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Pioneer Women of Seaside Part 2

Posted on Mar 01, 2015 in Wendy Mignot , Laurie Olshefski , Marsha Dowler , Pioneer Women , March-April 2015

Laurie Olshefski

Meet the leading ladies who make Seaside a better place by Wendy O. Dixon

As we continue our year-long series on the women of Seaside, we shine the spotlight on three women with diverse backgrounds, careers and interests. In their positions as leaders, they show their commitment to enhancing the Seaside community by running a business, heading up an artist residence program, contributing to local charities and caring for animals.

As one of the most respected small towns in the world, Seaside lures people with an appreciation for the town’s new urbanism design and the principals the town has come to embody. Women are an inspirational part of that vision; women who know what they’re working toward and who are doing what matters.

These women have sought opportunities, faced challenges and overcome obstacles. They have rolled up their sleeves and put in long hours to cultivate their dreams.

They are leaders in the community, and have inspired many more women to contribute their skills and talents in Seaside. They’ve shown that working with each other can make all the difference between floundering and succeeding in business. With a generosity of spirit, they extend a helping hand, share resources and give credit for a job well done, knowing that a rising tide lifts all boats.

Laurie Olshefski

As owner of The Fitness Fetish Family Sport & Beach Shop, an upbeat shop known for its great selection of positive lifestyle clothing, Laurie Olshefski lives the lifestyle of one with a fetish for fitness. “If I’m selling it, I’m wearing it and living it,” she says. “I don’t do it just for money, it has to come from the heart.” Her motto — Exercise and Accessorize — suits her, as she elegantly mixes fitness gear with a little bling.

The fitness shop celebrated 20 years in business in 2014. Laurie, along with her husband John Olshefski, started out with a 250-square-foot retail shop in Seaside. She taught fitness classes in Seaside, with many of her students, including Seaside co-founder Daryl Davis, being other Seaside shop owners and employees.

Olshefski says she looks for products with a mission to help people. One of her apparel brands is “Life is good,” whose charity, Playmakers, helps kids around the world in need of love, safety, health and joy. Brooks, a running shoe and apparel brand, raises money for breast cancer related charities. Many products in the Olshefskis’ stores revolve around companies with social missions.

She still teaches yoga in Panama City Beach, and plays key roles in leadership idea camps and the Women’s Work-Life Symposium, where she shares ideas and tips with others in business community. She was a recipient of the Retailer of the Year award in 2011 by the Florida Retail Federation, and won the 2012 Glenn Shepard National Excellence in Leadership Award based out of Nashville.

She credits Seaside founders Robert and Daryl Davis with providing guidance and support when she was a young entrepreneur with a lot to learn. “Daryl would personally cut out articles and display ideas for us to use for our store,” she says. “She and Robert also hired consultants to come to Seaside and work one-on-one with us merchants to help us with merchandising and how to improve displays. They held workshops for the Seaside merchants to provide training on customer service and sales techniques by retail experts. I learned a great deal about retailing from these talented and creative consultants.”

Did you see starting your careers here as a huge risk?

I was 28 when John and I started our business in Seaside. We didn’t have children at the time. We looked at the beautiful area of Seaside as wonderful opportunity, not a risk.

What do you think of when you consider how far this town has come, how many people visit here and invest in the Seaside lifestyle?

We are thankful and happy to be able to say that we are one of the long lasting pioneering merchants of Seaside. We have witnessed the rise of the popularity of Seaside, and watched all of 30A grow into a lifestyle because of Seaside’s influence as the founding nucleus.

What’s the single most important attribute in differentiating good businesses and great ones?

I think great businesses care — they care about their customers, their employees and their mission. When everyone cares about their job and each other, everyone works harder and success happens.

What are your principles for success as a leader in the community, and also in life?

There are many principles I use as a leader in our company, as a yoga teacher and a mother. Being a great leader is being a good example in the way you move through life. The principles I strive most for are staying optimistic, keeping a strong faith, having courage, living a healthy active lifestyle, embracing change and challenges, striving to be different and always continuing to work on improving skills and self- development.

My goal as a leader is to be a multiplier — a leader that brings out the best in the talents and skills of others, helps others to blossom and helps to create future leaders.

Wendy Mignot

Wendy Mignot

Her fine pearl and leather jewelry has graced the cover of Vanity Fair and been worn by Hollywood’s A-list celebrities. Her collection is a world-renowned brand defining the Gypset Style. You may think the creator of one of the hottest jewelry lines would hail from Los Angeles or New York, but jewelry designer Wendy Mignot, originator of Tahitian and Fresh Water Pearl and Leather Jewelry collection, ushers in her unique collection from Seaside.

Owner of La Vie Est Belle (meaning “life is beautiful”) in Seaside, Mignot’s trademark Fine Pearls and Leather Jewelry collection includes the finest Tahitian, South Sea and freshwater cultured pearls, as well as sea glass, shells, stones and an exclusive presentation of ancient and shipwreck coins on hand-rolled leather, tied with precision and care.

An artist all her life, her latest jewelry designs began to take shape while sailing in the Caribbean, Virgin Islands, Aruba, St. Bart’s, the Bahamas, Panama and Central America with husband Jean-Noel Mignot. From there her designs have grown into an international brand.

After losing a sail boat in an accident, they bought a Volkswagen van, heading from Canada to Central America, stopping in Seaside to visit Jean’s parents, who were having a trunk show for their jewelry. “We stopped to see them and never left,” Mignot says.

