Bowman-Mills dutifully followed the teacher’s instructions, forming the same letters over and over again on the board, questions flooding her mind as she wrote: Ain’t isn’t a word? Who are these people judging us?
“It was the first time I realized there was this perception of West Virginia as uneducated,” Bowman-Mills said. “It changed the trajectory of my life.”
Bowman-Mills, BA ’92, International Studies and Slavic Studies, vowed then to leave the state as soon as she could. She envisioned a life as a newspaper or magazine correspondent, experiencing the world she’d thus far only glimpsed on the glossy pages of National Geographic.
So after graduating from West Virginia University, she began her self-imposed exile. For nearly 16 years, she lived in cities across the South and Midwest, where she earned a master’s degree in writing and edited multiple magazines.
But in 2008, she realized that the place she’d left so long ago was also the place where she was likely to have the biggest impact. She envisioned creating a publication that showcased the state’s success stories, hidden gems and opportunities; all of the aspects she had missed or ignored when she was young and eager to escape.
“West Virginians are very proud,” Bowman-Mills said. “Our roots run deep, and they are tangled. It took me leaving the state to realize my heritage is what makes me unique, and I wear that now like a badge of honor.”
The decision to return and develop a magazine turned out to be a prescient one. Today, Bowman-Mills is the president, publisher and editor-in-chief of New South Media, West Virginia’s premier publishing company, producing nearly 100 magazines per year, including the one that started it all: WV Living.
Of course, Bowman-Mill’s path to success wasn’t without its challenges. The first few months back in West Virginia were particularly precarious. She was working out of a bedroom in her Morgantown townhouse, funding her publishing venture with money pulled from a retirement fund and hand delivering the final product to retailers across the state. She wrote every story, took every photograph, sold every ad and filled every subscription.
In order to promote the magazine, she spoke at any event to which she was invited, Rotary clubs and Bible studies among them.
“I said ‘no’ to no one,” she said.
It worked. Within months, advertising was easier to sell, a national distributor took over delivery and she launched a second title, WV Weddings. Subscriptions multiplied so rapidly that the alert she’d set on her phone — a ding for each new subscriber — had to be shut off.
“I think people responded because it made them feel good about West Virginia,” she said. “The mission of everything we’ve done and built is about changing perceptions and how we see ourselves as West Virginians. It’s really important for me to show the beauty of our state, and not just the physical, outdoor beauty, but the beauty of our people.”
In addition to Living and Weddings, New South Media’s titles now also include Morgantown and Wonderful West Virginia. Three years ago, Bowman-Mills won a government contract to publish the U.S. Small Business Administration’s resource guides in cities across the country, taking her regional company national.
She’s also working on multiple ancillary projects, which can serve as a lifeline in the fickle publishing world. She runs a custom content development studio called Narrative and will soon launch several podcasts.
But Bowman-Mills undertook her most ambitious project yet this fall when she moved her offices into a sprawling property with multiple storefronts in downtown Granville. There, she plans to establish an affordable events venue and rent space to West Virginia makers and creators. She sees it as a kind of living laboratory for small-town development.
“You don’t see a media company launching economic development initiatives, but we’re not a typical media company,” she said.
As her multiple awards from West Virginia’s tourism associations attest, the magazine not only serves as a guide to the state’s destinations but an economic boon to featured entrepreneurs, an accomplishment in which Bowman-Mills takes great pride.
“Everything we write about, you can act upon, you can do. Every product we feature, you can buy,” Bowman-Mills said. “We’ve never strayed from our mission of championing the state. Every day, we come to work knowing we are serving something much bigger than ourselves.”