Executive director at the Historic Wilmington Foundation, NC
“I think I was born tenacious.”
A tenacious person, someone who never gives up, never stops trying. A self achiever, a goal setter. One who persists. This is the definition of tenacious as well as words commonly used to describe a woman named Beth Rutledge who has served as the executive director at the Historic Wilmington Foundation, (located in Wilmington, NC) for the past three years. We here at Moxxi fully agree, undeniably, she is tenacious. In fact, powerful. Her personality promotes solidarity, she has the ability to walk into a somber room and shift it’s mood; truly a leader. She leaves a lasting impact, encouraging people to be stronger and be a better version of themselves.
Beth Rutledge comes from a family of overachievers and academics. Never having been comfortable in a traditional working environment, she set herself apart at a young age. She felt that since she was slightly different than the rest of her family she always had something to prove. Jokingly she remarks of her ‘ fear-based’ work ethic regarding that, 'the way to accomplish something in her family is antithetical to the way she operates.'
“In my family, I am the shortest and the least educated person. And I say this because I’m a tall person and professionally I’m doing ok.”
As a little girl, her dream job was to be a nail polish guru, naming the world's most sought out nail colors. By the time she was in high school she wanted to be an accessories editor, as she idolized Diana Vreeland who was a columnist and editor for fashion magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. Now, fast forward to today, 2021, she has found herself moving on to new life endeavors. Ok, maybe she hasn’t worked for Vogue magazine naming nail polishes but she has been an editor, writing similar take-offs, for companies like Target. In case you are wondering, does she always have beautifully polished nails? Yes! This career, the life she has been envisioning since a young age, always took place in a very specific environment, New York City. That beautiful city skyline won’t be far in the distance much longer as she and her husband, (along with their cute little dog) are moving to the Upper West Side of Manhattan within a couple of months time.
She and her stepdaughter had been planning a trip to go to France for years and finally were able to go, with plans projected for July of 2020. Then “Poof,” it was gone. Just like that. The pandemic hit and along with many other people’s life adventures, visions of the Eiffel Tower dissipated quickly. Between that and seeing people lose their jobs, livelihoods and in some horrible cases, their lives, Rutledge and her husband made a life-altering decision to follow the life long dream of moving to NYC.
“All the scariness of 2020 has really put into really sharp focus how precious time is. I'm 51 and I’ve never been to Paris...and I STILL have never been to Paris. I’m 51 and I’ve wanted to live in New York my whole life and WE’RE GONNA DO IT.”
So what led Rutledge up to this point? How has that tenacious drive of hers gotten her here? Somehow her whole life she has not been able to make the move to New York until now. It's been a combination of her life experiences that have led her to fully follow her gut and take chances. She abides by a couple of sayings, something that she always tells herself when entering a challenging situation or making a life-altering decision. “What’s the harm in trying?” and “Everything is Finite.” Just remember that something you do, it can’t happen forever. So, make the best of it. And that goes with life too. If you want something, it's achievable. Take the risk, follow your heart.
“If there’s something I really want to do I'm gonna figure out how to do it. I do have a little chip on my soldier because I've had to work really hard for the things I've gotten, no one has just handed it to me.”
From a young age Rutledge sought out to find what made her happy. She attended the University of Minnesota where she graduated with a Bachelors degree in English. From there she became a magazine editor, which as you now know, she always aspired to be. This led her to market and retail writing and editing for businesses ranging from startups to Fortune 100 companies. After years of building her professional career, it started to feel hollow. Job dissatisfaction can be frustrating and stressful. It affects all aspects of your life. Recognizing that she was unhappy with work she started to shift gears and focus on some of her other passions. She had been volunteering for some time at various historic preservation organizations and considers herself a “Boots on the ground” preservationist, someone that has no formal training. She has always had a passion and love for all things old; buildings, clothing, furniture...and preservation in all its forms!
