Story by Kinsey Lane Sullivan   Photographs by Baxter Miller

The spirit of competition, the drive for success, the pace of ambition is different in North Carolina. Our pursuit of the dream is impassioned, but quietly, purposefully so. We may not fall for flash, but we will swear to substance.

You see it on the court, where sportsmanship is more than an empty promise. You taste it on your plate, with local ingredients grown carefully, respectfully. You see it in our craft, which is passed down through generations. Here, we appreciate not only a job well-done, but the work of doing it. 

In our state, the Old North State, the hustle is graceful.

No one understands this more deeply than the entrepreneurs of NC. Not just any entrepreneurs. Female entrepreneurs. Lady bosses. Dreamers, makers, doers. Daughters, wives, mothers.

To learn more about this unique perspective, Bit + Grain spoke with five female entrepreneurs who embody the art of the graceful hustle and the pursuit of success.

For these women, risk-taking and fearlessness are fundamental. They have taken that impossibly large leap of faith into the unknown and are landing gracefully and firm-footed. From Shelby to Wilmington, they are redefining industry and economy in our state. In the process, they are helping not only revitalize small towns but inspire a new wave of makers.

Like it or not, when deciding to go into business as a woman, there are a unique set of considerations. Will I be taken seriously? Can I realistically expect to earn enough to support myself? Is it possible to own a business and have a family? 

While the answer to these questions is increasingly “yes,” this has not historically been the case.

Bit + Grain is truly honored to share with you the stories of five female entrepreneurs: Jessie Williams, Ann Howell Bullard, ‘Emma Merisier, Jordan Boinest, and Karen M. O’Leary. As North Carolina’s economy changes, we are glad that these women are among the ranks of those shaping its future. Here’s what they had to say about the art of the hustle.

Some people have an enthusiasm, a joy, that radiates. It’s a rare thing, and Jessie Williams of Edge of Urge (Wilmington and Raleigh) has it in spades. She exudes a pure love of the hustle.

Knowing that she wanted to open a store, Jessie moved to Wilmington, where she had spent time as a young girl with her family. Though she had no experience in business, she had more than enough guts. In just a few years, she’s built Edge of Urge, a retail store, and its parallel, the Mama Bear Project, an incubator for young creatives, into lynchpins of the Wilmington creative scene. She’s found such success that Edge of Urge recently opened a store in Raleigh. 

Dedicated and self-aware, Jessie proves that to be successful in business, you don’t have to know everything right away--you just have to know where to start. And for her, you have to love the game.

When moved from Chicago to Wilmington, did you know you'd launch Edge of Urge? How did you know Wilmington was the right place for you?

I moved to Wilmington to open Edge of Urge. I did not know a lot about business, but I did know there was no way I could afford to open up a shop in Chicago. Let me rephrase that… I knew NOTHING about business! 

I spent a lot of time in Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach as a kid with my family. My mom, aka total badass, was a photographer for over 26 years. She did aerial photography for the developers on Wrightsville Beach years ago. Yeah, that’s right! She would hang from helicopters and airplanes with her camera.

[Anyway], Wilmington was very nostalgic for me. Not too big, not too small--a great place to start a business!

The idea of risk-taking is central to Edge of Urge and the Mama Bear Project. Are you a natural risk-taker, or was that something you had to learn?

Well, I came from a family of risk takers. Our family tree is filled with entrepreneurs. Honestly, I feel my ability to just jump comes from my parents always telling me I was going to make something of myself.

It has always been apparent that I was not like everyone else. It shows itself through my personal style [and in] the way I absorb information and skills. So when kids were making fun of me for being different, or [when] people [were] telling me I was crazy to start a business with no money or experience, in the back of my head, I could hear my parents saying, ”You got this! Trust your guts! No matter what happens, you will always find your own way to success!” All of this being said,

What does "hustle" mean to you, and how does it influence your life in and out of work?

Hustle to me, means fighting for what you love/what you believe in! Covering your ears to the naysayers and giving your all. Also, not beating yourself up when things do not go as planned. Most times, I find I learn a valuable lesson, which gives me more fuel going forward. 

Hustle also means supporting your peers, community and family. I strongly believe in the power in numbers. One can’t truly and genuinely receive without giving back in one way or another. Besides, to me, my heart feels most joyous when I am giving--the ultimate hustle!

Edge of Urge and the Mama Bear Project both act as incubators for emerging artists, designers and other creatives. Could you explain why that is essential to your business?

