How a Paralegal-Turned-Etsy-Seller Grew an Entrepreneurial Community for Creatives in KCDavid Cawthon
Sometimes it takes a creative, an artist, a risk-taker who can see possibility, to take a bold step and get the gears turning and create something awesome; and not only that, but harness the power of a community to create a movement.
Katie Mabry van Dieren certainly has.
“That’s what’s great about makers,” she says. “Everyone is trying to be innovative and do something new.”
Katie identifies as one of the many makers in the Kansas City metro and says that community propelled her to be a leader. What is a maker? Katie says a speaker at the Nation of Makers Conference she recently attended said it best: “Humans do two things that make us unique from all other animals: We use tools, and we tell stories. And when you make something, you’re doing both at once.”
She’s boosted the maker movement with her business, The Strawberry Swing Indie Craft Fair, which Buzzfeed named as one of the world’s best. Katie is also the co-founder of Troost Market Collective, a nonprofit that has specialized co-working spaces for creative entrepreneurs, makers and artists; she hopes the space sets a standard for inclusion and equitable development. And aside from taking on lofty goals, her work brings real dollars and cents into the KC economy.
Before all that success, Katie began her journey as an entrepreneur while she was on maternity leave from her paralegal gig. She loved making stationery, jewelry, bow ties and other crafts and realized she could not only make some neat stuff but also some profit from her passion selling on Etsy and peddling her wares at craft fairs on the weekend. In 2011, her friend Heather Baker saw the climate was ripe for a new Midwestern craft fair: Strawberry Swing. The single event featured about 50 maker booths. While the handmade movement nationwide grew, so did the craft fair. The Strawberry Swing founder transferred ownership to Katie in 2014. Soon after, something huge happened that Kansas City hadn’t seen in 30 years:
The Royals won the pennant. Suddenly, fans couldn’t get enough Kansas City gear, especially stuff that local makers crafted.
“Kansas City just exploded around the team,” she says. “Everyone united.”
With the help from that boost, the uptick in buying local and the surge of local makers, Katie now has expanded the Strawberry Swing from featuring just a few dozen makers to over 100—and it’s bursting at the seams. So she’s expanded from one annual event to multiple each year. There are so many interested makers, that a jury selects applicants from the hundreds who apply.
“Unfortunately,” she says, “to keep this opportunity inclusive, sometimes longtime sellers have to sit out and give newcomers a chance. I wish we could accept all applicants, but we would need a football stadium to fit them all.”
The Swing has become a real-world venue for a virtual Etsy team of more than 800 sellers. It also gives customers the chance to meet the creators behind locally made goods.
“That’s one of the best parts of what I do: helping people earn that money locally and helping them realize they can do this in Kansas City,” she says.
(Pssst. Register to be one of the first to get on KCSourceLink’s refreshed Shop Local directory, which will soon include a list of local e-commerce makers and online stores. It’s totally free. It’s our way of promoting Kansas City and our local makers and local retailers. Because when you shop local, you support a neighbor, build a dream and grow our economy.)
But there’s also an economic advantage to these fairs. At one eight-hour summer event, Katie reports the total sales hovered around a quarter of a million dollars—generating revenue and sales tax that generally flows right back into the Kansas City economy. She says it’s about creating a pipeline for online Etsy sales to stay local, which helps the city and community.
“Makers have a big economic impact that people often don’t think about,” Katie says.
With this momentum, she’s stitched together a diverse community that’s tightly knit—so much so, that makers often stay after Strawberry Swing events to socialize.
“You’d think these events would be more like a competition: sellers battling for customers,” Katie says, “but it’s actually more like a community.”
She’s seen makers collaborate to make products and makers partner with the city or other entities for community improvements. And she’s seen the power that a space for makers can offer, which is why she teamed up with fellow Kansas City enthusiast Crissy Dastrup to found the Troost Market Collective, which is still in the early stages. Its mission is to create equitable economic opportunities for creative entrepreneurs and to inspire future generations through partnerships and programming.
On Troost Avenue, between 31st Street and Linwood Boulevard, the team behind the Collective works with Dianne Cleaver of the Urban Neighborhood Initiative, as well as Local Initiatives Support Corporation and other local stakeholders to create a space where makers can apply for membership to create and sell their goods. Katie says it will be a place where experienced makers can mentor and coach newcomers and a space that will have the bulky and pricey equipment creatives need but might not be able to afford on their own. She also hopes to develop programming and residencies for folks who might not have access to opportunities like shop class or art class.
But transitioning from being a maker and leader of Strawberry Swing to starting a nonprofit hasn’t been easy.
“With this nonprofit, I realized it takes a team of highly capable people to help with this heavy lift,” Katie says.
She says she’s used to working alone but that the nonprofit world requires selecting a board of directors, engaging a team of talented mentors and a lot of group thinking and patience—all vital for getting things off the ground.
“I’m learning so much from working through the challenges, but also, I’m learning how amazing this convergence of ideas can be, rather than relying on just my own,” she says. “Most makers are kinda like me, working away in their home studios alone, so it’s wonderful to work with a team to push a project forward.”
The toughest thing, she says, has been figuring out how to develop the space equitably on a street with a complex history. She says she’s had to ease in to the neighborhood and navigate the important details by getting feedback from the community and leaders. But the idea is slowly coming to life. You might’ve seen the murals popping up outside the space as community members and local artists add splashes of color to the area and what the past, present and future of Troost means to them.
Katie says Troost Market Collective has finished the pre-development portion of the project. And when it’s time for the next step, she says she’ll use KCSourceLink and its Resource Rail to connect with the right resources at the right time, no matter if she needs help with taxes, accounting and loans—so in turn, she can continue to help others.
“I have watched people who were able to quit their day job and become makers full-time,” Katie says. “I just watched someone do that recently. She told me, ‘I can finally say I’m an artist.’”
> > > > No matter if you’re thinking about starting your entrepreneurial journey as a maker or artist, wanting to grow your product line or want to create your own nonprofit to help the community, KCSourceLink can help you get there. Call 816-235-6500, and we’ll build your free Personal Action Plan.