Nikki Bowman Mills On Shaping West Virginia's Narrative
Nikki Bowman Mills has a penchant for the finer things in life. She has blown-out hair, a polished suit and zebra striped pumps. Her Granville office feels the same way, well kept but not ordinary.
“When people walk in this office. The first thing they say is, ‘Wow, I don't feel like I'm in West Virginia,” Bowman Mills said. “I like Kate Spade and MacKenzie-Childs, and I like black and white striped stuff. It doesn't mean I have to have exposed barn wood or the stereotypical things of what it means to live in Appalachia.”
Bowman Mills appreciates the rustic vibes West Virginia might best be known for. She loved growing up in Clay County splashing around in the Elk River. But she also knows that West Virginia is home to a top-tier research university, a symphony, and professionals that have gone on to be nationally recognized in their fields.
Tradition and innovation, folk crafts and high art, are all Appalachian to Bowman Mills. As editor and publisher of WV Living, a lifestyle magazine, she tells the stories of interesting people and places in every corner of the state. The magazine’s pages display delicious foods, scenic landscapes, historic sites, and handcrafted goods all in the mountain state.
“We have these incredible spots, these scenic spots, in West Virginia, that are surrounded by communities of authentic people and authentic experiences,” Bowman Mills said.
While other media outlets report on the state’s most dire challenges, WV Living celebrates the positive. Through her stories and advertisers, she’s nudging West Virginians to get out and explore nearby towns and shop at local businesses. On another level, she hopes to change impressions of the state, most importantly for the people born or living here.
“We have to change how we think about ourselves as West Virginians before we can even tackle any of those negative perceptions that are out in national media,” Bowman Mills said.
In the late 1990s, Bowman Mills left the state to become a writer and didn’t return for 16 years.
“I was always taught that if you wanted to be someone, or if you wanted to do something significant with your life, you couldn't do it in West Virginia, you needed to leave,” she said.
She studied writing and publishing at DePaul University in Chicago. After earning her graduate degree there, she became a political reporter in major cities and then a lifestyle writer in Mississippi.
She got married and had kids, but having to take a plane or driving 19 hours to see her family in West Virginia wasn’t cutting it.
“I kept saying to myself, ‘Oh, I wish I could move home... But there's no job there for me,’” Bowman Mills said.
When she told her family this, one aunt told her straight up.
“She said ‘You know more about magazines than anybody else in West Virginia,’ she said ‘You can move home and start your own company’,” Bowman Mills said.
At that time in her late 30s, she founded New South Media in 2008 with the launch of WV Living. Since then, the company has developed many more publications, like WV Weddings and Wonderful West Virginia (an older magazine Bowman Mills grew up reading and now edits). She’s even contracted by the federal government to produce trade publications.
All that success was never guaranteed 13 years ago when Bowman Mills started her company. The Great Recession hit the globe, marking the worst period of U.S. economic uncertainty since the Great Depression.
“It was 2008. So that was the worst time for print. Since the press was invented,” she said.
She pitched the magazine to investors, and no one would bite. She also brought her idea to regular West Virginians. She held focus groups at any Bible study or Rotary Club that would have her. Even though she didn’t even have a copy of the magazine to show these people, she said many would end up buying subscriptions for themselves and others.
“You could just see there was a little more pride, there was a little more interest. And so I knew that it would work,” she said.
She attributes her success to West Virginians, subscribers and advertisers, who bought into her mission of uplifting the state.
“I was that little girl, I was that grown adult, who looked at myself as if I were less. And if I can do anything to keep that from happening to someone else, then I've accomplished my goals,” Bowman Mills said.
Something to invest in
Bowman Mills has set her sights on business ventures outside of publishing, like real estate.
She owns the lot that houses, not just New South Media’s offices but also the Appalachian Mercantile, a shop by Nancy Bruns and Joe Woods that sells regional foods and crafts in Granville.
Elsewhere on the same lot is an empty wooden building and a silo. As she walks through these structures she describes how they could become a venue for weddings.
“You have to have a little bit of vision because it's still in construction mode,” Bowman Mills said.
Bowman Mills sees the potential in West Virginia. She sees the New River Gorge and other outdoor spots as a way to bring in more tourism dollars to the state. (Her magazines are used by local visitor bureaus to promote the region). Bowman Mills loves new Marshall University President and former Intuit CEO Brad Smith's idea of bringing remote workers to the state. She thinks that more people are looking to build lives outside of major cities.
“I think everyone wants to live in a place where they can breathe, and be a part of a community, and be a part of something bigger than themselves. We offer that at every corner of our state,” Bowman Mills said.
She thinks towns like Lewisburg and Shepherdstown offer a slower pace of life but with plenty of things to do.
Even if there could be more cultural and racial diversity in the state, she thinks these towns are strengthened by the different folks that live there.
“They have young people, they have a great retired community, they have people who have lived outside the state and have chosen to make West Virginia their home that are bringing these incredible, fresh ideas. And then they have people who are natives who have grown up there,” Bowman Mills said.
Bowman Mills believes in the state’s recreational appeal, but she understands that good paying jobs, accessible medical services and broadband are essential. She doesn’t have the answers on how to overhaul those things, but she believes there are West Virginians who can come up with those solutions.
“I sold tadpoles and painted rocks at a very early age. We're naturally entrepreneurial as children,” Bowman Mills said. “If we can harness that, and not let that get dampened or put down through the education system, and instead encouraged, we're going to graduate kids who could be just this incredible life force for West Virginia and be incredible job creators.”
This story is part of WVPB's “Returning Home” radio series.