Edge of Urge has always been a strong supporter of the underdog. We believe everyone deserves an opportunity, especially those who are willing to put in the blood sweat and tears it takes to create something from nothing.

Starting a business is a huge risk. Our goal is to provide information, a vetted network and resources to help these individuals succeed.

Unfortunately, the fashion and design industries are not the most inviting. There are a ton of people out there who prey on the naive newbies. ENTER THE MAMABEAR! We want to protect our cubs from as many of these potentially negative experiences as possible and equip them with the tools they need to succeed.

How does Edge of Urge reflect North Carolina's unique environment, either in terms of culture or aesthetic?

Well, I’m not so sure there is anything particularly ‘North Carolina’ about our aesthetic. That being said, we do have several designers who dream up and manufacture their products right here in NC! 

One of the things I think is fun about Edge of Urge is you can’t tell by looking at the products what part of the US they came from or if it was made by hand. There is so much talent out there! I love seeing the reaction on peoples faces when they realize the piece that are holding was made by hand. Essentially, we have curated a nest of our favorite things.

If there was one thing we do celebrate NC culture-wise, it would be southern hospitality! We take the snobbery out of fashion. Fashion should be fun and inclusive!

Are there any lessons you had to learn the hard way that you'd like to share with other aspiring business owners?

Do not be afraid to ask for help. And just because others may appear to have more experience than you,doesn’t mean their advice is best for YOU! Never take their word as gold.  

For me, slow and steady works. When I have tried to keep up with others or pushed myself in the wrong direction, it has always failed. Trust your guts!

Find hours and location information, as well as more details about the Mamabear Project, here.


Ann Howell Bullard’s energy is vibrant and unpretentious, with an easy generosity. When we first began talking, she defined hustle as “working smarter and getting better and maximizing every ounce of what you've got.” This seems perfectly reflected in the work she enthusiastically, boldly creates. 

Ann Howell is the driving force behind Ann Howell Art, a studio that offers both paintings and an incredible line of 100 percent hand-made painted leather evening bags. Her first line, Lipstick Studies, launched in February 2015. She recently launched and her second line, Jungle Queen, this summer. 

You've spoken previously about the importance of hustle. What motivates you to push, to create, to go for it fearlessly?

For me, the motivation to hustle comes from the fact that there is no other real alternative.  Ever since I can remember, I've just always seen things--colors, textures, shapes, feelings - and they're all stored up in this brain catalogue in my head, mixing together and waiting... I absolutely love creating, because I feel like I'm in my element.

Usually, the struggle isn't the act of creation, though I certainly experience creative blocks and dead ends that are very frustrating. The struggle and the hustle lies in figuring out how to create value--so I can use those skills to help support myself and my little family. 

Do you think women approach that idea of "hustle" differently?

I don't know how men approach the idea of "hustle," so I'm not sure. When I hear Mark Cuban talk about hustle, I definitely identify with what he's talking about, and it seems universal--you've got to make it happen for yourself, whatever "it" is.  

I have noticed that sometimes my business and my goals are perceived as "cute," like "Oh! It's so cute that you're trying!" In the back of my mind I'm [thinking], “Okay, and also it’s totally badass and serious and could help send my kids to college one day.” I've seen groups of grown men launch ventures that are completely disorganized, poorly planned, and driven by emotions and egos, and nobody says that they're "cute" for making the effort.  
It seems like a lot of your creative process is playful. Do you have a formal art background, or leather-working experience, before starting this line of handbags?

No! I have no formal background in art or leather working. I studied Art History and English at UNC-Chapel Hill, and it was magical, and I looked at art and read books all day. I also spent a summer interning at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, which exposed me to the most incredible art collection in the world.

I'd say that my art education has mainly been sponge education--just watching, observing, remembering what I see that moves me. I hope that continues! There's so much more to see. 

An essential aspect of launching an idea is to acknowledge that "failure" is possible, but not final. What is one experience of "failure," and how did it contribute to you being the person you are today, and has it contributed to building the company you're building?

When I first started making leather evening bags, I was confident in my painting ability, but had zero confidence in my sewing skills.  Instead of trying to figure out how to sew, I immediately resorted to farming out the work, and had someone else sew my clutches together for me. I assumed that since they had the skills on paper they'd do a good job. It turned out terribly, and the clutches looked awful! 

Instead of automatically assuming someone else could do it better, I should have tried to figure it out on my own. So, I learned the hand-stitching method that I use now and it looks beautiful and holds up much better than machine sewing, anyway!