The fell in love instantly with Seaside. And in 2004, opened a coffee and wine bar and art gallery, where Wendy introduced her pearl jewelry, in Ruskin Place. After great success in Ruskin Place, they later opened Café Rendezvous in Central Square, selling wine and pearls, as well as coffee. Finally, her current location became available, and she narrowed her merchandise to focus on her expanding pearl jewelry collection.

Mignot says Seaside founders Robert and Daryl Davis were instrumental in her success in Seaside. “Daryl has always been very encouraging to me, she’s a great inspiration,” she says. “As a mentor and businesswoman, she has always been there for me every step along the way and I have great respect for her. One thing that sticks out in my mind from my conversations with Robert is when he said, ‘We do a lot of things here. Some things work. If they do, we keep them going. And if they don’t, we try something else.’ It’s a simple philosophy but I think it’s a great way to look at it.”

Did you see leaving behind a nomadic lifestyle and starting a business here as a risk?

We are risk takers, life is a risk and we go all out. We’ve traveled on sailboats with babies and some people thought we were crazy. But I like to live life with grit. When we came to Seaside, we saw this new town and it was incredible to find a place this beautiful. It was perfect.

What do you think of when you consider how far this town has come, how many people visit here and invest in the Seaside lifestyle?

We arrived in 2004, which I think was the turning point for the town. The artistic community was so overwhelming to me, and I felt at home. It was really a dream come true. Life is island-like here in Seaside, where 30A is an island and Seaside is the heartbeat.

What’s the single most important attribute in differentiating good businesses and great ones?

Originality and great customer service. That’s why year after year people come back to me. I’ve built wonderful relationships with my collectors; I don’t call them customers. I see my jewelry adorned on beautiful people and it’s such an inspiration. When I do something, I do the best; I will always strive to be the best.

What are your principles for success as a leader in the community, and also in life?

The secret to success in life is to “live your love!” I believe you have to give back for things to come to you. Being part of this community, we know that it takes a village to raise a village, so I’m active in several local charities. We sponsor the Seaside Neighborhood School Half Marathon each year, raised $12,000 for the Boys & Girls Clubs in 2014 and give to Food For Thought and Alaqua Animal Refuge.

Marsha Dowler

Marsha Dowler

Marsha Dowler came to Seaside for the first time in 1992 with her husband, David, who had been coming to Grayton Beach every summer since 1948. The two were married in Seaside in 1994, and Marsha quickly became involved in her new community.

Her first visit was during the winter, she recalls, the same time as the first Escape to Create (E2C) event, a temporary artist residency program. As the only such residency of its kind in the Florida Gulf region, Dowler recognized the importance of the program and volunteered to help.

Seaside founders Robert and Daryl Davis value the importance of the arts and civic duty, she says, and she found Seaside was the perfect place for her to do her civic duty. “Robert and Daryl have been incredibly supportive in creating a cultural and civic identity for the community,” she says. “And Escape to Create was instrumental in that. It further strengthens the artists’ connection to the community and expands the programming for the Seaside Repertory Theatre (REP), and that strengthens both organizations.”


But in 2009, as many non-profits were suffering from the damaged economy, the program was at risk of closing when the current board member was pulled away for another job. “I thought if you lose it you may never recover,” she says. “So you need to find someone who can go to Seaside and manage it for the artists. I guess I volunteered.”

In recognition of her contributions to the cultural fabric of Seaside, Dowler received the first Spirit of Seaside Award given by the town council in 2012. “It was an incredible honor and to me, (the award) remains a powerful symbol of a generosity of spirit and hospitality so rarely found in this world,” she says. “Seaside is a beacon of hope for artists and indeed, for all of us.” Dowler is serving her second term on the board of The REP Theatre, having first served during its start-up years.

Dowler is also a long time advocate and volunteer with local efforts to address the overpopulation of feral cats through TNR (Trap-Neuter-Return) practices.

What was it like having one of the first weddings in Seaside?

We were married at the Tupelo Circle Gazebo, our sacred spot. It remains so fresh and beautiful in my mind. So many of our friends never believed either one of us would get married. It was just the most loving celebration of finding your way to a partner in life, in which together you’re bigger and better. It’s still very meaningful to me.

How did you keep Escape to Create going during a rough economy?

The institute had deferred further programming for who knew how long. I took that as an opportunity to preserve the program. I incorporated together with co-creator Karen Holland, and we determined to go double or nothing.

How has the Escape to Create program evolved since its early days?

Rather than have 10 to 12 artists every January, I cut it in half and extended the season. So we had five or six artists in January and again in February. Now it has developed into a true partnership with the REP Theater in offering public programs with incredible depth and diversity.

After almost a quarter century, what is next for E2C?

Thanks to the continued support of Seaside homeowners in providing artist housing and the fundraising efforts of its board, Escape To Create will award its first Fellowships in 2016. We want to continue to identify and support impactful environmental projects like the Elam Stoltzfus 2014 Dune Lakes Documentary and take a more targeted look at our investment in the arts for the benefit of our artists and our host community.

As an animal lover and advocate, especially with the local cats, what do you think other people can do to help take care of the feral cats in the area?

Education and access to spay-neuter programs is the key to controlling a healthy population and to avoid abandoned pets. Hopefully the day will come when Walton County realizes that it is an investment in the future Walton County.