Elena Carne, with Proverbs 31 and Americus on her mind, goes to the White House

Published 3:42 pm Monday, November 21, 2022

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Tracy K. Hall

Anyone who knows anything about Americus knows Elena Carne is a powerhouse. An immigrant from Venezuela, she owns T31, a clothing company making some of the best active wear in the world. She is a small operation, but she is mighty. We know this. We are not the only ones who know this.

The White House came calling on October 1, 2022. Elena’s email account had labeled the email spam, but luckily Elena regularly checks her spam folder. The email was an invitation to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month which took place on October 6, 2022. Elena says of the invitation, “the Vice President was inviting small business Latino owners to a celebration for Hispanic Heritage Month.” How did the White House know about Elena? That is still somewhat of a mystery, however, Elena is a member of the Georgia as well as the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. There is a thought her membership in those organizations might have put her in a pool of people to invite. Elena states they were looking for “small businesses, 1-20 employees.” Elena definitely fits the bill as T31 employees Elena full time and two part time people.

Invitation Elena received

The White House was lucky to get Elena. The invitation was last minute, and Elena had already been asked to be a keynote speaker for another event in Atlanta on 10.04.22. However, she was unable to let such an opportunity sit on the table. So, she accepted the invitation for 10.6.22. It was a strange experience and Elena admits she thought she might be a target of a scammer. None the less, “It was a big opportunity, and I don’t really know much about the Vice President, just what you hear, but I didn’t know about what she is doing for small business owners.” Elena is Venezuelan, she is not interested in being a political pundit and is not much invested in politics at all because she has lived the horror of a political system gone wrong. Elena originally came to the country seeking political asylum from the “revolutions” in Venezuela. She is not interested in investing in a divisive political atmosphere. She is however interested in honesty and if the Vice President wanted to know her thoughts on what it was like being a small business owner, who also happens to be Latino, she was certainly willing to tell her truth.

Elena not only accepted the invitation, but she also let the administration know her 14-year-old daughter, Penelope, would be her traveling companion. Penelope has two other sisters, Angie and Samantha. The common practice is when mom travels, she takes one of her daughters with her. This time, it was Penelope’s turn. Although Penelope wasn’t expecting to be able to attend the celebration, she was going to enjoy a trip to DC with her mom.

When Elena got out of her conference on the fourth of October, she noticed she had missed several calls. She checked her email and noticed the White House had emailed again. With the thought they were cancelling the event, she opened the note. They were not cancelling the event. They wanted Elena to speak at the event as the voice of Hispanic small business owners. With each step of this adventure, she was met with greater and greater opportunity. Elena says, “I was in shock. It was very emotional for me because I work hard, so hard to keep the business open through hard times and to have that opportunity was like a dream. I said, ‘Yes of course, I will!’” She called the White House to speak with a staffer. She put the call on speaker phone so Penelope could hear to make sure she wasn’t in the middle of a dream. It was during this conversation she was given another opportunity. After she was finished speaking, she was asked to introduce the Vice President of the United States.

Elena telling her story

Prior to speaking, the White House wanted to read her speech. In it she spoke on some of the difficulties small Hispanic business owners face, especially during and after the pandemic. She told a little of her story on how she got to the US. She also talked about “how important it is for Latinos to be a part of this country. How proud we are of being Americans.” It was an appropriate comment tailored to her audience, as many were immigrants with stories similar to hers. The invitees where from all over the nation, and Elena was the only guest from Georgia. She was also the only rural representation as the other guest were from metro areas.

After submitting the speech, she received another call from the Vice President’s office. After reading the speech, the Vice President invited Elena to come meet with her prior to the celebration. Yet another opportunity presenting itself to Elena. Elena remains overwhelmed by this. “Tracy, don’t ask me why, because I don’t know. It just happened.” The next day she was entering the White House to meet Kamala Harris. It was Elena and “about five others.” A staffer joined the group asking some questions of them before Harris arrived. She was asked about “how all the help we received from the Small Business Administration benefitted us.” Elena states she doesn’t believe it was just a political event, as the people present all had different political views. The diversity of political opinions was something “that caught my attention” as Elena states. Again, she states she is not interested in being used as a political pawn as she has already escaped the horrors of a Venezuelan government. She reports a friend asked her about her intentions in visiting the Vice President. “I am a positive person. I stay open-minded. If I am invited to this, it’s because God wanted me to be used and to be honest. If she wants to know about how I think about things right now, I will tell her. And I did”