I think this was important for me to learn: try to figure it out. This goes for just about everything outside of my comfort zone--taxes, accounting, logistics, inventory, pricing, my elevator pitch, etc.  I'm always surprised by how many resources I have at my fingertips that I didn't realize I had at first.  

Is North Carolina's unique identity reflected in your products?

I lived in rural northeastern North Carolina for three years before moving to Raleigh, and I really miss that landscape--lots of green, sort of crumbling, a mix of old and new, and quietly beautiful and complicated.  One of my favorite books is by a North Carolina author--"A Long and Happy Life" by Reynolds Price--and much of my Jungle Queen inspiration (especially the Jungle Collards Zip Clutch) is drawn from the ways he writes about the woods. I think pieces of North Carolina and the South will always be in my work. 

How has community played a role in the success of your company?

Certainly the creative community in Raleigh has had a huge impact! Furbish Studio was the first to give my clutches a trial run right when I was starting, and that was a huge confidence booster for me. It also gave me a dash of real-world feedback that forced me to figure out how to step up my game to play with the big kids. I also began working with the most darling and talented photographer, Anna Routh Barzin, and through her I've made connections and found other little windows of opportunity.  

Whereas in rural northeastern NC I found myself drawing energy from the landscape, in Raleigh I find myself drawing energy from other creative entrepreneurs, and it's awesome. 

Outside of my local NC community, I've noticed sales and enthusiasm for my clutches build in little pockets where one person will order a clutch, and then two or three of their friends will see it and order a clutch, and it just spreads organically. That is the coolest thing in the world to see! I think that connection-based economy loops back to the definition of hustle: maximizing every ounce of what you already have to get to where you want to be. My focus needs to be on growing within my little community that I already have and love. And, that way is so fulfilling, because it's person-to-person and based on relationships. 

Do you have any practical advice for others who may be looking to pursue their own creative paths?

Seth Godin. Subscribe to his blog and read the posts every morning in your inbox. He makes so much sense, and provides thought-provoking, actionable tidbits of business/marketing/life advice.  

Anne Howell Bullard’s bags are currently available at Furbish Studio, Raleigh Denim Curatory and online. For more information, visit her website.


‘Emma Merisier is savvy. She’s driven. She’s accomplished. Above all, this mom-to-be is a businesswoman. Baking is her passion, and she is absolutely determined to make it work. That recipe for success you’ve heard so much about? She’s got it.

Southern Cake Queen has become an iconic staple of the Charlotte food truck scene. Her hot pink truck had people talking when she first launched, and they’re still talking.

As the owner and baker behind Charlotte’s first dessert food truck, ‘Emma is the business conscience and the creative director, the business development leader and content editor. There is no part of her business, from marketing to cooking, that she doesn’t handle, and presumably, doesn’t love in some way. You wouldn’t, couldn’t choose this path if you didn’t.

How did you learn to bake? 

I’m self-taught. I dont have any formal training, [so] it’s been lots of trials and errors. I've enjoyed baking since I was a little girl--me and my Easy Bake oven.

When you decided to pursue baking full-time, how did you know that a food truck was the right platform for your delicious cakes?  

I was one of the many home-based bakers in Charlotte, and wanted something innovative to set me apart from the rest. I already had a great product, so I combined it with the height of the food truck scene and created Charlotte's first mobile dessert truck.

Southern Cake Queen was the one of the first food trucks in Charlotte, and certainly the first dessert food truck when it launched in 2011. Was it difficult to be among the first, or were people ready for food trucks? 

Charlotte was ready! As soon as we hit the streets people were inviting us to corporate and private events. I would set up every Saturday in South End near Price's Chicken Coop and people would look forward to getting "a little piece of heaven."

What is the most fun part of your work? What is the least?

[The most fun part is] watching clients enjoy our delicious desserts! [The least fun part is] hot summers…our truck is a 1988 and does not have air conditioning in the front cab.

Do your cakes reflect your roots in the South and in Charlotte, and if so, how? 

I'm a Southern baker. Yes, we do offer a few exotic flavors but we like to offer our clients the classic southern desserts made with love! [Some flavors include] red velvet, peach cobbler, sweet potato, and carrot cake.

Being a baker and a business owner requires long hours, diligence and drive. "Hustle" is the name of the game; literally and figuratively, you're always on the move. How do you stay inspired to keep going for it? 

Whenever I need a little inspiration, I go out on the truck or cart, and my customers remind me why I do what I do. We have many regulars.

