Karyna Hamilton: Former Advocate, Current Business Owner, Yogurt Expert & Inspiration
Editor’s note: listening back over Karyna’s interview reminded me of some of my favorite podcasts. She’s calm and thoughtful and intentional when she speaks, and she’s just wise. There’s really no other word for it. Her small business, Flora Yogurt Company, is well known in the Spokane area, as is the Thursday Market that she manages (a weekly farmer’s market in Spokane’s South Perry District). And though I met her through a mutual friend at UW over ten years ago, most of what came up in our discussion was new information for me. I’m so glad she took the time to share it. It’s our pleasure to include her interview here today.
(and, if you’d like to see more of Karyna’s interview, a heads -up that we’ll be including some additional excerpts in week’s newsletter. Sign-up here.)
Name: Karyna Hamilton
Where did you grow up: Spokane
Where do you live now: Spokane
Favorite thing about the PNW?: The diversity the landscape, we live in a beautiful place
How do you take your coffee?: Black, usually hot
How do you like to take notes?: Handwriting. Regardless of how much more convenient it is for me to have things in a document, I will still hand-write a note on the back of a receipt and stick it in my pocket…and then inevitably forget it when I need it. Writing it down helps me get organized, though. And there’s something so cathartic about checking things off a list. It’s why I make my bed every morning. Today, the kids were like, “why do you make your bed the same everyday?” and I said, “cause it’s the one thing I get done everyday.”
Favorite season in the PNW?: Spring. There’s something so happy about the snow melting and the magic that happens when you’re really wondering about your plants, like “oh my gosh, are you going to come back?” And then these magical green things come up every year.
When you’re out, how do you protect yourself from the rain?: I’m probably barefoot without a coat.
Photo credit: Stephanie Miller of Shmily Face Photography
Please tell us about your career path: When I left school and started working, it was in anti-violence. I worked with homeless women and women in transition, and in sexual violence and homicide. It was advocacy-based, for disenfranchised populations of people. Activism was just part of who I was inherently. My mom was a teacher and she taught reading in high school, and my dad taught school to homeless kids for 35 years.
And then I had kids. Doing the work that I did… you just know things about the world that you just don’t want to know. I couldn’t go back after having a baby; I couldn’t set it down. Your values become so much clearer when you have a kid. You’re like, “oh, sh*t, this is what’s important to me.”
All of a sudden, I found myself having to support myself. I didn’t have a job, I was pregnant, I was a single mom, and I didn’t have an income. I had these little people though, so I had to take care of myself. In a way, I saw myself for the first time. It was like, “I don’t really have a choice for how this goes, I have to get through this.”
I started working at the farmer’s market probably right about that time. And, I joined a moms group trying to figure out what I was doing, and I joined a milk co-op to make friends, even though we didn’t drink milk. So, I started making yogurt, and Keane [a friend] started asking me to make yogurt for him. Then, he’s spreading it like wildfire, and telling everybody he knows about how great this yogurt is and how much better he feels. His mom and his mom’s friends and my neighbors start asking me about yogurt, and I’m making a bunch every week and leaving it on my porch in a cooler and people are leaving jars, and I’m dropping it off for people at work.
And then it became a source of income for me. Mika [a close friend and fellow small business owner] was like, “why don’t you just do this? Why don’t you just make yogurt? People like it. You’re making 160 quarts of yogurt of month in your house. Just do it.” I looked into, and there were huge barriers in terms of the regulations about dairy in Washington State. So I launched a Kickstarter to get a pasteurizer for $12,000. And, I got it.
The idea that so many people love plain yogurt is incredible. Every week, I put all the starter in all the jars and then, because I don’t have to use it any more, I taste the last bite. And every week, I’m just so delighted, it’s so delicious. It surprises me every time.