Vice President Kamala Harris drops by a meeting of Latino small business owners, Thursday, October 6, 2022, in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House. Chief Economic Adviser to the Vice President Deanne Millison introduces attendees Thaime and Jesus Nanez of The Farmhouse Paint and Sip, Andrea Vigil of Allegiant Electric, Francisco Torres-Aranda of EcoWell Cappers, Elena Carne of T31 Apparel, Carolina Nabavian and Ricardo Aragon of Barbed Wire Reef & Carnivore, and Andres Izquieta of Vibras Goods. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Honest she was. She admits when Harris entered the room her breath was taken. “I’m sitting there from Americus, Georgia. And when they introduced us, she said, ‘I know who you are’, and I said, ‘How you know? She said, ‘I just know things.’ I said, ‘You know it’s hard. This is hard and this hard.’ They wanted to know our struggles and if the help we received was enough I told her ‘it’s not just giving us money, it’s about educating the people on how to use that money. They started giving money, and people didn’t know, and that’s why a lot of people are in trouble now. I told her ‘people don’t want to work’ and I also told her there are people who want to learn new trades, but the only way we can hire them is if we get a big contract.’” Elena says she has made a strong effort to get the volume of work she needs to hire and train people. “We need an opportunity as a small business. I am not asking you for money, because what am I going to do with just money if I don’t have any orders?” Elena says they could give her a million dollars, but how is she going to multiple a million dollars if she doesn’t have the work?  Elena is not interested in “just getting something, help us get more work.” Elena reports Harris remarked on what she knew about her. “How much I love to say I make ‘Made in America’ products.” Elena told her there needs to be a certain limit on what can be brought over from places like China, where the quality isn’t as good, but the market is flooded with a cheaper product. So, a quality, small, “Made in America” type product like she makes doesn’t stand much of a chance, unless you are Elena. “I said, ‘You want cheap, cheap, cheap, but you can have a good product, made in America, supporting communities, and you can have a good price.’” Elena is proud of her product, but she needs the volume in order to be effective for her business, our community and ultimately our country. “I don’t want money, I want orders. I have to succeed. Failure is not an option for me because my family depends upon my business.” Elena feels confident she made her point well and she has been told follow up information from the White House on the topics this group of six brought up to Harris will be forthcoming.

The story doesn’t end there. There were a few more steps. Elena was introduced by Harris’ husband. She told about herself and her vision, and then she introduced Kamala Harris. The celebration was held with food, drink and live Latino music. But what Elena identifies as her favorite parts of the experience are two. First, ended up Penelope got to attend the event and it was thrilling for both mother and daughter. “To have my daughter with me was the most beautiful part, because I work hard, I talk with them and tell them the story of where I come from, and sometimes they don’t believe it. Sometimes I tell them I am tired, and they don’t believe it because they think mama is Super Woman. But I tell them, you have to be honest, you have to have integrity and you have to work hard. That way you earn people’s respect. I want them to be Proverbs 31 ladies, that’s my goal and that’s why we are named T31. Because Proverbs 31 is the lady I aspire to be. I want to raise my daughters in the right direction and for them to be successful. But successful doesn’t mean having a lot of money. But what you have, you do things right, you are honest, and you have integrity, and you are respected, and that’s all. I want them to know in this country, you work hard, you can do anything. I could tell them, but I want to show them.” Introducing the Vice President of The United States of America, after letting her own honesty be heard is an excellent display of proving Elena’s point.  Elena takes her position as a mother as her heart’s work. For her God, family and girls, Angie, age 18, Penelope, 14, and Samantha age 11, she is passionate above all else. She was asked about moving her business to another larger area. She reported to Harris, “I am in a rural town, and I know, even with all the challenges, Ill find a way. I’m happy, I have my family in a place where it is our home.” With her brothers just making it out of Venezuela they are working on citizenship. Her mom achieved her citizenship just recently and Elena has had her’s for 10 years. All of her family has finally been reunited. And they are all living under the same roof, right here in Americus as our neighbors.

A lot of pride in these words

The second thing she treasures most out of the experience was seeing her name on an official name badge, with the words Americus, Georgia written under it. She takes great pride in representing our little spot on the map. When she saw that name tag, she announced her intentions, “I am taking this home. My name and Americus, Georgia, that almost made me cry. I was so proud.” She told the Vice President she loves Americus. But she also told her, she has to honor her word given to our community and that was “to create jobs in my town.” “She asked why not a big city, and I said, ‘No, no. I’m in Americus and I’ve been able to offer to my daughters a kind of lifestyle I can not offer them in a big city…. Everything is perfect for us.” From here she reported out on the things which we all love about our home: our sense of community, our affordable living, our values, being able to connect with others, being able to contribute something significant. “When I came here, I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m home.’ That’s what I told her, that’s my pride.”

Elena said she was asked the same question multiple times she herself had wondered. “Why me? I do not know. I guess the Big Boss had something he wanted me to tell her.”  For anyone who knows our beautiful Elena, such a question never crossed our minds. We know the answer, and it has much to do with living the life of that Proverbs 31 lady. Thank you for making us proud Elena, not only on October 6, 2022, but on every day you allow us to attach our name to yours.