Women in Textile Industry Reconvene at Summit, Leave Enriched, Energized, Empowered

“Enriching.” “Empowering.” “Energizing.”

These are just some of the attendee descriptions of the Industrial Fabric Association International’s (ATA’s) Women in Textiles Summit, which took place February 16-19 in Georgia.

After being held virtually last year during the pandemic, nearly 100 business leaders and professionals of multiple generations converged on the Château Élan Winery and Resort in Braselton, Ga., to reconnect, learn and gain inspiration at the fourth-annual event. These women were able to share their experiences through several networking events and activities; gain insights into paths to success; and hear compelling speakers with timely, relevant messages.

The summit featured engaging sessions, openhearted interaction and connection-building opportunities during business sessions and activities that included receptions, a wine tasting, yoga, a morning walk, a mindfulness break and a trivia contest. Indeed, the unique event provided a forum for growth and leadership for these women who operate extraordinarily in a male-dominated industry.

Under the theme, “Continuing to Believe What is Possible,” the event was co-emceed by Apurba Banerjee (R), principal textiles engineer-Hand Tools at Milwaukee Tools, and Rachal McCarthy, president of NTI Global. A number of returning attendees were on hand, along with many first timers, including Tanya Wade, intake administrator at the Manufacturing Solutions Center (MSC), Conover, N.C.

“This was my first time attending the Women in Textiles Summit and it did not disappoint!” Wade said. “There is nothing that can compare to the energy and comradery of a group of women who are on a mission to support and build up each other. And that’s exactly what this conference is all about. I met a lot of new friends and industry contacts and look forward to meeting more at the next Women in Textiles Summit.”

In a poignant Opening Day keynote, “Pivots & Pirouettes for the Post-Pandemic World,” Mary-Cathryn Kolb, founder & CEO of Atlanta-based brrr°, explained the challenges and opportunities she has experienced since launching the company in 2014, the pandemic notwithstanding. She said the highs are high and the lows are low – but the experience of entrepreneurship, especially now that the company is reaching the “tipping point of it being a fun ride,” is deeply fulfilling.

Kolb worked with fashion and footwear brands in Los Angeles and New York before landing a job at then-fledgling shapewear producer Spanx in Atlanta, a 10-year journey that represented “one of the pleasures of my life.” There, she learned that fabrics can be “powerful,” she said, leading her to a strong interest in textile technology and the subsequent creation of brrr°, which found a niche with patented cooling technology for fabrics that several brands are now using.

She discussed those ebbs and flows and how the pandemic and subsequent supply chain disruptions pushed her team into “pivots and pirouettes” to emerge poised for growth. “Our customers went dark, the world fell apart and all we could do was look inward to use our time wisely and to get our house in order. There was nothing else we had control over except our people, our business and our house.”

As such, she gave up her salary, and the company brought some manufacturing to the U.S. (the Carolinas) from Taiwan to better position itself for be military supply compliance and to enter the medical space as needed. And even before COVID, a shift into business casual and athleisure already was occurring. “We felt like on the other side of the pandemic, that shift would turn into a permanent type of dress code. And our fabrics played into the bullseye of that consumer demand.”

Kolb added: “I’m very proud that not one person on our team had to go without their job. I promised that when we got to the other side, that we would be whole again, and we would be ready to move forward with our value add to the marketplace as if nothing had ever happened. And that is a pirouette.”

In the Closing Day keynote – back by popular demand from the last in-person summit in 2020 – Karen Hinds brought numerous inspiring messages in her presentation, “It’s Not Too Late: How to Boldly Step into Your Greatness.” Hinds, author of several books and founder and CEO of Workplace Success Group, motivated attendees through anecdotes and stories aimed at getting them out of their comfort zones, to find a network of people to “support and irritate” them, to establish financial security and to be sure to take time to for themselves to “relax, exercise and enjoy the ride.”

