More women than ever now own textile companies, and IFAI’s recent Women in Textiles Summit brought together many of these business leaders to share their unique expertise within a highly specialized industry. This year’s inaugural summit, held March 6–8 in Savannah, Ga., facilitated what IFAI President and CEO Steve Schiffman calls an “investment in the future.”
Year one of the summit brought together 60 women who shared their business experiences and paths to success. Linden Wicklund, IFAI director of events and member programs, says, “IFAI has long known there are a great many strong female leaders in the industrial textile industry, but they often are not the ones to come forward and participate in the association activities that push the industry forward.”
Wicklund explains, “The idea for this conference first started to take shape during a meeting with Timothy Offray, of OTEX Specialty Narrow Fabrics, when he talked about how his mom had worked to change the shape of their family business as the first female owner of the company.”
“The most talked about people at this conference,” adds Wicklund, “were the fathers of all these amazing women, so many of whom gifted or sold their businesses to their daughters after being the ones to challenge and question their daughters in the workplace.”
Numerous industry leaders shared their wisdom and insights, including Amy Bircher, president and founder of MMI Textiles, Westlake, Ohio; Patti Bates, general manager of the Protective Market, Glen Raven Technical Fabrics, Glen Raven, N.C.; Denise Offray, president and CEO, OTEX Specialty Narrow Fabrics, Bernardsville, N.J.; and Kathie Leonard, president and CEO, Auburn Manufacturing, Mechanic Falls, Maine. Other industry experts included Sara Beatty, president, White Haven Trade, Charlotte, N.C.; Jane Johnson, Government Affairs Manager, UNIFI Inc., Greensboro, N.C.; Wendy McBay, vice president marketing, Tensar International Corp., Alpharetta, Ga.; and Robin Ritz, creative visionary, InCord, Colchester, Conn.
MMI Textile’s Amy Bircher emceed the event with effortless wit, humor and warmth, setting the tone for the days ahead. The comradery of attendees was instant and sincere. Some women at the summit have known each other for years, while other women, newer to their leadership roles, were delighted to compare notes and meet new role models.
The kick-off session, “Setting the Stage,” featured Glen Raven’s Patti Bates. Bates discussed her journey in the industry, noting that true success is not found by climbing a ladder, but by negotiating a pathway with twists and turns that includes both mentors and anti-mentors. Bates told the group: “Be curious. Be courageous. Be classy.” Her message of six simple words were an anchor for the next two days of networking, story-telling and leadership development.
HLC’s Diane Murphy noted, “This is a great opportunity for women to step up and show leadership in a male-dominated industry.” No one knows this more than Auburn’s Kathie Leonard. With a now 100 percent woman-owned company, Leonard understands the courage needed to be persistent as she presented her case study on anti-dumping and the resilience she and her company needed to win.
The Summit’s interactive sessions included roundtable discussions featuring workplace challenges and trends such as modern versus traditional roles, managing career ups and downs, and self-care. Every 15 minutes attendees switched tables to discuss a new topic. Women from multiple generations described their perspectives and noted shifts in workplace culture.
Two panel discussions with Q&A sessions were highlights of the event. One panel discussion, “Trailblazing Industry Women,” featured Jane Johnson of UNIFI, Denise Offray of OTEX, and Kathie Leonard sharing anecdotes about being some of the first women breaking into the textiles industry. They recalled their supporters and “blockers” over the years and acknowledged the importance that both have had in their journeys. They shared advice with attendees who may be struggling with blockers. As Jane Johnson says, “Never get into a hissing contest with a snake.”
Sarah Moshman, an Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker, ended the event with a keynote session on being both bold and naïve. Her first words regarding a textile summit, “On paper it may look like we have nothing in common, but we have everything in common!”
Many attendees commented that the energy at the summit was contagious. Attendees said they were recharged and excited to go back to their offices and “do more” in the textile industry. IFAI is now starting to plan the 2020 Women in Textiles Summit.