One day she had a conversation with her husband saying how she didn’t want to do corporate work anymore and wanted to do something more meaningful. Her husband encouraged her and said, “Whatever you find to do, you will find a way to make it work.” Basically saying, he has all faith that what she puts her mind to, she will make happen. Rutledge says that validation is very important. If there is validation then there is encouragement. People need to have support groups, motivation in their lives. Her husband is all of those things for her.
“He is the most supportive person I’ve ever meant, he is the best friend I ever had, he is the person who said to me, “You’ll figure it out, you will make it happen. If he had not reminded me of that I don’t know if I would have had the courage to do it.”
She kept trying to volunteer at a variety of preservation organizations but to much of her dismay, people weren’t getting back to her based on her lack of preservation experience. Then, something came through and she started volunteering at RETHOS (at the time Preservation Alliance of Minnesota) where eventually she was hired part-time for marketing and development. She had identified holes within the organization and came to them with a proposal. Basically, she said, “Look….these areas need work, I can mend them if you create a position for me. Not only will I do this but I will continue to volunteer.” This lasted for about 6 months until RETHOS was issued grant funding to start an education program. Rutledge was approached to see if she wanted to develop it. Through her creative reign, she constructed a program called, “Old Home Certified.” It was a realtor certification program taught by experts with classes such as, “Why Old is Green”, and “History of Architecture,” which was accompanied by a homeowner education program. Before she knew it she was working full time in historic preservation AND doing something that she loved. Not only was she enriching herself but also the community.
“When I stopped hustling doing something I didn’t really want to do and I really started to put my energy towards something that I genuinely was passionate about, it started to happen. I don’t want to say it was easy because I worked hard for my opportunities.”
For almost two years, she dominated this organization and played a crucial role in the development of its programs. During this time, her stepson was accepted to attend the Colorado Rocky Mountain School, a boarding school focusing on education through the experience of the outdoors and the pursuit of achievement through the quality of life. Hence, she and her husband made the decision to follow him and moved to Denver, CO. Meanwhile she was still working remotely for RETHOS. Their son said one day,
“This is boarding school, you're the only parents that come visit all the time.” (Haha)
As parents they took this at a sign, and with both of them working remotely they knew they could move anywhere. For pleasure, Rutledge looked at historic preservation websites like, “Cheap Old Houses,” and “Saving Places.org.” The small city of Wilmington, NC kept appearing on all of her searches and in ways it was calling her. So, she got on a plane and went and checked it out because you only live once, right?
On a beautiful fall day the streets remained desolate. She walked around in awe of it’s wonderment and told her husband it felt, “Sleepy.” He said, “I could go for sleepy,” and that was it! Little did they know how great of a fit it was. They were soon to discover all the energy and love of the town.
Prior to them settling in NC, Beth had already become a member at the Historic Wilmington Foundation which is a nonprofit with a mission to preserve and protect the irreplaceable in New Hanover, Pender and Brunswick counties. She also signed up to volunteer at Legacy Architecture Salvage which is a retail space for sourcing elements from old buildings such as doors and windows. They host workshops on topics such as restoration and reclaiming old materials.
She wasted no time getting involved in the community. The executive director asked her if she would serve on the board at HWF and that same year the director retired and she was asked to interview for the position.
“Within a year I went from working a corporate job that was very solace and hollow (and it served me good at the time but didn’t feel good anymore.) I had gone from doing that...to changing my career, finding out that my passion was preservation and community.”
Accepting this position was no easy feat. She took over the role of a man named George Edwards who had held the position for 13 years. He was very well respected and academic in his approach. Rutledge says that everything she knows she learned on the job. Taking over from a scholar, someone who was so entrenched in the community was challenging.
“Wilmington is so special, we have 8 historic districts here. We have an inordinate amount for how the small the city is and it’s just been wonderful to serve that.”