Social media seems to be a big part of your business model. Do you have any advice for how new businesses can establish their presence online? 

Yes, social media is a big part of my business model. I suggest new businesses create the buzz before their doors open or they hit the street.  Let the world know what they have to look forward to.  

You also have to be consistent and give them a little bit of your personality as well. Don't let it be all about the business. I have customers who approach me, and say I'm like their best friend. [Online] I talk business and personal--I let them in! We are family.

What is one truth or lesson you've learned that everyone who is considering starting a business should know?  

Man does not build a business. Man builds a team and the team builds a successful business. Be careful who you select to join your team. Seek a mentor, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Always strive to do it better than your competition!

Follow Southern Cake Queen online to find out where they’ll be next!


As the textile industry left North Carolina, towns like Shelby were hard-hit. But a new wave of entrepreneurs, including Jordan Boinest, are on a mission to breathe new life into downtown Shelby. Jordan is the co-owner of a craft brewery, Newgrass Brewing Company, set to open this month. Newgrass is part of a major initiative to revitalize Shelby, and is closely tied to the community’s history and current residents. 

From just a few conversations, it’s clear that Jordan is a giver. She loves making people happy, and the brewery is one way to do that. Moreover, she is passionate about investing in her community. In a world that can seem to disregard the importance of real, physical connections to places and their people, Jordan’s approach is not only refreshing but deeply moving.

You're one of, if not the the youngest female brewery owner in the US - an incredible achievement that requires a lot of drive, passion, and commitment. What inspired you to take the leap and start your own brewery, and what keeps you motivated?  
I have always been a bit of a talker and love meeting new people. I previously lived in Wilmington and Boone. Both towns are huge tourist destinations, so tourism became part of my everyday life that I enjoyed.  

When I started my first craft beer job, I saw beer and tourism go hand in hand and knew I had found my career. While living in the mountains, Lewis McCallister (Brewmaster), and I would come to Shelby to visit family and saw a need for a brewery.  

It soon became a dream of ours to eventually be part of one in the area. Lucky for us, investors interested in the same dream found Lewis and me and the project to open Newgrass Brewing Company began.  

This industry in general motivates me on a daily basis. Anytime I have a question, I know I can call a friend in the industry and just ask for help... I know I am young and have a lot of questions, but there are people much more experienced out there that have given me so much advice and I couldn’t be more grateful. People in craft beer want to see the craft beer industry grow. By helping each other succeed we are doing that.
Are there advantages to being a female in a male-dominated industry, and if so, what are they?
I wouldn’t say there are any advantages for women in this industry.“Making it” is all about doing your job well and efficiently.  

In the beginning, I started to research women in the beer industry and came across The Pink Boots Society, created to empower women in craft beer through education. I immediately joined and was blown away by the inspiration these women gave me each day. Even without meeting any of the women, I was able to find encouragement, strength and empowerment as a female working with all men.  

I applied for a scholarship through The Pink Boots Society after finding out I would be part of Newgrass Brewing Company. To my surprise, I was selected to fly out to San Diego, CA, and partake in a class about the Business of Distribution. I can already tell you that what I learned will help our business a great deal as distribution is arguably one of the most important parts of running a brewery. I look forward to working more with The Pink Boots Society in the future. Women are a huge part of this industry!
Launching a new project, initiative, or business is an exciting time, but full of learning experiences. What contributes most to your success?
I love to interact with people especially when it comes to talking about beer! I have always been interested in meeting new people. Working in a brewery, I am able to do that everyday. Most people who walk into breweries are relaxed and ready for a good time with friends or family around a great pint of beer. Nothing makes me happier than being able to provide that for them. 
Starting your own company is hard work - it’s not for the faint of heart. How do you face and tackle challenges? Where do you find strength?
In 2005, my mother passed away from cancer. Over the past ten years, I have had my fair share of struggles. I face and tackle challenges by remembering that I am lucky to be alive and have the opportunity to live my dreams each day. Some days may seem harder than others, but if you let those days bring you down you are doing yourself an injustice!  

