Story and photos by: Michelle Cho

Forty years ago, a Bangladeshi economist named Dr. Muhammed Yunus decided to open a bank.

Yunus developed what would become known as micro-financing, a type of banking that grants small loans to interested borrowers to fund business ventures. As a result of Yunus’s belief in the ingenuity and creativity of all people (especially the world’s women, which composed 97 percent of his borrowers), thousands of businesses now exist and are contributing to thriving communities globally.

Yunus’s Grameen bank model is changing lives around the world. What we might not realize is that his micro-lending model is working right here in Charlottesville.

This is the first in a blog series on Iris that will feature amazing female entrepreneurs, as they demonstrate how micro-financing is actively working in our city. These women carry powerful stories: stories of courage, of bravery, of fighting for the chance to impact the community despite disparaging odds.


The Happy Woman Behind “The Happy Tomato”


Elizabeth James Portrait

Elizabeth James, owner and mastermind of The Happy Tomato, pictured with her signature marinara sauce.

As the founder and President of The Happy Tomato, a small in-home business that produces pizza, pesto and marinara sauces, this seems only fitting. I got a chance to sit down with Liz for chilled iced teas to hear her story and how she has transformed her family recipe into a profitable small business.

“I want to treat people the way they want to be treated and that’s local- to be treated like a neighbor.”

Michelle Cho: To start off, would you mind beginning by simply sharing your story?

Elizabeth James: From the beginning, I have been a firm believer in family. I believe that stability lies in family. Before my husband passed away in 1998, I spent a lot of time driving back and forth from my home to the U.Va. Hospital. The only other place I would stop by was the grocery store. I noticed there weren’t many affordable and healthy options for parents who were strapped down by the commitments of life to make a comforting dinner.

I wanted to create a product that would allow parents like myself, many of which are working moms with two or three jobs, set a yummy and healthy dinner on the table, so that they could spend time with their family instead of cooking. I wanted to reclaim the family dinner table.

So, I started canning my sauces and selling them at the City Market. I received a lot of positive feedback and decided to increase my operations a bit more. I added pizza and pesto sauces to my line. Soon I was working with Blue Ridge Pizza. Today you can find my sauces at Whole Foods, Relay Foods and many small grocery stores here in Charlottesville. It kind of just took off!

MC: How did the Charlottesville Community Investment Collaborative assist you in preparing to open your startup?

EJ: CIC has been incredible. The program itself is founded on four principals, education, financ-ing, networking and mentoring, composed of 16 intense classes where you really learn the nitty-gritty details of how to run a small business. CIC stressed the importance of market research and were extremely invested in seeing us small business owners succeed. We were trained in every-thing from development, to marketing, to handling employees. They helped us build a network and even after the program, I have remained in close contact with people from CIC.

It’s amazing because at the CIC classes, there are people sitting among you ranging from those with GEDs to PhDs. It reminds you that just because you have a degree, it doesn’t mean you know the nuts and bolts of running a small business. CIC pushes you to ask if your idea is feasi-ble: Are you a lemonade stand or a business? If you think your idea is good, can you actually make money? CIC helps you discern how far can you actually take this.

Liz attributes her belief in family as her key motivation.

Liz attributes her belief in family as her key motivation.

MC: How do you think that being a woman has affected your experience as an entrepreneur?

EJ: Sometimes when I am out there doing demos, people taste my product and are snarky. They assume I am just this woman selling her pretty jars with plaid ribbons when I am actually busting my butt. Some people do not take my work seriously and see this as a merely a “canning job” but I am an owner of a company. This is not a little thing anymore. What many people don’t understand is that I follow the same rules and regulations as every other major manufacturing company out there. My products are FDA approved, which is no easy task. An incredible amount of time, effort and care goes into making sure that each and every jar is as safe and delicious as the one before. This isn’t something I just throw together at the last minute; it’s something that I work incredibly hard to achieve.

Society in general tends to cut away from a woman who is in the kitchen. The saying goes that the man grows and picks the tomato and the woman merely cans it.

