Allow us to introduce you to some of the most clever visionaries around town. From an artistic trio behind a city arts project to a scientific duo making groundbreaking advances in prosthetics, these 10 inspiring creators and innovative founders are changing Charlotte—and beyond.
Amy Bagwell•Amy Herman•Graham Carew
Founders of the Goodyear Arts Project
The old Goodyear tire shop in Uptown was scheduled for demolition in the summer of 2015, when Amy Herman, 31, Amy Bagwell, 41, and Graham Carew, 46, swooped in and took over. They worked with the developer to temporarily give the rundown building a new life. “We had all been separately thinking there wasn’t enough working space for artists in Charlotte,” Herman says. And so the Goodyear Arts program was born. The trio takes over unused buildings to create an artist-in-residency program that gives artists space, time, money—and a sense of community. The original tire shop space is gone, but the program lives on, now in the old Comedy Zone building on Church Street. It, too, will be torn down soon, but they just signed a lease at Camp North End and have already worked with more than 40 artists. “The space in Charlotte is so expensive that artists have a hard time affording the space they need to flourish,” says Herman. “When given time and a little bit of money, we see the work they’re making becomes more exciting and more freeing, and all we want to do is see them be able to be better.”
“More is always better, so if there are more great artists in Charlotte, that’s better for everyone.”
Founder of Moonglade Travel
Shanell Varner’s first trip to Africa was life changing. “It was truly transforming,” she says. “I came back with all of these experiences, was able to see so many different cultures. And I knew I just wanted to share that with others.” Not long after, Varner founded her boutique travel agency, Moonglade Travel. While she’s constantly helping to customize vacations for her clients, she’s especially passionate about her Women’s Wellness Trips, which focus on women coming together and experiencing different cultures and countries such as Bali, India, and Malta, around the world. “I’ve done a lot of women’s empowerment work,” says Varner, 34. “So I decided to marry the two: travel with women’s empowerment.” These wellness trips aim to bring women together in a positive environment to not only intermingle with other cultures but to also bond over a shared experiences abroad. “These women are able to refuel and rejuvenate themselves with these retreats,” says Varner. “It gives them that spunk of energy to bring back home.”
“Women sacrifice so much, so often that we sometimes forget to take care of ourselves.”
Doctors Glenn Gaston and Bryan Loeffler
OrthoCarolina hand surgeons and inventors
In 2014, Dr. Bryan Loeffler, now 38, a surgeon at OrthoCarolina, was presented with a case in which a patient had lost three of his fingers, leaving him with just his thumb and pointer finger. Surgery to reconnect the missing fingers failed and resulted in a prosthesis, which only allowed the patient, 41-year-old Timothy McCormick, to move all of his fingers together, rather than separately. “Dr. Loeffler and I sat there talking and thought, ‘Why do we not have a prosthesis that allows people to move each individual finger alone?’” says Dr. Glenn Gaston, 42, a fellow hand surgeon at OrthoCarolina. That epiphany led the doctors, along with the Hanger Clinic, to create the world’s first hand prosthesis that allows individual fingers to move independently. The move was groundbreaking in the world of upper extremity amputees, who often have fewer options for prostheses due to the complex movements of the hand and arms. Today, McCormick can hold a 20-pound dumbbell and pick a flower. “It’s the simple things we take for granted that now upper extremity amputees can do,” says Gaston.
“We literally thought to ourselves, ‘We can do better than this. We can make this man’s life better.'”
—Dr. Glenn Gaston
Camp North End Community Manager
Varian Shum finds it fitting that Camp North End was originally one of Henry Ford’s factories. “He said we’d all be driving cars by the turn of the century and we are,” she says. A true innovator, Ford is the perfect godfather for a space meant to bring modern-day Charlotte innovators together under one roof. “I think there are so many people that are creative here in Charlotte trying to do innovative work,” says Shrum, the newly appointed community manager for Camp North End. “I feel like they’re in pockets all over the place, and I’m excited to have the opportunity to foster a hub where those people can all co-locate and the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts.” The 27-year-old moved to Charlotte four years ago and worked with Charlotte Center City Partners to brand South End before taking the job helping oversee the 75-acre industrial site. Eventually the site just north of Uptown will be home to office space, entertainment and more. “I get excited about thinking about giving them [innovators] a home—this place is not going away,” she says. “It’s been here for 100 years and we’re excited to write the next chapter with people from all across the city.”
“My job is to help create a sense of place and community here, and to find creative people from across the city and give them a place to incubate.”
“The Chef’s Farmer” and Old North State Shrub Creator
Jamie Swofford is right back where he started—and he wouldn’t have it any other way. The 40-year-old grew up on a farm in northwest Cleveland County, always desperate to get to the big city. As a teen, he worked his way through every restaurant kitchen in the area, moving on only after he’d learned everything he could. After stints in some of Charlotte’s and Charleston’s most well-known and respected restaurants, The Chef’s Farmer, as he calls himself, is now back on his family’s farm and growing produce for many of the chefs he formed relationships with along the way. He’s also been dipping his toes in the beverage world for the last two years, creating Old North Shrub, a vinegar-based brew sold in several Charlotte bars. And more are in the works. “I’ve come full circle and I found everything I was looking for was right in front of my face,” he says. “But I had to take all of those steps to be where I am today.”
“I always felt like there was more but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Then I had this grand idea of moving back onto the farm and growing food for chefs.”
Founder and owner of Sabor Latin Street Grill
Dalton Espaillat was a month away from closing his first Sabor when things started to turn around. “We were literally about the shut the doors on our first restaurant in Elizabeth, and then things really started to pick up,” says Espaillat, now 32. Call it divine intervention, call it luck, but from that point on, Espaillat’s Sabor Central America-inspired restaurants have become so popular that he’s expanded his locations as far out as Indian Trail, Wesley Chapel, Steele Creek, NoDa, SouthPark, and soon Pineville. “We simply tapped into something that no one else was doing,” says the civil engineer-turned-restaurateur. “Nobody offered Central American cuisine at an affordable price. We filled that gap.” The key to Sabor’s success and popularity, says Espaillat, is simple: “We use the freshest ingredients we can get our hands on. So if that means having several deliveries a week with the best ingredients, then that’s what we’ll do.”
“I tell our staff: Make every dish like you’re making it to impress your mother. That’s how much care you should be putting into each dish.”
Founder of Anarke Jeans Co.
Stan Fraser couldn’t shake the feeling. “Every time I’d get into a conversation with someone, whether it was my wife or a friend, it always came back to denim,” he says. Fraser’s bug for fashion began as a child while watching his mother, a seamstress, sew for major designers such as Ralph Lauren and Anne Klein. Now 45, Fraser has worked in other jobs over the years, but his passion for designing denim is what fueled him. That passion was put into motion when the dad of one opened his own storefront, Anarke Jeans Co., featuring his men’s denim designs. Each custom-designed pair of jeans made from raw selvedge denim—which has a higher, tighter weave—is sewn by Fraser, who plans to expand his line to women. His bespoke pieces have caught the attention of local professional athletes from the Carolina Panthers and the Charlotte Hornets, not to mention major country music stars. “I just had a driving force that propelled me to do this,” says Fraser. “I’m still amazed at what this has become.”
“People talk about having a passion for something, but until you actually experience what exactly that feels like, you don’t know.”
Story by Michelle Boudin and Blake Miller. Photos by Justin Driscoll, Ken Noblezada, and those featured.