“If you really plan to step into your greatness, it’s going to look something like this: “MOVE OUT OF MY WAY!” she said in her opening remarks, taking a pronounced step forward with each word. “You might fall down but you’re going get back up again. And there’s no grace in that. But you have say, ‘MOVE OUT OF MY WAY’ because I have greatness to achieve!”

She continued: “Some of you are thinking, ‘it’s too late now. I’m this age or that age.’ And the list will start to grow with the reasons that you’re not qualified to step into your greatness. And, today, I want you to SNAP OUT OF IT [loudly slapping her hands together]. But I want you to take this moment and decide right now to do it.”

And she was off. Hinds enamored the audience in her unique, animated fashion for nearly an hour while eliciting smiles, laughs and often contemplation.

During her presentation, she explained why a network of people should consist of some “irritants.”

“You don’t want a bunch of ‘yes’ people around you,” Hinds said. “You need an irritant in your life. You need someone who, every once in a while, will go against you and nitpick and test and see what you’re made of, to make sure that the plans that you have are sound. Their job is not to be demeaning or insulting. It’s for you to sit there and recognize that everything that comes out of your mouth is not a genius thought. As smart as you think you might be, it needs to be tested, and you have to have the emotional intelligence to withstand the feedback and the criticism. If you can figure it out by yourself, your dream is not big enough. The irritant is there so that as they irritate and scrub and test, they’re also going to help you mend, and heal, and grow.”

In conclusion, she said that audience members have two choices: Leave the summit full of information and return to their old way of thinking, or go home, sit down and ask themselves, “What do I want to be in two years?”

“And then YOU get to decide,” she said. “If you do not have a vision, you will return to your past. The genius inside you is waiting. She’s saying, ‘come on, let’s go.’ The world is waiting. And your greatness will inspire somebody else to their greatness.”

Other presenters

Among other speakers sharing their insights and wisdom from the dais were:

Jennifer Fennell, CPM, director of Supply Chain at Polo Custom Products, Topeka, Kan., who discussed “How Supply Chain Can Capitalize on the Challenges of 2021” in the first of two Market Segments. She discussed the keys to managing her global team and keeping them engaged and forward thinking – remotely – during the pandemic and “every supply chain nightmare imaginable. When faced with the unthinkable, we all rolled up our sleeves and went to work, together. COVID, this common enemy among us, brought us together in a unique and unbreakable way.”

Rachal McCarthy, president of NTI Global, a family-owned and operated industrial plastics and textile manufacturer, Dallas, Texas, who offered a personal testimony in, “Unbalanced: The Story of My Life, My Work, and My 4th Grade Nemesis.” She debunked the common work-life balance myth, saying, “Balance comes from you and what you need, despite what society wants us to think.” She told attendees they should “be real” with themselves and make behavioral changes for a more balanced life by identifying what contributes to their balance; setting goals that support that quest for balance; and stop “shoulding” and start doing.

• Jasmine Cox, director of Textile Technology Programs and Business Innovation, Textile Technology Center at Gaston College, Belmont, N.C., who presented an interactive session on attracting and retaining new talent and some of the struggles women face in the industry. Mentorship and development are crucial factors in retention, she said, explaining methods for and the importance of each.

Melissa Henkle, director of Brand Sales at Unifi Manufacturing, Inc., who covered the importance of sustainability in the second Market Segment, dubbed “A Wardrobe to Die For.” She discussed how the Greensboro, N.C.-based company is sourcing recycled materials, reducing energy, water and greenhouse gas emissions and helping plan for a future in circularity. She reported that as plastics and textiles make up high percentages of the contents of landfills, Unifi is working tirelessly to help reduce these numbers. The company recently reached the 30 billion milestone for converting recycled plastic bottles into polyester chips that are used in its REPREVE® yarn performance fibers, she said, and explained Unifi’s REPREVE® Our Ocean program with brands collects ocean-bound plastics for recycling.