Because I am a single woman, people feel threatened. Society sees me as broken because I am widowed. But it is not just me: Whether you are widowed, divorced or a single woman choosing to raise a child, you are not of the norm. This can tap into a woman’s psyche and strength. But I am not broken. I have to continually remind myself that I am great – without being narcissistic of course. I still have a lot of ways to grow and one way is through this business.

Happy Tomato Jar Detail

Liz home-cans all of her products with the help of her three children.

MC: Why did you choose to name your company The Happy Tomato?
EJ: The name originally came by passing a sheet of paper around with my three kids. We weren’t sure if we wanted an Italian name and we ended up choosing The Happy Tomato. Honestly, we just wanted people to feel happy when they purchased our product. It’s all about family. We wanted our sauce to kind of be a way of saying “Come over to my house for family dinner; I’m making spaghetti!”

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Miller reflects on the meaning of the award and on the evolution of women in sports

Story by: Alaina Segura

For her outstanding accomplishments in athletics, Jane Miller, Senior Associate Athletic Director for Programs at U.Va., will receive the 2014 Elizabeth Zintl Leadership Award at a ceremony on Sept. 18.

Jane Miller

Photo by Matt Riley

Presented annually by the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center at U.Va. to a woman employee of the University, the award commemorates Elizabeth Zintl, the former Chief of Staff in the Office of the President at the University. The award honors the high degree of professionalism, creativity and commitment that characterized Zintl’s significant contributions to the University.

Miller, who has worked for the Athletics Department since 1983, began her career as a coach for field hockey and women’s lacrosse. In her 12 years of coaching, with a record of 145-44 and two national championship titles, she is the winningest coach in U.Va.’s women’s lacrosse history. In 1995, she retired from coaching to take on a full-time administrative role. Since then, she has been inducted into the state, regional and national Lacrosse Hall of Fames, elected Chair of the NCAA Division I Championship/Sports Management Cabinet, and served as Chair of the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame Committee (women’s division).

Throughout her career, Miller has been a fervent advocate for women’s equity in sports and the University community. She has participated in the Women’s Center Advisory Council and the Women’s Leadership Council, which both promote an equitable gender climate at U.Va. In 1999, she was presented the Woman of Achievement Award from the U.Va. Women’s Faculty and Professional Association. Last year, she was awarded the Claudia Lane Dodson Equity Award for her unwavering commitment to furthering gender equality in high school sports. These numerous achievements have made her a role model not only for female athletes, but for all women.

In a 2002 Iris Magazine interview, Miller reflected upon her career in the Athletics Department and the changing role of women in sports. Twelve years later, she sat down with us again to discuss how her views on these subjects have since changed.

Check out this link to read her 2002 interview with Iris Magazine in its entirety.

First and foremost, congratulations on receiving the 2014 Elizabeth Zintl Leadership Award! What does this award mean to you?

I am honored and humbled to receive this award. While I didn’t know Elizabeth Zintl, I learned from others what a wonderful person she was and how much she gave to this University. Receiving an award named after her that has already been given to a prestigious list of women, such as Pat Lampkin, Sylvia Terry, Shamim Sisson, Carolyn Callahan, Sharon Hostler and Carol Wood, all these amazing women who have been role models, mentors and support systems for me, is something that I would never have envisioned and is an honor I will always treasure.

Last time you sat down with Iris was in 2002, you discussed how, since the 80s, women have had to overcome many gender-based obstacles in athletics. How have women continued to make progress toward equality in sports in the last 12 years?

Since 2002, women have made significant gains in leadership in athletics but have also lost ground in other areas.

The number of women athletic directors continues to grow at all levels. Most recently, Sandy Barbour was named Athletics Director at powerhouse Penn State University. The number of women commissioners has also made a major upswing over recent years. In particular, our own Val Ackerman (College ’81) became the first female commissioner at a [Bowl Championship Series] school in 2013. The increase of women in such leadership roles is extremely important because they are the ones who hire people and make big decisions.

At the same time, the number of female coaches has dropped at an alarming rate. In women’s basketball, for instance, there have been some controversial hires recently where men are landing jobs even though they have no experience in coaching women. In one case the man who was hired hadn’t coached the sport in 20 years. That is very discouraging, especially to women who have given their life to the sport and even some men who have spent their whole career coaching women’s basketball.

