out in our interactions with strangers, and what that means for our societies and institutions. Once you’ve listened to it, you’re going to have all kinds of new lenses to view the world through.
Honestly though, I’m a reader first and foremost, and the newsletter version of my “can’t miss podcast” is Kyle Westaway’s “Weekend Briefing”. Line for line, it’s the most useful and interesting reading I do all week. Weekend Briefing #319, which just came out on March 21, is particularly good.
Can you share with us some information on the 2020 Outdoor Economy Conference?
Sure! Big picture, the Outdoor Economy Conference is designed to connect, educate, and inspire leaders and doers who are working to grow the outdoor industry in their region, and craft an economy that’s intimately tied to the well-being of their places and communities.
It’s called the Outdoor Economy Conference because it brings together all the parts of the outdoor industry value chain: outdoor industry businesses of all kinds, their supply chain partners, the broader biz community, professional service providers (like Darby Comm!), land managers, nonprofits, local and state and federal governments, educational institutions, etc. Having all of those folks in the room makes this event unique and powerful, and we’ve seen some really cool examples (like this one from Wilkes County, NC) of what happens when you get diverse teams together.
Every year, we choose an overall theme and four focus areas/tracks (alongside a recurring track around Building Outdoor Communities, which is kind of a “how-to” series). In 2020, we’re focused on The Future of Outdoors, and are diving into 4 topics that will shape the outdoor economy in the years to come:
- Growth Through Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion: Growing the outdoor industry’s economic and community impact by building authentic relationships with historically underserved communities and taking action to ensure that the outdoors is accessible and welcoming to everyone.
- Next Generation Outdoors: With outdoor participation trending downward, ensuring that young people have strong connections to the outdoors, and to outdoor industry opportunities, is critical to the outdoor economy’s future.
- Healthy Communities Through Recreation: Growing both public and private investment in outdoor recreation by recognizing its many linkages to public health outcomes.
- Outdoor Entrepreneurship & Innovation: Highlighting how entrepreneurs are sustainably growing the industry in both rural and urban environments, and lifting up trends in outdoor experience and product innovation.
Why do you feel this conference is important for the area and where do you see it growing in the next 5 years?
Western North Carolina is the biggest outdoor industry hub east of the Rockies. And Appalachia, more broadly, is where the majority of Americans go outside and play. That’s why the Smokies and the Blue Ridge Parkway are the most visited National Park and Park Unit, respectively, and why we’re home to the largest cluster of outdoor manufacturers on the east coast (the Outdoor Gear Builders of WNC).
We need to tell that story better. We need a new narrative, to change perceptions of Appalachia and the Southeast as a whole. We need to grow outdoor recreation’s profile as a driver of economic and community development, so that our leaders take the outdoor industry as seriously as they do cars and drugs and silicon. And in order to do that, we need to have the kinds of crucial conversations that happen through something like the Outdoor Economy Conference.
We’re already attracting a national audience. In 5 years, I want this to be a “must do” item on the agendas of leaders and doers across the outdoor recreation value chain, from across the US. I want this to be some beautiful mixup of TED conference, South by Southwest, and the best bits of Outdoor Retailer, swirled together with a whole lot of “go outside and play.” And I want to have the conference itself be the nucleus of something much more interesting: a whole series of conversations and gatherings about what it means to work in partnership with our places, to have our natural world be the system that sustains our health, our economies, and our societies, and for us to truly care for it in return.
How did you fall in love with the outdoors and what are some of your favorite activities to get outside?
I grew up lucky. My parents were camping while I was in utero; they took me hiking and camping all throughout my youth and sent me to summer camp. I had such a privileged existence in that way. But I spent my K-10 years in a suburban town that was growing into a small city, and while I grew up, all the open spaces were disappearing. The vacant lots where we’d play games and look at bugs and pick flowers. The wild places where we built stick shelters and told tall tales in the soft glow of smuggled candles.
As the woods turned into malls and condos, I got pretty depressed and acted out, was prescribed ADD meds and sent to suspension all the time, and generally was a pretty awful t(w)een. Then I was fortunate to be able to go to early college at 16 years old, at Simon’s Rock in the Appalachian mountains of western Massachusetts. The campus was in the middle of acres upon acres of forested hills and rolling fields, and I quickly realized that I was acting out mostly because I wasn’t getting outside enough. I started hiking and spending time in nature almost every day, and I haven’t stopped (or moved out of these mountains) since.
If you could meet anyone from the past, present or future, who would it be and why?
Harriet Tubman. She’s my outdoor icon: a freedom fighter, all around badass, and unparallelled outdoorswoman. She was basically an abolitionist Green Beret. She risked her life and safety in ways I cannot even imagine as a guide to help others achieve their own freedom, and then she was a super-spy during the Civil War, and a nurse, and then a champion for women’s suffrage, spent her final years establishing a home for the elderly on her property… She kept on adapting to address the biggest issues of her times, and did so at scales both personal and country-wide, all the way to her last days.
Growing up, she was always one of my favorite heroes, and I think I really fixated on images of her in the woods, helping people leave no trace as they moved stealthily through the wilderness and into the Underground Railroad. I’d love to go for a walk in the woods with her, and cook a meal together, and learn about wayfinding and wildcraft and leadership, and how to stay dedicated and keep on going and triumph in the face of seemingly insurmountable difficulties.
Because we live in Asheville, we’re going to need to know your birth sign.
Anything else you’d like to add or something you’d like to share that people would be surprised to learn about you?
I’m always looking for the opportunities and resources that people are overlooking or even throwing away. When I worked in a kitchen, that earned me the nickname “The Vulture”, and I’m pretty proud of that 🙂 Vultures are awesome.