I’m thrilled to include an interview of Gwen Saunders for this week’s Women & the Ways We Work. I’ve long admired my cousin Gwen, the many ways she works, and how she’s evolved as a person throughout her life. What better way to celebrate issue #15 and her incredible evolution than by sharing her story on the day before her birthday?

Gwen in Mostar on her Bosnia-and-Herzegovina trip

Gwen in Mostar on her Bosnia-and-Herzegovina trip

Gwen and I grew up in the same neighborhood on the Outer Banks. Being a bit older, I didn’t get to interact with her as much while growing up, until I returned from a two-year teaching stint in Alaska. Then it was great to move to Durham and be nearby as she finished up her studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, hear about her travels, and see this incredible community she’d built for herself upon leaving small towns, history, and coastal beauty that had nurtured both of us. Over the past six years, she’s been doing incredible graphic design work in Charlotte, NC, along with interspersed jaunts of travel around the country and world. She’s blossomed with boldness, grace, and taken on so much with genuine heart in everything she’s done.

  1. Gwen, I’m so glad we can stay in touch despite our busy lives. What did you want to be when you grew up and how has that evolved? 
    I’ve always loved art, and my parents were quick to encourage me in it throughout my childhood. But what I really wanted to be as a kid was a teacher. As I approached college, that desire faded (I have a LOT of respect for the teaching field, but it takes an incredible level of passion and patience to excel in it). In my exploration of art-related fields, I discovered design through the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. I immediately fell in love with the responsibility of transforming complicated information and ideas into palatable designs. I recently heard someone compare design to plankton – though you don’t necessarily notice its presence, it still exists there as one of the basic building blocks. Without design, communication as we know it would be impossible.

2. I do remember all that art! I remember the portraits, sketches, and lovely illustrations. What do you do in your “day job” now and why have you chosen that? 

I’m a graphic designer for ABZ Creative Partners, a marketing and communication firm in Charlotte. Design has served as both a creative outlet and an opportunity to produce meaningful work. From print and digital ads to websites, email marketing and video projects, every day brings a new challenge.

3. How happy have you been with your choices, as you’ve taken on so many new challenges?

I don’t have any regrets. I’ve certainly made mistakes and invested time and energy into relationships and endeavors that didn’t pan out, but I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s cliché to say, but I do believe that our experiences – the good and the bad – make us who we are.

4. Speaking of challenges, what advantages, barriers, and motivators for women have you observed?

Personally, my biggest barrier has been self-doubt. It’s that nagging voice inside that says you aren’t smart enough or talented enough to be successful in the ways you want to be, whether in your career or personal life. In professional environments, a man’s opinion still generally carries more weight than a woman’s. As women, we have to work harder to prove our worth and value. And as a single woman, though I have a great job and many other interests, I still feel less successful than my married counterparts because I am not excelling in the traditional female role (as a housewife raising kids, etc.). The 21st century woman faces an unparalleled pressure to succeed in both the home and the office!

5. Good points. I can certainly relate and agree! What do you devote your time to “outside of work?”

Gwen Playing Music

Gwen Playing Music

As someone who sits at a computer all day, I devote a good portion of my non-working hours to being active. I enjoy running, doing yoga and going hiking. My other biggest interest is music – either playing it or going to see it played. In the last two years, I’ve started writing and performing songs with a few friends. And I love going to see shows! I am also a big planner when it comes to trips, so I always try to keep one up and coming on the horizon – life is more bearable when you have something to look forward to.

6.  “Something to look forward to.” That gets me so and brings me to my next question, how do you feel most inspired?
I feel most inspired when I’m traveling! It’s like hitting the “reset” button. No matter what you’re dealing with back home, escaping into a new landscape or culture for a week or two can be the very best medicine. I try to take one big trip every year to a new country. But in between extended travel, I relish weekend trips to the mountains and the beach. 

7. You’re a very caring warm person. What causes and organizations are you most passionate about?

Since moving to Charlotte 6.5 years ago, the organization I have been most involved with is my church, Watershed Charlotte. Through it, I’ve met some of my closest friends. Being a part of the church band has helped me grow as a musician. Watershed has a strong emphasis on community outreach, so I’ve had the opportunity to mentor a student now for over a year through the North Star Reading Program. All of these experiences have given me a greater sense of belonging here in Charlotte.

8. You do so much good! Who do you look up to?

I have and always will look up to my Mom. She is the most selfless person I have ever met, and she faces the world with constant grace and gratitude. Through her devoted relationship to my Dad, my Mom has shown me what it looks like to unconditionally love and support your partner. She’s taught me both the value of education and hard work as well as the best way to love and care for others. Mom is the glue to our family!

Gwen, and her sisters -- 2 of my other cousins, in Portugal in 2015

Gwen, and her sisters — 2 of my other cousins, in Portugal in 2015

9. Yeah, she’s something. I could always use an Aunt Rebecca hug. She’s certainly taught you a lot and you’ve done so much. What are you most proud of?

One of the best choices I’ve ever made is to prioritize traveling. Since graduating college, I’ve made it a point to visit one new place every year, whether it’s Portland, Oregon, or Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have never regretted a penny spent on travel, and my experiences abroad have undoubtedly shaped my perspectives and interests.

10. Advice you’d like to leave with us?

As for the best advice I’ve ever received, I think back to something my art teacher, Mrs. Wise, said in elementary school: “You can’t make a mistake in art.” I have taken that to heart, across the board. Some of my favorite pieces of work have evolved from mistakes. The same principle can be applied to all undertakings – you don’t know if you don’t try!



Learn more about Gwen’s work by checking out her website, Gwendolyn Belle Design.

Thanks for reading Gwen’s story. Share in the comments how it impacted you or share it on social media. Check out next week’s weekly post on Women & the Way We Work. Missed the others? Take a look at my blog to read the others. Know someone you think should be featured? Can I help you or your organization with a storytelling project? Contact me and let’s chat.