Having said this, however, it is probably the best of times for female athletes. Their opportunities have grown significantly along with the resources to support their experiences. The skill level is truly amazing. We can look at our own student-athletes to see such talent. Overall, while we have made both gains and losses, today, women are in the best place that they’ve ever been in the field of athletics.

In reference to the 2002 Iris interview, please explain more about why the involvement of women in sports is important in terms of individual growth and for all women, collectively.

Sports give women the same benefits that they give to men. All the lessons we espouse to our student athletes are the same across both genders. Being in positions of leadership, learning to work with diverse individuals, planning toward a common goal – these are all benefits of participation in sports.

In addition, the physical and mental advantages of being active are invaluable. Here in Charlottesville, we see people of all ages, shapes and sizes, participating in healthy activities because we know that activity and sport leads to a healthier life. The better you feel about yourself, the more productive you are in your work, your relationships, and your life as a whole.

Any other final thoughts you would like to add?

I truly am awed to be in the company of the women who have received the Elizabeth Zintl Award and to be a part of her legacy.

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A Lasting Commitment:

Student reflects on experience with YWLP in Nicaragua

YWLP Nicaragua Group

My team poses with this year’s Bigs and Littles after their first meeting together.

Story and photos by: Emily Anthony

This article is dedicated to the supporters of Rompiendo Fronteras in Managua, Nicaragua including the faculty of Lincoln International Academy, Facilitators, and former and current Big Sisters, as well as the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 JPC teams, whose hard work has brought the mission of Rompiendo Fronteras to life.


Before leaving for Managua, Nicaragua, my Jefferson Public Citizens (JPC) Team and I spent an entire semester and summer preparing for the two-week long trip. Since its founding a year ago, the mission of Hermanas Unidas Rompiendo Fronteras has been to adapt U.Va.’s Young Women Leaders Program (YWLP) into a Nicaraguan program that connects upper class teens exhibiting leadership skills with disadvantaged, elementary-level girls. With the guidance of a teenaged mentor, or “Big Sister,” Rompiendo Fronteras strives to encourage each mentee, or “Little Sister,” to overcome life’s setbacks, so that she can then prevail as a leader in her developing community.

Though Rompiendo Fronteras ran successfully during its first year with funding from JPC and the Alcoa Foundation, as well as support from YWLP and Lincoln International Academy, the private bilingual college-preparatory school the Bigs attend, its continued sustainability became the primary issue my team eagerly worked to improve, so that Little Sisters in years to come have the opportunity to gain the same confidence in self as our first group of girls.

Nicaragua Classroom

One of the seven classrooms at la Sagrada Familia, where the mentees of Rompiendo Fronteras attend school.

To achieve this goal, we decided to establish better infrastructure so that Rompiendo Fronteras would be able to run successfully on its own. My team and I achieved this by creating a comprehensive handbook that teaches the program’s Facilitators how to successfully manage group meetings, curriculum and membership. Additionally, we brought new 2D printing technology and mentoring curriculum, with the purpose of increasing each mentee’s ability to think and act autonomously in order to achieve personal goals. We created networks to better foster Rompiendo Fronteras’ relationship with its YWLP Sister Site in Charlottesville. Toward the end of our stay, my team and LIA held the first of many annual induction ceremonies for each of Rompiendo Fronteras’ dedicated mentors. Furthermore, four former Bigs created a fundraising club at LIA to help cover the yearly supply costs of the program. Although all of these goals seemed daunting at first, by the time we left Nicaragua, my team and I had successfully completed a lengthy list of tasks aiding Rompiendo Fronteras’ internal sustainability.

However, these anticipated achievements only encompass a small portion of what I learned and saw during my stay in Nicaragua. Only a few days into our trip, after our second meeting with mentors from the previous year, my mindset completely changed as I became aware of the reality surrounding Rompiendo Fronteras and its participants. After speaking with the students about their individual experiences with mentees, I realized my excitement and focus on the team’s outlined tasks for the trip distracted me from considering the day-to-day lives of the Littles and the challenges that have shaped them thus far in life.

