by Ben Schooley
Photography by Paula VM Photography
For Blythe Zemel, challenges are met head on. Consistently overcoming preconceived notions about what she can and cannot do, Zimel has worked tirelessly to overcome not only her own hurdles, but those hurdles that are tripping up the young women who have come after her. Girl with Grit, her non-profit and mission, is designed to take young women that might be a bit confused in their life’s path, challenge them to learn new skills and trades, and ultimately produce women ready to tackle life just as Zimel has – with GRIT.
Zemel begins with an early understanding that she is a little unique, and she embraces that mindset. “I grew up in Houston – as a kid my mom called me her ‘walking art piece’, so I’ve lived by that title. I come from a family that is fairly traditional so even my name Blythe just came to my mom and I’ve been eccentric from the get go.” She continues, “I was an out of the box student. I would day dream a lot and when I was in first grade they kept pulling me in for assessments because everything from my hearing to my way of thinking frustrated them and I was smart enough to know what was going on. When they did the Stanford testing, I placed first. I struggled in a classroom environment, but did well otherwise. Traditional settings have never served me.”
After high school, Zemel quickly found an entrepreneurial direction. “When I graduated, I started buying clothes at thrift stores and flipping them and repurposing them. That was my job throughout college.” That direction carried her into her career as well, as she continues, “The clothing line sustained me through my studies and as I got out of college it was featured in a few magazines – I was working as a music promoter also, mainly as non profit work – it was all very entrepreneurial. I have a passion for helping communities, and I put a lot of energy into that and enjoyed it.”
Zemel began directing a daycare’s arts program, and honing her own creative skills with photography, and married at the time, her husband had an opportunity to move the family to the area. Excited to get away from the crime of the Houston area, Zemel had decisions to make with her children’s schooling. “I put my son in the public school here in Boerne and he started having lots of the same issues that I had at his age so I decided to home school him. My educational journey really dashed my confidence in myself, and I knew that I didn’t fit in, but I also knew that I couldn’t fit in. It got to me as a kid and I didn’t want him to experience that. I was home schooled my final 2 years of high school, and I did great, so I decided to do that with him.”
Quickly becoming involved in the home school groups locally, Blythe quickly took on the role as “art teacher”, however, life has changed for her family. She explains, “The program grew quickly. I ultimately made the difficult decision that I needed to move in with my parents. I needed a real job, and fast. I had befriended someone in Bandera that had a fiber arts studio and I literally started my business in her back closet with a borrowed folding table, a leaking ceiling, and no students. I couldn’t afford Boerne rent at the time. It was called “We Heart Art” – which was a mobile art studio program. I would drive to different locations and teach art. It started growing. I got to a point where I had enough clientele to start making the move to Boerne, and got in with a large home school group here called BACH, and became the art instructor for high school. The clientele was there, and once I made the move, it really took off.”
Being who she is, Blythe was constantly working on some version of her art, expanding her skills, and identifying needs. She continues, “In the meantime, I had been working on designing safety glasses, called Safety Sasses. It started as a joke, but I always had entrepreneurial gigs going on the side. I had worked in production in the auto industry and had a huge appreciation for old cars and gear head stuff…so I saw this need because I spent a lot of time out in a garage and nobody was catering to women. And not just auto – woodworking, and sculpture and a lot of things – nobody is servicing them. I’ve been very fashion oriented, so I saw that nobody was catering to them and providing functional, and yet fashionable, safety gear. Ultimately, I developed the patent and worked on the idea and man, it just felt like art. I wound up doing a proof of concept in September and began to push them out to see what kind of response I got. Thus far, it’s been amazing. I’ve gotten wholesale orders to little vintage boutiques to actual women in the trade. The people who are coming after them are the women in the actual trade and that’s exciting for me.”
