January 27, 2020|By Eric Wuestewald| Finance

Helping Female Entrepreneurs Level the Playing Field: EcoGroup of the Carolinas

Melissa Gladden started EcoGroup of the Carolinas in 2005 after finding the hours of her hospitality job conflicted with her family’s needs. Since then, she’s launched two businesses in Western North Carolina under the EcoGroup name, and received two loans from the Natural Capital Investment Fund (NCIFund) along the way. 

NCIFund is an affiliate of The Conservation Fund that supports entrepreneurs who are creating jobs and natural resource-based businesses in underserved communities in central Appalachia and the Southeast. NCIFund lends financial support and technical assistance to small businesses that have a big impact—like Melissa’s—to help them build locally-owned enterprises that create lasting jobs and community wealth, while using natural resources responsibly. 

 Eric Wuestewald, The Conservation Fund’s Marketing and Communications Specialist, spoke with Melissa to learn more about her environmentally sustainable cleaning and laundry businesses in Western North Carolina that are “giving a clean spin to a dirty business.”

EcoClean melissaMelissa Gladden. Photo by Emma Gladden.

Eric Wuestewald: Tell me about EcoGroup and your businesses.

Melissa Gladden: EcoGroup of the Carolinas is comprised of two businesses: EcoClean of Asheville and Solar Suds of Swannanoa. EcoClean is an eco-friendly vacation rental cleaning service in Western North Carolina, and Solar Suds is Western North Carolina’s first solar powered laundromat.

EcoClean logoEcoClean Solar Suds logo












Eric: How did EcoClean get started?

Melissa: My career had been in the hospitality and restaurant industry, but when my youngest child was going into kindergarten I needed to make a change. I wanted a more dynamic work schedule that was going to work better for our family. 

Someone I knew well said that her mother was looking for somebody to clean her house, and from that one customer my business was born. When we got started 12 years ago we cleaned mostly primary residences. Then six years ago we made the decision to focus solely on short-term rentals because of the growth that we've experienced in that market around Western North Carolina.


Eric: EcoClean
’s logo advertises that you are, “Keeping it clean, keeping it green.” What are some of the processes or products that you choose to be eco-friendly?

Melissa: When I was in the hospitality business, we had a really hard time coming up with cleaners that were environmentally sound, weren’t strong smelling, and still tackled tough jobs, like cleaning the residue and odor from cigarette smoke. And somehow, our society has the mentality that you need a different bottle to clean every single surface. You don't! 

So I played around with recipes and came up with some homemade cleaning products that were more natural and eco-friendly, as well as cost effective. They're safe for the environment, water systems, and pets. I brought along my own blend of cleaning products and my clients loved them. I’ve had to change a few things since then, but we still incorporate the most sustainable and green products I can find. We purchase in bulk, put products in reusable spray bottles, and ensure our products are certified green or we don’t use them at all. Every product we use and decision we make are guided by our core beliefs that less is more, one bottle of the proper ingredients can do multiple tasks, and elbow grease is our magic ingredient to make all our sustainable products actually work.  

 
Eric: Your commitment to the environment translated into your second business venture. Can you tell me more about Solar Suds?

Melissa: We live in a small rural community in Western North Carolina. A year ago, we had the opportunity to buy a local neighborhood laundromat that that had been closed for almost a year. I didn't want to just open another laundromat; I wanted to do something that was going to have a positive impact on the community at large. We researched and decided we were going to make this laundromat solar powered. Our entire roof—1,500 square feet—is now covered with solar panels that power our new, energy-efficient machines. 

I also offer sustainable and earth-minded laundry products on site for free to allow people to experience options like using white vinegar, wool dryer balls, and earth-friendly detergents like Dr. Bronner’s. We’re giving a clean spin to a dirty business.

EcoClean Solar panelsSugar Hollow Solar helped Solar Suds become the first solar-powered laundromat in Western North Carolina by installing these panels on the roof. Photo courtesy of EcoClean.

 

EricHow did NCIFund help with your business? 

Melissa: About three years ago, Mountain Bizworks put me in touch with NCIFund when I needed a small operational loan to get some linen for a service that I wanted to incorporate into EcoClean. They helped work with me on my first loan, and we’ve since built on that relationship.    

When I had the chance to buy this laundromat, I called NCIFund and said, “I know this is going to sound crazy since I've only had this loan with you for 15 months, but I've got an opportunity.” And NCIFund came out and met with me to discuss the idea of a solar-powered laundromat. The building was already built for the purpose, it just happened to be the exact right size, and was situated on a property with no trees around it and there was sun from morning to night. It was the perfect scenario for solar power. 

After that meeting, NCIFund gave me a loan for new equipment, for the solar panels and the actual building itself. Had it not been for NCIFund, I would not be in phase two and phase three of my business. Since we’re in a rural area, the loan also helped me purchased three new vehicles, which we use to schedule pickup and delivery services through our recently released app.

When I had moments of panic during the process, I called my contacts at NCIFund and they would tell me where to find information or offer to make a phone call for me—they helped guide me and I probably wouldn’t have made it without their support. They were my number one cheerleader.


Eric: Do you have any advice for other small business owners?

Melissa: My biggest piece of advice would be to know your numbers. Don't get distracted by buzzwords and profit and loss statements and things like that. It's simple math. Do your homework and if the math doesn't make sense then absolutely don't do it and don't get in over your head.


Eric: What are three things you have learned from this whole process?

Melissa: 1) I've learned that as an entrepreneur, you never stop growing and you never stop learning. There is always, always, always homework. 

2) Trusted advisors and people that have been in the industry that know more than you do are your most vital sources of knowledge. You’ve got to reach out and listen to them—even if it’s hard to hear. 

3) There’s alwaysa plan B, or C or D for that matter. Actually, there are 26 letters in the alphabet, and you can start all over again after plan Z if you want to. You can still be successful even if things don’t roll the way you originally thought they were going to. 


Check out the other posts in our series on female entrepreneurs:

#1: Helping Female Entrepreneurs Level the Playing Field: STARworks Center for Creative Enterprise
Nancy Gottovi, Executive Director for STARworks and Central Park NC, shares more about this successful business in central North Carolina that received a loan from the Natural Capital Investment Fund.


Find Out More

The Natural Capital Investment Fund (NCIFund) is a small business loan fund that supports entrepreneurs who are creating jobs and natural resource-based businesses in underserved communities in central Appalachia and the Southeast. To learn more about NCIFund and their work, click here.