On Friday, October 5, at the NJMEP Annual Manufacturers Day Conference, I had the honor of facilitating a panel comprised of three women manufacturers who came together to discuss the topic, “Recruiting, Retaining and Advancing Women through the Manufacturing Leadership Pipeline: What’s Working and What Isn’t.”

Over the course of the hour that we spent together, these three leaders shared their personal experiences and anecdotes, the challenges they faced and overcame, and the unique issues they continue to face in the mostly male dominated world of manufacturing.

With women representing less than 30% of the leaders/owners in the manufacturing sector, the obstacles they deal with daily are very real.  But their accomplishments are also real.

Although each had a different story to tell, not surprisingly, there were many leadership characteristics, attitudes, and experiences that they had in common.  

Here is a brief introduction to our panelists:

  • Hipatia Lopez is an award-winning founder, inventor and the CEO of Empanada Fork.When she and her family were struggling to make more than 150 empanadas for their Thanksgiving Day dinner guests, a new idea came to Hipatia. For years she and her family had been cooking empanadas for family and friends, but as their crowd grew, the stress of producing so many more empanadas became almost overwhelming.  Instead of giving up, she began to contemplate a better system, a way to make those empanadas more efficiently and quickly. From the demands of necessity, a brilliant idea began to take shape.She grew so excited she honestly couldn’t sleep until she formulated a plan for how to patent her idea that would speed up the production process for empanadas (or other similar pasties). Hundreds of phone calls, meetings, rising hopes and disappointments followed, but Hipatia has earned the distinction of being one of the less than 1% of Latinas who hold a patent in the United States. Her process and company, Empanada Fork, is now a patented reality and she is well on her way to creating an impressive manufacturing and distribution company. 
  • Suuchi Ramesh is the Founder of Suuchi Inc., a tech company that designs, manufactures, and ships clothing for forward-thinking American apparel fashion brands and Fortune 1000 companies.  Evolving from one to 130 employees in 30 months is just one way that Suuchi benchmarks the company’s growth explosion. Their success comes from their unique ability to draw on data is to keep their business customers updated in real time with project progress and 100% transparency while blending a diverse workforce together in a meaningful and integrated way.   As Suuchi notes, "Our leadership team is a brilliant mix of the best in technology, design, and manufacturing."  The company can boast that they have 130 employees coming from 27 different nationalities, spanning several generations, with 80% being women. It is Suuchi’s strong belief that implementing sound leadership practices has resulted in happy and loyal employees, a positive culture, and a high retention rate. 
  • Christine Brenner is the President and CEO of Brenner Metal Products Corp., headquartered in Wallington, NJ.  Before taking on this role, Christine was a Finance Director for a large Real Estate Development Company. She found her journey taking an unexpected turn upon the passing of her husband eight years ago, as she took on the leadership as a federal contractor/manufacturer of field hospital equipment for the US Government.

The result was that she had to move in an entirely different direction in order to carry on the legacy of a 50 year old family business she knew very little about.

After the first few years, orders began to dry up when the economy slowed and dipped. She was faced with the fact that she had only $10,000 in the bank and no way to sustain the company. Rather than back down, she dug deeper, and got on the phone with everyone she knew.  Her strong argument convinced the government to task her with designing, building and manufacturing a modified military field hospital bed. It was the chance she was waiting for. She quickly came back with a prototype that was accepted by the government. Today Brenner Metal Products is the sole source manufacturer of the Brenner Adjustable Field Bed, and growing at rapid speed to keep up with the manufacturing and demand.

"The company had to go from the top to the bottom and back up again, to make this business my own. Our success was driven by my determination and realization that failure is not an option," said Ms. Brenner. "We are proud that our products are american made and manufactured here in New Jersey. We are planning to double the size of our manufacturing facility in 2019, as we introduce new products and grow our international distribution of emergency management equipment and supplies."

As they shared their specific situations, Christine, Suuchi and Hipatia also revealed their approach to problem solving. In each instance, persistence was a major part of the formula for their success. They simply never gave up. It was no matter how long they needed to stay on hold while waiting for someone to answer their calls, no matter how many questions they had to ask to gain a deeper, better understanding of their company and the manufacturing sector, no matter how many meetings they had to attend, no matter if they had to invest in the company instead of buying Christmas gifts, they agreed it was worth it. As leaders, they know they represent their company’s brand and reputation. That means they set the tone for the organization at the top. They have to be inspirational, motivational, business savvy, and respectful and appreciative of employees, vendors and customers. Their tenaciousness was important but it was their genuine passion and determination to succeed that propelled them forward in a meaningful way.

Joining the women on this panel we also had the privilege of gaining insights from Tom Bergeron, Editor in Chief, ROI-NJ. Given that this news platform is embedded in the manufacturing space, interviewing manufacturers on a near weekly basis, Tom was able to provide a macro-view of what manufacturers are doing in the field to attract and retain young women as well as to comment on the role of women in business and specifically in manufacturing.

Leaders come in all shapes, sizes, age, color, gender, and culture. But regardless of their differences, these women leaders had so many more mutual attitudes and competencies as entrepreneurs, owners and leaders, which they demonstrated as they explored obstacles, solutions, and outcomes!