From a Small Town to Making It Big Featuring: Madeline Schwarz
Madeline Schwarz is a coach who is on a mission to help creatives find their voice so they can articulate their thoughts, engage an audience, and advance in their career. We met one year ago through our coaching peer group. I was initially confused at how this New Yorker resonated with Small Town Leadership. After spending time with her over the past year, and diving in deep during this interview, I understand why Madeline will always claim small town West Virginia as her home.
Where did you grow up? Madeline was born in Reader, WV a spot on the map that she describes to me as “still green”, meaning there is nothing much there. At the latest census, the population was 397. Her parents, Susan and Robert, were part of the Back to the Land movement and bought an 80-acre farm in rural West Virginia in 1973. That’s where Madeline and her older sister, Tamara were born.
Madeline says she cannot imagine a better childhood. She recalls her early childhood with memories like this: Baking bread when she was still in diapers. Feeding the chickens, and milking goats. Picking vegetables and climbing the apple tree and eating green apples until her throat was sore. Walking through the woods to neighboring farms.
Spending time with adults – both native West Virginians as well as the other “hippies” who went off the grid like her parents – made her understand what it was like to rely on your neighbors. She said her parents would not have survived their first winter without the help of their neighbor Harry, who installed their wood stove and could fix anything. Harry’s family has lived on 8 Mile Ridge for generations and unlike some locals, he was warm and welcomed the city folk who moved to Wetzel County, ignorant of how hard it is to live off the land.
There was no television on the farm. There were no “latest gadgets” but it was never boring. There were animals to feed, food to harvest, 64 Crayola crayons, and extraordinary freedom.
She says growing up on a farm made her resourceful, independent, creative and very determined.
She describes her time on the farm much like I experience the West Virginia tourism commercials that play so frequently in Ohio. Welcome to wild, wonderful West Virginia!
What has been your geographic journey from the time you left your small town? When Madeline was in first grade, she moved to the “booming metropolis” of New Martinsville, WV, current population 5000. When she was eight, she moved with her mom and sister to Long Island, NY, but she returned to West Virginia every summer until she was 18 for what she fondly refers to as “Camp Dad’. She spent two summers in Hamlin, WV, a one stoplight town and later, Charleston, WV, the state capital.
Her summer at “Camp Dad” consisted of cooking and sports training. There was compulsory tennis, softball, basketball, as well as swimming lessons, from the head and only counselor, dad. Madeline and her sister followed instructions and started dinner while dad was at work. After they’d eat, they’d head over to the baseball field or tennis courts and then walk home for dessert and Boggle. Boggle was a nightly ritual that included looking words up in the Webster dictionary and being quizzed on the previous night’s definitions.
While she no longer has any family in West Virginia, she has strong roots and maintains childhood friendships.
After high school, Madeline attended Cornell University. She moved to Brooklyn after graduation and has lived there ever since. As she points out, she moved to Brooklyn “before it was cool.”
What is your professional journey? Madeline has had a highly diverse career in creative fields, with the common denominator being the importance of connecting with people. In her first job as a publicist, she connected with people so they would feature the authors she represented.
After going back to school at the Fashion Institute of Technology, she began designing window displays, which was all about forming a connection with customers so that they would enter the store. From window design, she pursued roles within creative agencies where she focused on experiential marketing, 3D retail environments and custom fabrication. As a project and account manager, her job was all about connecting with teams and clients.
Madeline has blended this passion for creative work, connecting people, and bringing more voices to the table through her coaching practice. She teaches communication skills to creatives so they can articulate their thoughts, present their work with confidence and advance their careers. Through one-on-one coaching, group coaching, and facilitating workshops, Madeline is shaping the careers of creatives, and in turn, the customers and clients they serve.
Madeline described herself several times during our interview as quiet. She noted that she was likely the quietest publicist ever. She also indicated that even though she is very quiet, she has always enjoyed networking in small groups. Because she has been forming meaningful relationships with adults her entire life, it makes sense that she has built a career on the foundation of connecting with others.
