This Nov. 8 at SupplySide West in Las Vegas, I'm excited and proud to participate in a panel discussion merging my two worlds: that of my day job and the realm of my alter ego.
I have for many years lived in a “fly on the wall” situation, as I was, by day, an ingredient sales rep (20 years and counting) and by night and all other waking moments, a female empowerment writer.
It took me years to self-publish my first book on women in sales, “The Authentic Sale: A Goddess's Guide to Business.” Written in metaphorical goddess vernacular, it assures saleswomen of all experience that, "in the Olympic battles of business, every woman is a goddess.” I then went on to blog with intent topromote the book, and, after attaining blogger status on Huffington Post and a few other female empowerment sites, I relished in the excitement of social media, delving as deeply into my cause as I could--namely, driving more women into sales.
The more I became involved, the more I felt the differences in how generational female empowerment was changing, and the impact it was having on us career warriors. I've written about how Millennial women are overwhelmingly avoiding sales careers, one of the most critical commercial entry paths into corporations. As a proud mother of a 20-year-old female satellite engineer and young son, both Generation Z, the evolution of how both genders empower women to succeed in business became even more personal. Generational feminism has become my new obsession.
I had no idea, however, that the female empowerment movement would ever become such a hot topic in the mainstream, or that I'd get to share my perspective—which had primarily lived only in writing—among my business and ingredient professionals whom I've known and respected for years.
It is a bit scary—even for me, a self-described “sales goddess”—because I come from a generation that typically keeps our rebelliousness quiet and professional personas public (except perhaps on Facebook...or MySpace). However, the fight itself and tribes of women career warriors have always existed. Women have figuratively and professionally had each other’s backs for years. Having not yet combed the data ourselves—nor having data enough to do so—we always had an instinctive knowledge of female leadership as one of the critical aspects to business success.
When I started out in the ingredient industry, in 1998, it was as a sales assistant at J. Manheimer Inc., Long Island City, New York (now part of Kerry Group). Karen Manheimer, the first vice president of sales I had ever worked alongside, not only held a master’s in business administration, but she was also a Generation Xer—like me. She would spend her time in the lunchroom with other women engaging in conversations that flowed easily between having each other's backs to business opportunities to New York nightlife. I was part of the club and despite my awkwardness and first job insecurities, it was awesome. My clear recall was of empowerment and support from the entire culture, most of which seemed to emanate directly from Karen.
Years later, I would work for a Baby Boomer sales leader at a market-leading soy company. Boomer feminists fought the good fight by laying the groundwork for future women. We Gen Xers perceived them to be a bit standoffish and judgmental to us “latchkey,” middle sisterly folk. We worshipped them while simultaneously cowering in fear and trepidation. Indeed, like any older sibling might, they occasionally called us out for our lack of respect. They fought a harder fight than us, and for that, they usually were in the right. Jennifer Intagliata, now enjoying retirement, would both shoot straight and at the same time have my back. Her main cause: to help me and the other women on her team succeed. We were both, along with all the other women in the company, inspired by one particular female leader, the O.G. (original goddess) with whom we only briefly interacted. She is now so high-ranking that we barely know how to make contact. She remains so legendary that many of us still exchange pep talk calls, the tone of which she originally inspired.
These Millennials! Now both the Boomers and us Generation Xers are in the judgment seat of our little sisters. These up-and-comers are bold, fearless, anti-label disruptors who no longer empower each other in the shadows, but for all to hear on social media! These are female career champions who have had to deal with more economic challenges than any of us since the Silent Generation. The need for balance and family has only gotten harder now as more female Millennials become college debt-carrying primary breadwinners—despite only earning US$0.80 to the dollar that men make, according to American Association of University Women (AAUW).
I've focused these last few months on interviewing some of the women who are making an impact within our industry, and those who have helped other women throughout the generations—many of whom neither sought out nor actively wanted attention for their efforts. When assessing the generational comparison of empowerment, I quickly found Generation X the hardest to call out; not for their lack of helping, of course--far from it. The generation that typically hid their support and teamwork in the shadows was just not as comfortable as Millennials (or Boomers, for that matter!) blasting their achievements in front of their peers. These Gen Xer women were like the secret service of female empowerment. Admittedly, and perhaps self-servingly, these are my contemporaries and the generational psyche I know best, so it gives me selfish pleasure to call these gals out. However, women our age are also seeing the rise of small movements like #HumbleBrag, or other, less aggressive ways of putting their thoughts and achievements out in the open.
I spoke with a couple of Amazing Sales leaders, both Gen Xers, who agreed to let me share their stories. One is Nicole Lemus, vice president of contract sales for IVC, who focuses her free time on helping other women get into sales. Lemus is a judge and mentor at the Women in Sales Awards, North America. Also, I spoke with Renee Beall, an ingredient sales director and marketer. Renee has spent many years as a champion and board member helping teenage mothers become not only sustainable members of society, but ultimately leaders. She let me know that she is working on a female leadership networking event for one of our upcoming industry shows.
When I think of one area that strong female leadership has made one of the most significant impacts in our industry, I think of regulatory and compliance influencers. I interviewed a couple of them to understand what motivated them and how their companies may have encouraged them along the way.
One such leader is Amy Wise, a Gen Xer who is a world-leading subject matter expert in natural channel emerging regulations. She is a mentor to many industry women and fittingly employed at the world's coolest coffee leader and current diversity force for good. Wise is the closest thing to a fairy-goddess-mother for many women in my circle. I also think of Denise Webster, Food Brand Protection LLC, a regulatory rockstar who went from a quality manager in corporate to food safety director for a billionaire investor, to regulatory consultant for celebrity-backed brands. I'm wildly excited and can hardly wait to tell you what I've learned from these women.
There are also a few female Millennial career warriors with whom I was super excited to chat; one is Monique Simison, senior sourcing manager at Amway, who put herself through school on the GI bill after serving as a supply sergeant in the U.S. Army. When I think about her career trajectory while managing two small kids—I can't help but wonder if her employer's schedule of four days a week for 10 hours a day (Fridays off) has something to do with her being there. As I watch my generation share their first grandbaby photos, I'm endlessly intrigued by how the heck Millennial career warriors manage to keep everything in such perfect “work-life-balance.”
Some of my burning inquisitions to these women have been: What did the clever companies that enjoy the privilege of your leadership do to bring you there? Which aspects have you found in the workplace that encouraged you to succeed? Which cultures harbor strong generational female leadership, and why? My goals and interests lie in what can we learn from their wisdom. I'm honored to meander through the perspectives of these fantastic leaders and capture just a bit of this insight for our industry, gender, and future generations—especially Generation Z: The newest, fiercest group of female career warriors yet, our daughters, who are only just beginning to graduate and gain employment among the tribe.
Rena Cohen-First has sold in the nutritional ingredient industry for the past 20 years, selling to the largest supplement, food and beverage manufacturers in the world. She is the author of “The Authentic Sale: A Goddess’s Guide to Business.” She is a blogger on the topics of generational feminism and women in business. Rena completed her MBA, is an ICF-trained Professional Coach and served in the U.S. Army. She resides in San Diego with her two children and husband. Her goal is to show every woman that she can become a Sales Goddess in all circumstances.
Business ROI at SupplySide West
Learn more about how empowering women helps improve business strategies during the “Boosting Your ROI: Secrets to Business Success” workshop on Thursday, Nov. 8 at SupplySide West in Las Vegas.