I find strength in knowing that we are all here to love each other and make this world a better place together. I hope more than anything to let this show at Newgrass Brewing Company.
It's clear that your North Carolina roots are hugely influential in the founding, construction and vision of Newgrass. Could you speak a little to that vision and mission? Do your brews in any way represent or reflect your North Carolina experience?
We have always had the mission to help preserve and recreate history in Shelby. The building that has been renovated for the brewery was originally built in 1909. On the front of the building several features have been preserved to help keep the same look as before.  Inside of the facility you will find wood throughout that is over 100 years old. It is all heart pine from the old Dover Mill here in Shelby. The reclaimed wood was flooring in the mill, [and] many locals had relatives that worked and walked on this wood. 
Many of our beer names are tied to our area as well and have great stories behind them. 
North Carolina is an American beer capital. Is it intimidating to launch a new brewery in that industry? 
It has never felt intimidating because we know we make great beer and are very passionate about quality in the craft beer industry here in North Carolina. 
Our facility is located between two major bluegrass destinations, The Earl Scruggs Center and The Don Gibson Theatre. We have included a stage for live music in our facility to help expand and support the music scene in Shelby. 
Do you have any advice for other aspiring entrepreneurs?
Read as much as you can. I try to read other publications that are not about beer as well to stay current and learn new ideas that I can apply to Newgrass one day. Be confident and get to know your community. Getting to know people and building relationships with them will help any business. Get out there and represent!

Newgrass Brewing Company is slated to open in downtown Shelby, NC in August 2015. Follow their website for updates.


When an individual creates something beautiful and unique, crafted carefully and lovingly, she hopes this creation will be appreciated by the right audience. Luckily, in Karen M. O’Leary’s case, that is exactly what happened. 

This mother of two began creating papercuts of maps quite by accident, but her work quickly became popular on Etsy. In the six intervening years since she launched Studio KMO, her work has been endorsed by industry leaders like Oprah and Martha Stewart, and lifestyle blogs like Cool Hunting. Her artwork even hangs on the walls of some of the largest companies in the world. 

Despite her success, Karen remains relaxed and kind-spirited, generous with her time and committed to her practice. 

You're the artist and business leader behind a successful studio that creates gorgeous papercuts and prints. How did you get started, and when did you know you were ready to launch the business in earnest? 

My business was accidentally started in 2009. After I graduated from Virginia Tech with a Bachelor of Architecture, I was working in NYC at an architecture firm, and in my free time I created a 6 foot x 8 foot hand cut map of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx for myself. It took nine months to complete, and I held on to it for a few years.  

At the time, I didn't have a permanent place to hang it or the money to frame it properly, so I put it up on Etsy to sell. I really didn't even know what Etsy was but my delicate map images got picked up by a blog and circulated on the web. So many city requests came in, and Studio KMO was unintentionally started. I quickly transitioned from a Project Architect to a Paper Cutting Artist.

Being an artist, a small business owner, and a mother is a lot to balance, and takes a lot of hustle. What does hustle mean to you? 

I work hard, it's one quality that I have learned from my parents. I have many early mornings with my two young girls and many late nights in the studio, but I truly love what I do and I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Did you face any major challenges on your journey to launching Studio KMO?

My small business is a work in progress. I've learned many things along the way. The hardest part has been learning to say no to certain projects simply because of time. I'm grateful to be so busy, but I'm only a small, one-person business, and with that come many restraints.

Beyond featuring Charlotte and other local cities in your work, does the physical or intellectual environment in North Carolina impact your work? 

I'm grateful for the Charlotte shops and businesses that feature my work. My original hand cut maps can be found at Slate Interiors, West Elm, Paper Skyscraper and at the Olde Mecklenburg Brewery. Charlotte has allowed me the opportunity to be part of an amazing community.

Your work has been featured by major lifestyle industry leaders. Has that attention impacted your business? 

In 2014, I was featured by Oprah's O Magazine. This, of course, was a big opportunity for my artwork and with it came a lot of new business and a new audience of clients.  

Do you have any advice for others who are considering making their creative pursuit their business? Are there any lessons you learned about balancing the business and artistic sides of your work that you'd like to share?  

Karen’s work can be found online in Studio KMO’s Etsy shop.


Their visions may be singular, but their pursuits are similar and bound by a shared commitment to creating products of substance. 

Their values shine through their work. Jessie William’s radical, daring vision for the fashion industry--one built on mutual respect and support--is an expression of generosity and compassion.  Anne Howell Bullard’s hand-made, colorful clutches and paintings are suited for a life well-lived. ‘Emma Merisier’s brings contemporary market savvy to gorgeous cupcakes rooted in a southern baking tradition. Jordan Boinest fosters her passion for community--for gathering around the table--through lovingly crafted brews and bites. Karen M. O’Leary’s masterful papercut maps crafted with patience and vision are a testament to pursuing a labor of love.

This is the art of the graceful hustle: worthwhile work, created purposefully. 

Here’s to the hustle.