2022: 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.”

2021: 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 ATA 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.”

2020: 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 Advanced Textiles Association (ATA), 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, ATA 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 ATA’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. ATA 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 ATA’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 ATA 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 ATA 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.”

2019: Women leaders in textile industry share expertise—and encouragement

More women than ever now own textile companies, and Industrial Fabric Association International’s (ATA) 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 ATA 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, ATA director of events and member programs, says, “ATA 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. ATA is now starting to plan the 2020 Women in Textiles Summit.