Being a small coastal town in the Southeastern United States, history is alive and prevalent. While much of their work remains consistent many of the roles of HWF are continually shifting as there is so much work to be done. The job shifts as the world shifts. Everything affects the organization, such as politics (both local and national), nature, and the economy. When she first took the position much of the foundation's appeal was geared towards homeowners with the primary focus being on the preservation of their homes. Historic preservation isn’t only about homes and their owners, it's more than that. It’s about community outreach and immersing the city’s rich history into its current culture. Everyone should benefit from historic preservation as it is part of what makes communities whole. Through a strong group effort, communities can enrich their lives through preservation methods and have stronger businesses, events, parks, and recreational activities.
“Women belong everywhere that decisions are being made.”
- Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Taking on this demanding role wasn’t easy, and Rutledge could only prepare herself as much as she could for a variety of things that happened during her term. Being a woman in the South and becoming the executive director for a well-respected, nationally recognized organization in the community came with much responsibility. Rutledge says,
“Sexism is alive and well.”
Taking on this leadership role has been an opportunity for her to be a part of a larger movement towards gender equality. Much of these types of organizations have been run by traditional thoughts and methods for years. This is not to say that it doesn’t work but by applying a new proactive approach Rutledge has been able to strengthen the organization to be more forward-thinking. It is important to be parallel with the times and be progressive.
“Being a woman in this job was hard…BEING A WOMAN in this job was hard.” “In the three years that I’ve been here it's gotten less prevalent but I’ve experienced some real challenges. Being spoken to as if I don’t know what I’m doing, being patronized, or talked down to, or dismissed. Sometimes the word choices people use with me have indicated that my gender is a factor in them thinking less of me.”
One very challenging role she faced during her term was during the time of the police killing of George Floyd (May 25, 2020) that sparked widespread protests. With efforts to help the fight across the US towards racial injustice, organizations began to remove confederate statues under the terms of them being viewed as symbols of slavery and racism. The foundation, as a committee, developed a statement to support the fight with the removal of Wilmington’s Confederated statues. Rutledge said after her speech she felt scared immediately. She knew the public had such mixed feelings. HWF has a strong position in the community and with its influential role, the public statements would certainly not go unnoticed. It was straightforward and short, without much detail yet Rutledge personally got an absorbent amount of hate mail.
“Historic Wilmington Foundation supports the lawful and safe removal of the George Davis monument at Third and Market as well as the Wilmington Confederate monument at Third and Dock. These artworks do not represent the values of the City of Wilmington or this organization. It is HWF’s hope that the monuments will be relocated to a location where they may be preserved, interpreted, contextualized, and used expressly for educational purposes, rather than to continue to serve as visual public reminders of racial injustice.”
Rutledge received countless phone calls, letters, and emails. A respected community member quoted her (yes, specifically her) as being brazen and controversial. Another had the audacity to call and say, ‘He and the Sons of the Confederacy are going to shackle themselves to the George Davis statue and it would come down over their dead bodies.’ This decision was not solely hers. Not only was she backed by her committee, but she was backed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Nation together, united was making a stance. HWF's final decision was reactionary to neighboring towns such as Asheville, NC.
“Seeing other people do the right thing helps you do the right thing.”
She has given a lot of care and attention the past six months to speak with community leaders and thinkers in Wilmington’s black community. Unclear on what appropriate steps HWF could do in terms of inclusivity, she has been challenging the committee to reroute some of their programs to a more forward-thinking approach and is issuing changes that will start to narrow the gap of racism.
“For HWF it is important that we acknowledge the ways that we aren't being inclusive and sharing our history and figure out ways we can do it better.”
In the past five years, Rutledge has learned just as much from Wilmington as the town has from her. During her term Wilmington faced many heartbreaking moments such as the devastation from Hurricane Florence and the COVID - 19 Pandemic. There is a whole host of emotions that can accompany any type of departure. Excitement, sadness, and loss are amongst many but with this also comes hope for the future. The organization is in a good place. They are working towards cultural variation, making moves on social action, and continuing their strong preservation practices. Rutledge has been a sufficient leader as she has pushed through boundaries making way for a new and exciting future for the foundation. HWF will continue to play such an important role in the community, as it always has.