How did it feel when you realized your efforts were working out?: It’s all super surreal. When I think about myself, I think about myself being a mom. That’s the identity that’s probably the most important, and that’s what initiated all of this. It was about, “what can I do to support my family and still be a mom to my kids when they’re little?” I can make all kinds of sacrifices for five years, until my kids are in school and I have more flexibility. But, they’re only this little once, and they need their parent. So, I started managing the farmer’s market and then making yogurt, with the goal of piecing together enough little things to support myself financially and be a good mom, and be able to spend time with them.
Did your work at Thursday Market and with yogurt ever start to overlap?: They never didn’t. The farmer’s market is this beautiful community, it’s all these small business owners that are all doing the same thing. Nobody’s really in it for the money, it’s because they want to grow their own food, they want to make ice pops, whatever it is…and you just come together, and you support one another. I mean, you have to build each other up. You just do. We’re all on the same road, and different points along it.
I would so love to try making more of my own food, but I know I’d worry about getting it right. Were you even intimidated by the process?: For sure, until you start it, and then you realize that it’s the most forgiving thing ever. It’s so simple. I think it’s about trusting yourself. To trust your senses and to know that if your yogurt’s bad, you’re going to know it. I’ve never had yogurt be bad. If anything, the milk spoils and smells like a sour gallon of milk. But again, it’s so simple.
At any point, did you find yourself doubting? How did you get through that?: All the time. Somebody reduces their order, or somebody wants to cancel an order, or a batch of yogurt doesn’t work out, or you do your profit and loss for the last quarter, like when I took a break after my dad died. I would say the doubts are thick. And then, there just always seems to be this gift that presents itself at that same time…like a really big order, or someone reaching out to you and saying, “hey, we want you be in this magazine.” Or a compliment from someone from Egypt, who’s like, “oh my gosh, I haven’t tasted yogurt like this since I was home.” Or a woman whose dad was in the hospital; he was this man who came to the bakery once a week and bought a jar of filmjölk yogurt because his mother used to make it for him. And, his daughter wanted to know where she could get it so she could take him some in the hospital. There’s just all these gifts that present themselves, all the time.
How has what you do shaped your view of this region and the women in it?: I considered myself to be a feminist when I was in college and right after I got out of college and I was doing anti-violence against women work. I had all the statistics, and I had the fierceness about it. And then, having kids and having a business gave me a more mature definition of feminism for myself, and introduced me to women here who make the world go around. I wouldn’t do or have, what I do and have without the other strong women that are in this community. With small businesses and women, there’s a sense of community that exists. There’s a web that comes together and just makes everything stronger and more successful. It’s pretty inspiring. And that’s this part that fills me up. I feel like it’s the common denominator of my entire life, from school, and women’s studies, and art history, and history, and then the advocacy work that I did, to what I do now, it’s like this thread of community that surpasses and defies everything that we can write about, everything that we can study.
What other passions do you have?: I think cooking is a really big part of our life. [My partner] Jeremy is a chef, he knows things that I don’t know, and I know things that he doesn’t know. And it’s fun, and we can enjoy it together. Gardening is a pretty big part of our life and watching things grow. Taking the kids out…and having my 3-year-old give an edible tour of all the things that they can eat in the garden. We really spend a lot of time outside. And I knit, and I sew.
Are there any specific women that have impacted you?: I think my grandmother was a pretty big deal for me growing up. I have a legacy of incredibly strong women in my life. She had polio, and then she was one of the first hundred women in the history of the US to joined the armed forces in World War II. And she would never dare call herself a feminist, but she was a force. And she was just so strong. And while my dad wasn’t a woman, obviously, I learned so many feminine qualities from him. He was the one did all the cooking. He always taught me to take no sh*t. It was never even across my mind that I was a girl and I couldn’t do something. It was never a thought, because he always was really present with me, and engaged with me, and treated me like an individual. And my mom, she’s had highs and lows, but she won’t quit, she perseveres and pushes, and she inspires me, she just never gave up. Participating in my life and my kids’ life is her primary motivation. What better love is there than that? This is what love is. Love is showing up, doing scary things, and being your best self.
(and, remember, if you want to read more of Karyna’s interview, we’ll be including excerpts in this week’s newsletter. Sign-up here.)