• In a fascinating panel discussion through generations of textile and ATA leadership, past and current chairs of the ATA discussed how they navigated their responsibilities while also running their own companies and personal lives. Panelists included Amy Bircher, CEO & founder of MMI Textiles, Inc., current ATA chair; Katie Bradford, MFC, IFM, owner of Custom Marine Canvas and the first female chair of ATA; and Kathy Schaefer, IFM, owner and COO of Glawe Awnings and Tent Company, ATA immediate past chair.

The summit also included engaging roundtable discussions, where participants learned more about each other and the challenges they face. Topics included mentorships, professional advancement, supply chain disruption and “get to know” ATA and other attendee companies.

“I felt energized after attending the virtual conference last year and was excited to attend my first ATA Women in Textiles Summit in person this year,” said Meg R. Patel, marketing manager, Décor-Textile Division at Milliken & Company, Spartanburg, S.C. “Between the lineup of inspiring speakers on various relevant topics women are facing today and plenty of networking time, coupled with fun activities in a beautiful venue, it all enabled me to create deeper connections within the textile industry. I left feeling empowered and motivated to tackle the next challenge at work.”

What other attendees are saying:

“It was amazing to finally be back in-person for the Women in Textiles Summit. Though we all faced many challenges the past two years, we realized how resilient we really are. This summit always leaves me feeling empow(HER)ed, fulfilled and excited to share what I learned with my colleagues. Women are a force in the textile industry, and I am proud to be a part of it.”
Presley Griffies
Sales – Southeast Region, Fil-Tec, Inc.

“It was great to be back in-person for the ATA Women in Textiles Summit! The variety of topics presented offered something for everyone. Each speaker was well versed in the topic they presented and kept the audience engaged. The social and networking activities provided a fun platform to connect with others throughout the conference”
Ammey Frank
Marketing Communications Manager, Seaman Corporation

“This was my second time attending a ATA Women In Textiles Summit. It was an excellent opportunity to network with other women in our industry and for the women on our team at Tietex to get to know each other a little better. I loved getting to see how other companies are coping with the struggles of running a business in today’s turbulent economic environment and what they are doing to ensure their business is a success. Our team left motivated!
Charlotte Mason, MBA
Product Manager, Tietex International, Ltd.

“The 2022 ATA Women in Textiles Summit was personally and professionally enriching. It was a well-organized event in a fantastic venue that provided a good balance of networking, education and great fellowship with other women leaders in the textile industry.”
Cheryl Smyre
Director, Advanced Materials, Parkdale Mills

I really enjoyed the ATA Women in Textiles Summit, as it provided a great mix of nontraditional networking experiences in the wine tasting event, yoga and morning walk. These interactions and discussions, such as Rachal McCarthy’s “Unbalanced” talk made the conference feel more personal than other conferences. It was invigorating to meet so many women working in this field and start conversations to collaborate on issues such as sustainability and supply chain challenges.”
Miranda Tidwell
Analyst-Apparel, Tractor Supply Company

“Our team was ecstatic to return to the 2022 Women in Textiles Summit. The best part was getting to be in person with everyone again, getting to share our trials and successes of the last two years, and realize that we weren’t and aren’t alone. It was full circle in particular for one of our employees who attended, as the networking that occurred at the last in-person Women’s Summit in 2020 resulted in bringing her onboard to our design team after her graduation from NC State.”
Nichole Holroyd
COO/Co-owner, Spiritus Systems

“I was very excited to participate in this summit again this year. After the virtual meeting last year, it felt like ‘old home week’ to see everyone that I had met in person in Nashville. The speakers kept me interested and engaged. Our common textile experiences as professional women made it easy to relate to each other. Thanks to ATA for a well-organized event and the opportunity for CORDURA Advanced Fabrics to participate as a sponsor. The venue was both relaxing and welcoming and it made me feel comfortable to meet new contacts.”
Tina Rogers
Military Account Manager – Performance Materials, INVISTA