How Micro-finance in Charlottesville Helps Women and How We All Benefit

September 16, 2014

 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!”      

Read about more women in this series:

Sara Clayborne - Charlottesville Ballet Stephanie White and Sue Gass - Stevie G's Gluten-Free Bakery

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