Like myself, these high-school aged mentors came from well-off households, with caring parents and access to basic necessities, including education. Because socioeconomic barriers are difficult to transcend in Nicaragua, many of the Bigs had no prior understanding of or connection with a different socioeconomic class. As a result the Littles pushed the Bigs out of their comfort zones and into a life far less privileged than what these girls have grown accustomed to know. I learned from the Bigs that many Littles had been through natural disasters, abuse and poverty – all before finishing 5th grade. After listening to such testimonies by Bigs about their Littles, I found myself overcome with guilt for not coming to help sooner.

Nicaragua Teacher

A teacher’s lesson in the common area of la Sagrada Familia: Students learn how to count using chalk on the ground.

For the Bigs and myself, after visiting Centro Escolar la Sagrada Familia for the first time, we finally understood how difficult it is for some to receive an education. Although faculty of la Sagrada Familia and many of its parents are dedicated to keeping the school open and running, it is difficult to accommodate everyone living in the community and in need of an education. The students and teachers brought lively energy and love into the seven-room schoolhouse, but the facilities are of limited quality and quantity. Furthermore, complications with building codes prevented the school from expanding beyond 7th grade, leaving children at risk of an incomplete education.
This trip was an awakening not just because of the conditions these young girls endure every day, but because I finally saw where and how much I could make a difference in the lives of others. After hearing these stories and seeing these communities, I feel motivated to improve the success of our Littles’ education and future career paths, no matter what obstacles arise. Whether this means gathering donations for more supplies in Rompiendo Fronteras, or support for expanding and developing la Sagrada Familia, I feel responsible to help make a change.

My team and I were only in Nicaragua for 15 days, and our project with JPC extends only for one year. While our formal obligations will end at U.Va., our Little Sisters in Managua will still be at Centro Escolar la Sagrada Familia, in need of hope and guidance. Our Big Sisters will still be working to make a directly positive impact on the lives of others, while Facilitators of Rompiendo Fronteras and supporting faculty of Lincoln International Academy will still be investing time to ensure the program’s success each week. Now that I have established a personal connection to the community and individuals that will benefit from this program, I am eternally dedicated to ensuring that Rompiendo Fronteras is a success.

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Story and photos by: Sophia Socarras

My childhood dream was to become an interior designer. While most kids were watching Saturday morning cartoons, I spent my weekend mornings watching HGTV design shows and helping my parents pick paint colors for our house. When I finally moved into an apartment this semester, I was excited to decorate my own place!
Whether you’re moving into a new place or are looking to change it up a bit in your apartment, dorm or house, here are my top 5 tips to make the most of your space.

  1. Explore your local thrift stores. You don’t need to spend a lot of money to make your space unique. For example, I found a beautiful, large wooden mirror at Goodwill in Annandale, VA for only $30! Saving money on pieces like this will leave you more money to spend on investing in other parts of your space. Habitat for Humanity is also a great place to look for discounted furniture pieces. You can even view their inventory online so you know what they have even before stepping into their store.

    decor 1

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Story and photos by: Sophia Socarras

The summer has finally ended, and if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably already started making plans for next summer. This past summer I spent my time picnicking on the Lawn with friends, getting ahead on the classes I need for my major and exploring Charlottesville. Here are my top 5 r easons you should stay in Charlottesville next summer.

cville 4

1) Make next summer more productive! I personally spent my time taking a classI needed for my major and getting accustomed to living off Grounds. I know I’ll be happy later this fall when I have fewer credits to take and more time to focus on what I love to do.


2) Even while under construction, the Grounds are absolutely beautiful in the summertime. Not only is the weather gorgeous, but the smaller student body and the slower paced lifestyle allow students to appreciate the beauty.
Angelica Botlo, a second year and prospective Government and
Media Studies major, “loved relaxing on the Lawn [… and] also enjoyedwatching the new first years at orientation because watching themexplore U.Va. and get excited about attending reminded [her of] how amazing Grounds is and how it should never be taken for granted.”

cville 2

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