Skip to main content

WNC Business

Women in Business - Gwendolyn Dare Hageman

Nov 13, 2023 04:44PM ● By Randee Brown

Moving away from external validation and focusing more on believing in herself was a learning curve, according to Gwendolyn Dare Hageman, Owner of Darë Vegan Cheese.

Asheville was a good place to develop recipes for vegan cheese. The niche and community support was there, and the perception of vegan products had begun to change when Hageman began creating her recipes. The open, inviting environment supported the creation of a unique food business, and she launched her brand Darë Vegan Cheese at a farmers market in 2019.

Hageman said starting her business was scary at first. She was nervous if anyone would like her products, but found so many loving the vegan cheeses and encouraging her to grow her business.

“That’s a very ‘woman’ thing to do,” Hageman said. “My belief in myself has gotten stronger, but I needed that external validation at first. Women business owners question themselves a lot more in this society built by men. We have to try harder and get out of our brain a bit more, and that doesn’t come as naturally to women.”

Her business focused on slow, grassroots growth.Others told her there were easier ways to grow her business; however Hageman said those ways would require capital from male investors, which she wanted to avoid. Starting with money she saved while working as a server, she put her business earnings back into her company to grow organically.

The COVID-19 pandemic occurred during the first year of her business, and after losing her job as a server, Hageman had to put her head down and see what could be done. There were still farmers markets, and wanting to support local and not lose the hard work of the first six months in business, she began pivoting to offer services like delivering cheesecakes to people’s homes.

“Covid actually helped the business grow in a controlled way,” Hageman said. “Working out of the kitchen at Chestnut, I got a website and grew wholesale accounts. There was a lot to learn as a business owner, but by the end of 2020, I needed to hire more help than the best friend that was helping me at the time.”

Hageman joined the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s Elevate program in 2021, immediately connecting with their only female mentor. She said most advice comes from men, but was grateful to find the woman that would become more than her mentor. “She was more of a friend than a mentor,” Hageman said. “She gave support as well as sales advice, and was really my first cheerleader.”

This mentor helped Darë Vegan Cheese apply for and win an NC IDEA grant, the first time Hageman accepted outside funding for her business. At the time, she still thought “Wow, these people believe in me,” which was really heartwarming for her. 

The grant allowed Hageman to acquire some basic things to further her business as well as get the word out across the city and the state. Growing out of Chestnut’s basement kitchen, she found a location in Weaverville that had hosted two other women-owned businesses before hers.

“The energy of that space is so beautiful,” Hageman said. “It’s inspiring to take over a space from other women who have created beautiful, sustainable businesses."

Like the women business owners before her, it was important for Hageman to nurture and take care of the people that work for her. She received pushback from male mentors that told her to hire more people for $10 an hour.

“That exploitative business mindset will never overtake me,” Hageman said. “I have a love and passion for what I’m doing, and the business is succeeding because the people that work for me have that same passion. They have a positive mindset and a sense of ownership. I’m not asking to get rich, but rather to help enrich everyone’s lives. People need a wage to live off of and a job to enjoy, and I truly believe that this concept can change the world.

“I was at a point of men not taking me seriously,” Hageman said. “But I get to pick our level of growth. It’s either exponential or sustainable, and I won’t chip away at my values. It’s incredibly empowering for others to see the potential and then tell them it’s not theirs. My values are more important than their advice.”

Making others happy by creating good food is everything Hageman ever dreamed of. Always “driven and stubborn,” slowing down to stop and think about what brings her joy in business and in life is her advice to other women in business.

“Everyone was telling me what to do but I didn’t think any of those suggestions were it,” Hageman said. “I think this is important to all women — stop the idealization of others' opinions and define what aligns with your own downline and your own dreams, and stick to that.”