By Zach Potter
The Sanford Herald, N.C.
Ann Blakely loves nothing more than the hum of Common Threads’ 14 looms being put to work by the nonprofit’s volunteers.
Chad Spivey and Donnie Hall are right at home giving kayak tours of Deep River for their startup business, Endor Paddle.
Diana Michelotti, who owns Michelotti Media in Apex, found her passion working with adult artists with autism to help them turn their talents into livelihoods.
These three organizations use different methods to achieve different goals, but they have one thing in common. They are all what Dawn Trembath, director of the N.C. Fourth Sector Resource Project, would call fourth-sector or mission-driven businesses.
“It’s like a cross between a for-profit and a nonprofit business,” Trembath said during the Spring Entrepreneur Meetup at the Lee County Library Tuesday evening. “Our project is focused on raising awareness of fourth-sector businesses, especially in rural areas of North Carolina. We are trying to help communities create a network of interested entrepreneurs.”
As part of the Fourth Sector-sponsored meetup, Blakely, Spivey, Hall and Michelotti all spoke to a small gathering of local businessmen and women about their experiences starting their own businesses.
“This is a place where students young and old can be taught the art of weaving with recycled or donated fabrics, yarn, threads and plastics,” Blakely said of Common Threads, “with the proceeds going back into the community.”
Established in 2003, Common Threads uses the proceeds from selling volunteers creations to fund local charities like the Breadbasket and the Christians United Outreach Center.
Blakely said it took seven years to weave enough inventory to open up shop, and that volunteer weavers use Common Threads’ looms to weave drapes, tote bags, dish towels and more from everything from yarn to recycled plastic bags from Food Lion or Hobby Lobby.
“There is a way you can tear a plastic bag so it is all one long strip,” Blakely said. “Once we were taught how to weave with plastic, that took us to a whole new level. We keep a lot of plastic out of the landfill.”
‘The intimacy of the experience’
“Why are we here?” Hall asked the 15 members of the business community gathered in the library’s auditorium. “Because we care about the community. We want Sanford to be improved. We want options outside the box, not just going to Walmart or Food Lion.”
This desire for more creative businesses opportunities in Lee County led Hall and his friend, Spivey, to turn their love of kayaking into a river-based tourism business.
“We’ve been kayaking for several years,” Hall said. “We love it. We’ve been taking people on Deep River for years. There’s something about it that draws you to it.”
Hall and Spivey offer six different tours that take kayakers of all experience levels down Deep River and parts of the Haw River. But the business uses the tours for more than profit generation. Hall and Spivey make sure that every tour group gets a lesson on the history, ecology and importance of the rivers.
‘A gift and a passion’
Michelotti knew she wanted to work in the communication business from the time she was 7 years old. After eating a spinach, egg and cheese omelet and then watching Popeye smash through a glass door uninjured on TV, Michelotti tried to run through her parents’ storm door.
She succeeded, but lacking the strength Popeye promised her she would get upon gulping down some spinach, she sustained plenty of scrapes and cuts and bruises in the process.
“I just thought, ‘TV lied to me,'” Michelotti said. “And by 16 years old, I knew communication had to change.”
While Michelotti makes a living helping businesses of all shapes and sizes streamline and integrate their corporate messages, her particular passion is working with adult artists with autism.
“They have this God-given gift inside them,” Michelotti said of the artists she works with. “Sometimes that gift is extreme, and I help them make a business out of it.”
Michelotti said that, after the age of 18, many autistic people fall off the grid.
“But they still need a livelihood,” she said. “One option for them to have a future is to own their own business.”
Trembath said the Fourth Sector project uses organizations like Common Threads, Endor Paddle and Michelotti Media as prime examples of small business done right, passions with a purpose as Michelotti called them.
“In Lee County, over half the jobs are in businesses with 100 or [fewer] employees” Trembath said, citing 2013 data from the Edward Lowe Foundation, which researches and supports entrepreneurship throughout the United States. “And 25 percent of jobs are in businesses with 10 or [fewer] employees. That is why entrepreneurship is so important here.”
Lee County Library Director Susan Benning agreed, noting that the area still was recovering from the economic recession of 2008.
“Promoting small businesses, especially mission-driven ones, is a great way to get the economy back on track,” she said. “Small businesses put people to work and generate tax dollars. And they can do a lot of good for our community.”