Her mission is to bring more voices to the table. That’s her primary objective in her business as well as her leadership roles and community organizing projects.
Madeline spent her 34th and 40th birthdays in West Virginia. She fully plans to return but probably not in April which is a wet, muddy month in WV.
How has your small town upbringing allowed you to be successful in your professional life? Because she didn’t have TV or the latest gadgets as a small child, Madeline had to rely on her own creativity and independence to fill her time. This has led her to be very resourceful and creative in both her corporate and agency jobs. This level of independence also allowed Madeline to transition into entrepreneurship with a spirit of determination and desire to serve.
For a long time, Madeline didn’t know where she belonged because she had these two very different experiences in her life – a childhood in rural West Virginia and adolescence and adulthood in NYC. She felt this even more when she was the only woman on several of her work teams. These experiences have led Madeline to be fiercely devoted to bringing more voices at the table. She calls on her diversity of life experiences and her ability of building connections to do this.
When did you have your first “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto” moment? Madeline remembers starting school on Long Island as an eight-year-old as her first “we’re not in Kansas anymore” moment. She wasn’t excited to be the new kid in school. Being the new kid is hard enough, but being the new kid from West Virginia was even harder. She didn’t think she could be any more different from her peers.
What experience is the most memorable from your time in a small town? Madeline recalls in vivid detail walking up and down the hill to the hollow (pronounced holler) where Therese lived. Therese was her neighbor and babysitter. It was a steep, beautiful walk through the backwoods that required crossing a creek at the bottom. The journey ended in a flat sunny field with a tiny two-room cabin with no electricity or running water. There was a wood-burning stove, kerosene lamps and a well pump at the sink. Madeline made this walk nearly every day before she was in school. Once she got to Therese’s she would pitch in with chores like milking the goats and feeding the animals.
What is the most important lesson you took with you from your small town upbringing? Kids don’t need a lot of stuff. She tries to simplify her daughter Lena’s life.
This lesson has had a broader impact on how Madeline has become involved in her community, particularly the schools. Madeline describes her education in a rural area as having had standout teachers in average schools. Kids don’t need every advantage available to them. She believes that if given the right environment with the right kind of community support, kids can survive and thrive.
Over the last two years, Madeline has become deeply involved in community organizing around local public schools. She lives in an extremely diverse neighborhood and seeing the inequity in the school system has been eye opening. While Madeline could follow the trend of parents sending their kids to NYC public schools out of district to more affluent, less-diverse schools, she is choosing the path of advocacy and rolling up her sleeves. Madeline believes you can change the fabric of the schools through the community. To date, the families in her school district have raised nearly $2 million to renovate the school yards.
Ultimately, Madeline wants for her daughter what she experienced through her dual-world childhood. She wants Lena to be around people who don’t look like her and who come from different backgrounds.
How have you brought the small town spirit with you in life? Madeline’s small town spirit has guided how she is raising her daughter. It is very easy to get lost in NYC, especially in the consumer culture, so Madeline is highly conscious about connecting to nature and her community. Her daughter is very independent and has learned early to make her own choices. Even though living in Brooklyn is a far cry from the hollows and fields of West Virginia, Madeline and her family make a big effort to incorporate the outdoors into their lives. They spend a lot of time at local parks. Madeline’s husband, Brian, is a leader for her daughter’s scout troop.
Being raised on a farm has instilled the importance of eating real food. Madeline said she was labeled a food snob in college because she stayed away from processed food. She and Brian are avid cooks and have a garden share at a neighbor’s house where they grow a lot of their own produce.
What advice would you give kids who are growing up in your hometown today? Remember where you are from. “I’ve lived in New York for 30 years but have such a strong connection to where I grew up. I identify more with my West Virginia roots.” Also, never underestimate the importance of community.
Madeline grew up with an incredible sense of community. She spent her earliest years in a world that blended West Virginia natives and well-educated hippies who dropped out of society. Recognizing that her parents chose that life made her very aware of privilege.
If anyone has any doubt that our world-view is full formed by age 8, I enter Madeline Schwarz as Exhibit #1 in how formative our early years are.