Building a Movement
Jamee Haley can tell when a town is without a strong local business culture. She knows, because she built one in Charleston.
Lowcountry Local First, the group Haley co-founded in 2007, is synonymous with Charleston’s “buy local” movement. LLF has trained farmers, mentored business owners and called on local leaders, all in an effort to cultivate a community that understands the value of local and independent business ownership.
Now after 15 years of leading the charge, Haley is preparing to step down at the end of the month.
The way Haley tells it, LLF’s first challenge in its early days was education.
“Why should anybody care? Well, here’s all the reasons why you should care. And then, here’s what you can do,” Haley said. Lowcountry Local First is not just any business group. Member businesses must be based locally. No corporate overlords. No far-flung financiers. “We feel like the big guys already have plenty of representation,” she said.
Today, Lowcountry Local First represents more than 450 businesses that employ more than 12,000 people across the Charleston area.
From the beginning, LLF has been trying to stick up for the little guys, whether it’s in terms of advocacy or equipping entrepreneurs with the tools needed to start a new business, Haley told the Charleston City Paper.
“We kind of think of ourselves as an incubator for best ideas,” she said. Case in point: That farmer training program? It’s now part of Trident Tech’s regular course offering, curriculum and all.
A testament to her leadership, Haley is quick to brag on the staff she has in place.
“I hear people who work for me now talk more intelligently about this work than I do,” she said. “They know it inside and out. They care about it, they live and breathe it. And it’s not just a vocation for them. It is truly a lifestyle.”
Of course, in 2020, the team spent much of its time helping local businesses navigate shifting federal relief guidelines.
But the success stories make everything worth it, she said.
“I have businesses, particularly now that I’m getting ready to step down, who tell me that they can draw a direct line from their involvement in our organization, and the success of their business, and there is nothing that makes me happier and prouder to hear than that,” she said. “When you do this work, you’re just sort of in the trenches every day, and you’re just hoping something that you’re doing is making a difference.”
With a national search underway to select her successor, Haley has a few words of advice:
“Assume nothing; be open minded and ready to learn from the people who have been on the ground during the work.”
Thanks for teaching Charleston the value of homegrown businesses, Jamee.
To honor her work, this holiday, don’t forget to buy local.