Get to know: Stephany Wilkes ’00, from writing code to shearing sheep

December 18, 2018

Stephany Wilkes poses for a photo.Stephany (Filimon) Wilkes ’00 knows the story people want to hear from her: She rage-quit her job at a Silicon Valley tech firm and decided to become a sheep shearer.

It’s a good story, she admits. The trouble is, it’s not true.

She did quit her job at a Silicon Valley tech firm when another employee, on his way to another company, told her and the only other woman at the firm that they were making about $100,000 less than the men despite being among the most senior employees. But she had been shearing sheep for a while when that happened.

“There’s something about having a number put on your worth that really stuck to me,” Wilkes ’00, said. “And I thought, if I’m going to make $100,000 less, I might as well make it outside, doing what I want, with beautiful animals and with beautiful views.”

Wilkes shares her story in a thoroughly entertaining memoir, “Raw Material: Working Wool in the West” published in October by Oregon State University Press. She shared her journey and read from the book in early October.

The real story of her journey began, as many do, with a question.

“I’m a knitter and I couldn’t ever find any locally produced wool,” Wilkes said. “And I was in California, where people know the farms the food on their plate comes from; why was there not the same interest in clothing?”

What she found out was that the United States produces a good amount of wool — some 27 million pounds annually — but it is then exported for spinning into yarn then imported with no indication that it originally came from a sheep in the American West.

In doing this research, Wilkes read that there is a shortage of sheep shearers in the United States and, as she writes, “I will never understand why my next thought was, ‘This might be something I could help with.’” Especially when she realized she had never seen a sheep shearing in person and had never even petted a sheep. “I was operating on sheer white-person, urban hubris,” she said.

“Raw Material” relates Wilkes’ remarkable lifestyle change, from 2013 when she signed up for a class to today, six sheep shearing seasons later. She writes of a world most people know nothing about — from her first shearing on day one of a five-day class offered by the University of California Hopland Research and Extension Center, to the respectable living she makes as on the shearing circuit.

It’s a story of extremely hard work, emotional highs and lows, quitting a high-paying job, livestock diseases, traveling, manure, angry sheep, scared sheep, humanity, gender politics and personal growth. It’s also a story of the people she has met along the way, many of whom she now calls family.

“I have met some of the most interesting people, and I write about them in the book,” she said. “It was very important to me to tell their stories and to get them right.”

Wilkes specializes in smaller flocks that would often be ignored by other shearers who need volume to earn a decent wage. As she immersed herself in the world of sheep shearing, she would make notes to herself about the day’s events and what she learned from them to do the work better next time. Crazy sheep anecdotes peppered her social media posts and friends encouraged her to write a book. Those notes and posts became the structure of “Raw Material.”  Through West by Midwest, the company she formed with her husband for sheep shearing, Wilkes, who earned a bachelor of arts degree in English with a minor in Women’s Studies at University of Detroit Mercy, also offers ghost writing and freelance writing.

An English degree might seem like a strange background for a tech-product-manager-turned-sheep-shearer, but Wilkes relationship with technology started early, when her grandfather began teaching her coding at age four.

She worked in the industry, along with a variety of other jobs, full time as a college student. As a first-generation college student, Wilkes heard from her family that an English degree was fine, but she needed the skills that would get her a job.

“I did not choose it as a career,” she explained. “I had the skills so I went into technology. But all of the problems you hear Silicon Valley has with women were much worse in my experience. I was also being asked to do coding for things I found problematic and I realized I couldn’t continue in this line of work for much longer.”

Her former co-worker’s information on her salary was the last straw, she said. But it was easy to walk away because she felt she was heading in a better direction.

“I had been feeling this tug to do something else for a while,” she said. “It’s like that idea that you become who you already are. I wanted to be living in line with my values, so I told myself I’m not going to ignore this little tug.”

Today, in addition to shearing, she is also a wool classer and president of the Northern California Fibershed Cooperative and speaks regularly about sheep and wool.

“This decision changed my life,” she said. “I would encourage everyone to listen to their own little tug and follow it.”

“Raw Material: Working Wool in the West” is published by Oregon State University Press and is available everywhere.

— By Ron Bernas. Follow Detroit Mercy on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. Have a story idea? Let us know by submitting your idea.