“Don’t miss an opportunity to tell another woman what a great job she’s doing. We often regret the things we don’t say.”
Through her term she has hired a strong team, an all-female staff. She says they inspire her every day. Connections like this are only achievable with the efforts it takes to create them. Rutledge stresses the importance of showing appreciation outwardly towards other women. Acknowledge each other, be supportive, have open communication, and encourage collaboration.
“They’re incredible. What they have been able to accomplish...when you work in a nonprofit...you have very little and you're expected to do a lot. The fact that they continue to surprise me and this community in the best possible ways, it’s really special and amazing.”
Rutledge isn’t leaving anything behind. Actually, scratch that. She is leaving behind what she is taking with her. Wisdom, courage and hope. The small city of Wilmington, with all of its charm, has a strong foundation in its preservation efforts to maintain the beauty the city has. Now, moving forward she will embrace what the people of Wilmington have given her and what the foundation has taught her. She says that HWF has given her the confidence that she can go somewhere totally unknown. Somewhere that even though she doesn't know what’s going to happen, she is comfortable taking the chance. Her husband jokes that once they move to NYC she will volunteer somewhere and then before you know it, run the department. The probability of this is pretty strong, I would bet on it. She has a proven track record of success. Regardless of what she chooses to do, this woman has Moxxi. Knowing Rutledge she will continue to do things that only make her happy, which always involves helping others.
“Something that motivates me is, I’m the only person who’s going to do this, otherwise no one will.”
Rutledge has a strong sense of personal obligation. She is a determined and powerful woman. We can all learn from this mindset and strive to be the best variations of ourselves. Some of us may not have the tenacity that Rutledge has but by her leading by example, we can all learn from her actions. Preservation is about renewal, strengthening, and protecting. Through her courage and empathy for others, Rutledge is continually renewing her community, herself, family, and all her surroundings. NYC, you’re gaining a gem, the capabilities you can bring each other are indefinite.
Q + A with Beth Rutledge
Q: Have you had many experiences with inequality in the workplace?
A: ““I have been stunned by the sexism I’ve encountered here, stunned, but not slowed.”
Q: What inspires you?
A: “When good prevails."
Q: What are some words you have for women?
A: “Unfortunately sexism is still very real and that you are gonna be talked down to, you're gonna be belittled and you're gonna be demeaned but it’s not personal it’s about somebody else’s own biases, insecurities and frailties…and failings. Quite frankly, do not let that stop you!”
Q: How do you drink your coffee?
A: Her mother sends her a coffee called, Icing on the Cake, by Steep and Brew, a roastery out of Madison, Wisconsin! She has been drinking this coffee for 20 years! Rutledge just lit up when she spoke of it. It has a warm, light buttery cinnamon flavor.
Q: What does coffee mean to you?
A: "That moment in the morning with my husband.”
When they first married, he had two small children that became hers. She didn’t know anything about being a parent. “It was important to stay connected while focusing on raising the kids.” She says it’s a very comforting and sacred time.
Q: What does MOXXI mean to you?
A: "You’ve got some guts. I really like the word, it's old fashioned, sounds like a 1930’s “She’s got Moxxi.”
Q: Any quotes you love?
A: "But if fashion were easy, wouldn’t everybody look great.” - Tim Gunn
Q: What is some advice you have for someone who doesn’t know what direction to turn?
A: "Do your homework and figure out where to add value. What’s missing and where do you fit in.”
Interested in seeing some of the work that Beth has done or knowing more about historic preservation? Please visit:
Historic Wilmington Foundation:
National Trust for Historic Preservation:
Written & Curated By | Krysta Kearney, Moxxi Coffee Co.
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