2021 WEOC Panel Discussion – Speaker Bios

Evolving in a World of Change:

Best Practices for a Business Refocus

"A discussion led by three Vermont women who will share their personal stories on how they adapted, and in some cases, changed the directions of their business plans as a result of the pandemic.”

Abby Lechthaler – The Downtown Grocery

WEOC 2021 Panelist Abby Lechthaler

Abby, a native of Jackson, Mississippi, and her husband Rogan, a Vermont native, purchased the Ludlow property that now houses The Downtown Grocery in December 2010. Using local, house-butchered meat and sustainable seafood, The Downtown Grocery became a destination for unique experiences in drinking and eating. It has been featured in GQ, Travel & Leisure, SKIING, Garden and Gun, Yankee Magazine, Edible Green Mountains and The Wall Street Journal. The Ludlow restaurant was also named one of the Top 100 Best Restaurants in America by the food critics of Us Weekly. Abby has a degree in journalism from the University of Colorado- Boulder and first started working in restaurants in Colorado and Mississippi to fund her love of overseas travel.


Akshata Nayak – Little Patakha

WEOC 2021 Akshata Nayak

Growing up in India, Akshata was a science geek and believed that she would be a lab rat investigating genetic mysteries for the rest of her life. So she moved to the US and earned two Master of Science degrees – one in Biochemistry  and another in Applied Clinical Nutrition while doing research in the fields of Genetics, Biochemistry, Toxicology, Immunology and Neuroscience. But life had other plans, and her learnings converged into two businesses in 2010, both with the idea that our health is dependent on what we put in and on our body: The Orange Owl, a small-batch vegan skincare line and Alternative Roots Wellness Center that offers chiropractic and nutrition counseling services. After a decade she decided to close down The Orange Owl due personal health issues and the COVID-19 crisis, but she pivoted to a new business opportunity in Little Patakha, which is a children's media brand looking to promote diversity and shatter stereotypes while helping kids see differences with others as something to learn from, rather than be wary of.  Over the years, it has become obvious to her that even though women and BIPOC business owners have plenty of ideas, they hold back in recognizing their efforts, expressing opinions and asking for the support they need. Representation is vital within the business community and she is looking forward to playing an active role in the ecosystem that empowers these entrepreneurs, especially in her home state of Vermont, to believe in themselves and give their ideas a chance.


Julia Birnn Fields – Birnn Chocolates of Vermont


Julia Birnn Fields is President, 4th Generation owner, and the first woman to lead Birnn Chocolates of Vermont. Birnn makes truffles, for people who sell truffles, to people who love truffles. 

Lauded as “Vermonter of the Month” by the state’s Attorney General, and recognized as a “40 under 40, Rising Star” by Vermont Business Magazine, Julia’s commitment to her community, social responsibility, and environmental stewardship is clear.

Julia’s focus in her family’s business is all about the people. The company culture embodies her core values, which in turn manifests unparalleled customer service and a safe and supportive workplace. Julia also heads all things creative by producing ads, website expression, and marketing collateral. 

Julia currently sits on two boards, the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce and Prevent Child Abuse Vermont, striking a balance between business advocacy and giving the smallest of beings a big voice.  

In between work, parenting, and volunteering - Julia is an avid trail runner, skier, and enjoys quality time with her family and friends. 

Julia and her husband/business partner, Mel, are inspired and reminded daily by their son to live in the present moment, and to keep smiling… even under their masks.