Bluefield native and Mercer County small business owner, Ansel Ponder, is striving to showcase the substance and style of West Virginia through the lifestyle-streetwear brand, 3 Up, 2 Up. The young entrepreneur stays busy. In addition to being the co-founder and brand manager of 3 Up, 2 Up, Ponder is the Chief Marketing Director at Bluefield State College, a MBA graduate student, a husband and father of four. Luckily, we were able to schedule some time to speak to him about his background, business and future goals.
Starting with the basics, what is your background? And how has it shaped your career?
I went to Western Michigan University and studied social sciences for about three and a half years before graduating early. At Western Michigan, I played football, too. The football was fun. I got to play in a competitive conference, the MAC [Mid-American Conference]. And while I didn’t have a strong or prolific college career in terms of stats, I definitely gained some social and cultural enrichment from going there. I made lifelong friends and was able to grow professionally. I also gained experience interning and going through my program itself.
How did attending school and playing football in a new state compare to your life growing up in southern West Virginia?
I was the only West Virginian recruit that was on the team and it made me have sort of a chip on my shoulder, and I think that’s something a lot of West Virginian natives have anyway. I feel like we have something to prove to the world, to the region, to the state. Like, we are better than what is portrayed. So, that was something I always carried with me. In high school, I would always rep the “3 up, 2 up” hand symbol for West Virginia, and that was something I definitely repped at Western Michigan throughout my time there. That’s kind of the culture with football, you rep where you’re from. A lot of the time you represent and illustrate that with tattoos and things like that, and more importantly, it’s just how you carry yourself on and off the field. So that was something I didn’t take lightly.
What were your plans after college?
I wanted to pursue my master’s in business administration, which I’m currently in the process of completing. So, after graduating from Western Michigan, I went back to school at Bluefield State College and got about 40 credit hours in business. While I was at school, I was able to work a few jobs that gave me valuable skills: first as a project manager for Greater Appalachian Outreach and later as the marketing director for Chick-Fil-A. Then, an opportunity came up at Bluefield State College as an Admissions Counselor.
What led to the creation of 3 Up, 2 Up?
I always wanted to be able to launch this brand. This was all premeditated, but it was about the timing. Now what led to the inspiration behind the brand was just really wanting to showcase West Virginia in a positive light. As we say 3 Up, 2 Up is a lifestyle-streetwear brand designed to empower all people in the state of West Virginia. That’s our vision and it’s broad.
I tell people all the time that I wish I would have grown up in this age. I missed this wave of social media because when I was in high school and college, all the best athletes in the state knew each other, but we weren’t able to connect on social media. Instead, we would rep the state at AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] basketball tournaments or 7-on-7 games at Wake Forest. That whole culture stuck with me and that’s kind of what we try to instill in our brand. We want to show that it has an edge, but it’s still very West Virginia-centric.
Was there a learning curve to starting this new business endeavor? What helped you overcome it?
Prior to 2016, I was just learning and reading a bunch of stuff, but I had no clue about marketing. Nothing. It just wasn’t what I studied. I didn’t know anything about websites, web development, back-end, front-end, or anything like that. That was all foreign to me. So, I had to figure out all those different things. And I say what inspired me to keep going was really just wanting to show the substance and style that people have and not just the people, but the beauty of our state as well.
When you say “Substance and Style” in regards to the concept of 3 Up, 2 Up, how do you showcase that?
We showcase that through a bunch of merchandise, but early on it was really about the hand symbol — 3 up, 2 up, like the W and the V — is where we got the name. That’s why we say 3 Up, 2 Up is substance plus style. You can find substance beneath the surface of West Virginia. It can be anything. For example, our 9 regions. We try to showcase that as best we can. We try to tap into every county and find something of substance and show that through our merchandise. Maybe feature it through a promotional video or something that is marketable and trendy. Obviously, being from Southern West Virginia, the ATV trails are very popular. It’s something we can directly attach ourselves to and give that streetwear vibe. We’ve had gator masks two or three years ago before they became an everyday necessity. We were doing that from a substance and style perspective. That was something we felt we introduced to our following as streetwear.
Do you have any business partners?
Pete Myers and I are co-founders of 3 Up, 2 Up. Austin O’Connor is another guy who helped us launch the brand. Currently, I am the brand manager. They are both more hands-off now, but they were absolutely instrumental in the beginning. We have some people that actually helped us bootstrap the brand. We didn’t have to go raising capital or anything like that. We sent out about a hundred shirts, and we had folks like an ecosystem that helped support that.
From the looks of your social media there is definitely a community within the brand. Did you go in with that vision?
Oh, absolutely. It was something we wanted to be a community. That’s how we feel like we represent our state as well as anyone does. I’m African American, and I think a lot of times with brands in West Virginia, you see the dominant society in West Virginia, which is fine. However, there is a small number of Asian-Pacific natives, a small percentage of mixed race and biracial people that may identify as African American. And there’s an African American percentage in the state that’s less than 10 percent, and so we feel as though we showcase everybody. Inclusivity is a value of ours. Not only that, but another demographic overlooked is the younger demographic. When you think of West Virginia, you don’t think of younger people, millennials or Generation Z. You think of it as a retirement place, but we want to be able to show that community. But more importantly, we want to show everyone. We want people to feel like this is for anybody.
Do you have any future goals for yourself, your career and your business?
I’ll start with the brand. I see us expanding and offering a larger product line for younger kids, like middle school and youth sizes. I see that happening and our community continuing to grow in the next two or three years.
As far as Bluefield State, I see our community and alumni base growing. I see us serving more students as we expand our athletics to reach more students to let them know who Bluefield State is and tell them the story of the college. I think we will continue to grow and build our enrollment up and bring back culture and our rich heritage while having that HBC [Historically Black College] status still be known.
And personally, I really want to continue to grow and become a leader. I hope to continue to be a leader for those that come from West Virginia and want to take a different route and be able to become something. And I honestly just want to have my MBA and gain more experience.
Learn more about the substance and style of this lifestyle-streetwear brand and support their vision by visiting 3up2up.com. Join their state-wide community by following 3 Up, 2 Up on Instagram and Twitter.
This post was last updated on February 25, 2021