Women in Textiles Summit Engages and Inspires Virtually

Inspiring, engaging, empowering, collaborative, synergy and fun are just some of the words participants are using to describe this year’s Women in Textiles Summit. This IFAI event for established and emerging leaders took place March 4–5, 2021, on a virtual platform with the enthusiastic participation of more than 100 attendees.

Event emcees, Apurba Banerjee of Milwaukee Electric Tool Corporation and Rachal McCarthy of NTI Global, guided the event to encourage audience interaction throughout a variety of education and networking sessions.

The education sessions included “Leading the Change” presented by Kim Glas, president and CEO of the National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO) who spoke about how to advocate for yourself and career, along with a panel on navigating barriers within global business and communications. University of Minnesota professor, Lucy Dunne, discussed the exciting changes in textiles and sewn products and Paige Mullis, brand director at Glen Raven Inc., spoke about building a culture of innovation within businesses.

Round table discussions, wellness breaks and even a game of trivia accomplished what can be difficult in a virtual setting—bringing people together. Attendee Andrea Brouwers of Sonoma Sails says, “Right away when I sat in the room, the energy was different. Women are less fearful and just jumped in.” Brouwers also notes the significance of the wellness breaks with a live yoga instructor, “There would never be another conference with calming moments, a great addition.”

Women in Textiles Summit event manager Jill Newman acknowledges the challenges of transitioning an event to a virtual setting. “This event is close to my heart, and I think those who have attended feel the same way, so we put a lot of thought and creativity into making this event as meaningful as possible on a virtual platform. That said, we can’t wait to be together again in-person in 2022.”


Women in Textiles Summit Helps Attendees Build Industry Relationships and Leadership Skills

The second annual Women in Textiles Summit, held February 19–21, almost doubled in attendance and gave attendees ample opportunities to build new business alliances while learning about emerging trends in the industry. The event, sponsored by Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI), was held in Nashville, Tenn.

“This event was born through the remarkable stories of women in industry, who seemingly did not have that seat at the table like their male counterparts—sometimes hindering the opportunity for building complex industry relationships,” said Linden Wicklund, IFAI director of events and member programs. “Through this conference, we are learning more and more about these women’s remarkable stories, while providing a forum for growth and leadership. After only two years, we are so thrilled to see the impact on attendees and the shared inspiration among multiple generations of women in textiles.”

“The Women in Textiles Summit was informative and invigorating,” said Kathy Schaefer, chair of IFAI’s board and operating officer at Glawe Awning and Tent Co., Fairborn, Ohio. “By networking with many in the group, I was able to learn important trends in the industry as well as receive creative input on how to increase my staff. IFAI developed this conference to support and encourage professional industry women. The interaction and education were unlike any conference I have attended. It was very worthwhile, and I am looking forward to next year.”

Jane Johnson, government relations manager at Unifi, Inc., Greensboro, N.C., emceed the event with an infectious smile and the utmost professionalism—sprinkled with humor and Southern charm. One of the themes that emerged was the importance of mentorship, particularly among women, a topic thoroughly covered during a panel session and stressed by four speakers during the business sessions.

In the rousing Day 1 closing session, “Power, Presence and Impact for Women,” Karen Hinds, author, founder and CEO of Workplace Success Group, encouraged the group to build strategic alliances, position themselves for opportunities and claim their voice. This can be achieved by “finding your tribe.” “All of you need more than one mentor in your life,” she said. “Figure out your Achilles heel, then find mentors who will ‘get into your stuff’ and help guide you to improving yourself.”

Hinds noted that women also need advocates, but they can’t be chosen. “They pick you out, based on what they’re seeing from you,” she said. “Think of all the excellent work you’re doing as honey, spreading it all around. And people will see that and start buzzing along and advocating for you.

In the keynote address on Day 2, Carly Patterson, the 2004 Olympic gymnast, said that after winning the gold medal at age 16, she wondered what was next for her. She shared her inspiring story of resilience, heartbreak and more after stepping on the highest podium at such a young age.

Showing a photo of herself at age 4 at a cousin’s gymnastics birthday party, Patterson said that event was the spark that would change her life and lead her to the pinnacle of success. “We need to embrace the spark and let it ignite creativity in our lives,” she said. “Be on the lookout for the spark.” Patterson said she applied the same drive and determination that took her to a gold medal to becoming a recording artist, entrepreneur and mother.

Among industry representatives sharing their insights and wisdom from the stage were:

Courtney Cruzan, vice president of sourcing and product development at Atlanta-based fabric innovator brrr°, who discussed “Lab Coats and Lipstick: Staying Close to R&D, Harnessing Your Network and Mentoring Future Leaders.”

Rachal McCarthy, president of NTI Global, a family-owned and operated industrial plastics and textile manufacturer, Dallas, Texas, who presented, “Stop Saying Please.” She urged attendees to show confidence by communicating in a firm yet approachable manner. “Try to internalize that saying ‘please’ to yourself gives you less standing,” she said. “In a business session, it is not necessary. I’m not saying don’t be polite. But you don’t have to ask yourself permission to own your own success.”

Stephanie Rodgers, director of advanced product development at Apex Mills, Inwood, N.Y., covered, “The ‘T’ in S.T.E.M,” defining the “T” as “textiles” instead of “technology.” She said that many emerging functional fabrics are being developed by women empowered by cross-disciplinary approaches to manufacturing, noting that several of these inventors and creators were mentored by each other.

Samantha Marion, textile development manager, and Laura Martin, purchasing manager, both from Top Value Fabrics, Carmel, Ind., gave an interactive discussion about the “Imposter Syndrome” and explored tools to combat feelings of inadequacy that can weigh down the success of talented women.

An informative panel discussion moderated by MMI Textiles owner and president Amy Bircher featured diverse industry leaders covering the topic, “The Next Generation: Attract, Mentor and Develop Future Leaders.” The panel included Katherine Annett-Hitchcock, associate professor, Department of Textile and Apparel Technology and Management, N.C. State Wilson College of Textiles, Raleigh, N.C.; Anna Gluck, vice president of human resources, Seaman Corp., Wooster, Ohio; Marcia Ayala, president of Aurora Specialty Textiles Group, Inc., Yorkville, Ill.; and Apurba Banerjee, principal engineer at Milwaukee Tool, Brookfield, Wis. Each offered glimpses into their backgrounds and discussed the importance of mentorship and what it has meant to their careers.

“Surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than yourself or have skills you don’t have is important as a leader,” Bircher said to kick off the discussion. Bircher is also first vice chairman/chairman-elect of IFAI’s board.

Other interactive events included roundtable discussions, a networking walk to kick of the first education day, a morning yoga session, a competitive trivia game and a pub and grub crawl through downtown Nashville.

“I attended the IFAI Women’s Summit last year at the encouragement of my two male partners,” said Nichole Holroyd, co-owner and administrative director at Spiritus Systems Co. Inc., Aberdeen, N.C. “It was so motivational for me last year that we sent all of our female management staff this year. I hoped they could take in the stories, listen to other’s experiences and be just as inspired as I was. As a business owner, the IFAI Women’s Summit helps me realize that we are not alone in this world as women in business. The networking and friendships that are made or just renewed at the event is something I truly cherish and has helped our business in ways that are not quantifiable.”


Women leaders in textile industry share expertise—and encouragement

More women than ever now own textile companies, and Industrial Fabric Association International’s (IFAI) 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.