As mentioned, Blythe is passionate about photography. She was about to have a quick photo literally change the trajectory of her life. She explains, “Girl with Grit started 4 years ago as a photo project. I took an image of me in a ‘50s housewife welder outfit and I sent it to National Geographic and it was selected by their editorial team. It was simply labeled Girl with Grit. I started taking pictures of crossfit women wearing high heels. The ballerina in her cowboy boots. The tomboy women that were still extremely feminine. We’re losing our gender in many ways and it’s ok to take pride in who you are with red lipstick and heels and I was trying to celebrate that with the images. It was trademarked by me and the idea was to be a work wear line for women. Aprons with reinforced pockets. Things that look cute but just function for a working woman. But I started watching my art students and realized that many of them couldn’t do some basic things like change a flat tire. Or operate a power tool. It was an overall theme that I started to see about the current generation.”
Ultimately receiving a donated 1935 truck, Blythe set out to start a youth non-profit centered around teaching the kids the basics of automotive work and restoration. “These kids all they know how to do is run their phone. I feel like a missing link to them. What’s going to happen to trades? How will they ever learn how to use a router? Your world cannot be eternally digital. You have to know how to use your hands – you can’t just swipe at things for the rest of your life. I tried to pitch the non-profit idea for boys and girls – just youth. I couldn’t seem to get anyone behind it, so I’m watching these girls…and they were around me all the time, and I saw how exceptional they were with their hands. We pigeonhole them with what we teach them to do with their skills and how they are going to make them happiest. I decided to just develop this concept and took on my first staff member as an art teacher, got the kids to produce art and I showed them how to sell them as a system to compensate the non-profit. I don’t pay the kids to be here – the kids fund it. Then they help me with learning the trades, and I help them with selling their art. It drives passion in the projects like the old truck. They learn how to work on it, and I show them how to produce and sell their art. It’s how the business world works, and I want them to understand everything they can about it.”
So the dichotomy of “art” against “mechanic” work meshed and has been fun for both Zemel and her students. She continues, “The girls just worked on pulling a motor and it was stressful and they were grinding things to get it out, but it was so fun. They got super dirty but we all laughed and they learned that they can do anything that they apply themselves to. And then, in two weeks we’re having the Valentine’s Day show and it’s pink hearts and stuffed animals which is super girly…and I don’t care ….I just want them to work and learn how to grow and how to express themselves in a largely male dominated world.”
With her studio above Sanctuary for the Vintage Soul on Main Street, Blythe and the girls continue to grow due to the devotion of the group. She explains, “They re-did the entire space up here – the girls did it. If they’re going to use the space, they’re going to fill the nail holes and finish the trim and help me set it up. My garage is now a welding space that I’ve sort of donated to the organization. The grit is teaching you that nothing is stopping you. Life is like a puzzle – you want to do it? Great. Figure out how to pull it off. “
As for pulling it off, the team continues to grind away. With approximately 20 “core” girls right now, word is getting out. “The girls are funding things with their products. I invest in the space, and they kick back with percentages of their sales. If I break even, I’m good. Donations are a big thing for us too. With things like the truck project, we get donations of labor and time and equipment. I want it to become a staple for the area – these mobile markets do very well and I want it to become sort of a mascot. Toymakers on History channel has sponsored us with a bunch of tools, which was amazing. The woman from the show drove 20 hours down to help me pull the engine on the truck and we’re filming that for a possible show. Some of the people on the Monster Garage have talked with us about the truck, so we’ll see what happens there.”
As for what she needs? She explains, “Grant writing is important to me right now. The girls are all about scholarships and resume building – that’s pretty much it for us. One of my girls is working for her PhD in science so what does that have to do with us? She’s working on grant writing for us! And then of course, we want donations of all kinds. Money, labor, equipment, materials…we don’t care. It all helps.”
Blythe finishes, “I’ve not put myself out there very much – and this magazine is changing that a bit. Things get muddy on social media and I feel like it’s fake – so my marketing has been simply “They’ll find me if they need me”. That’s how most of my students find me. I will tell you though that the people I have worked with locally have been simply amazing. Huge, pivotal people that have helped me so much. I don’t feel like I could do this anywhere but here in Kendall County. I sure couldn’t do it in Houston. We have amazing youth here and the kids are unreal amazing. It’s a great community to launch this in and we have elements of the old and the new here. I tell the girls I’m just along for the ride – this will happen how it’s supposed to happen.