Women tout challenges, unity at S.C. manufacturing conference panel discussion


Women make up 47% of the total workforce but only 30% of those in manufacturing. When it comes to manufacturing, less than 25% of leaders are women.

A panel of women who led the way in a discussion at the South Carolina Manufacturing Conference and Expo want to change that.

Five industry leaders

The discussion included moderator Nika White; Carrie Bovender, president at Grand Forest; Donna Brin, president and CEO at bFIVE40; Laura Bordeaux, ASC plant manager at Zeus Industrial Products; Mary Ellen Grom, executive director of customer experience solutions at AFL; and Monica Johnson, talent acquisition director at Michelin.

Bordeaux was the first ASC plant manager at Zeus Industrial Products. Before long, she was receiving messages from women all over the world with one unified message: “We’re proud of you.”

“I really embraced it — it was my goal to be a plant manager,” she said.

Bordeaux grew up trying to minimize her gender. Now she said it’s about being who she is.

Be open to opportunities

Johnson, who leads Michelin’s efforts to bring in the best job candidates, found the climb to talent acquisition director wasn’t a straight line but went through a number of facilities, including the company’s headquarters in France. She started in legal and went to three sites.

“Be open to different challenges and opportunities,” Johnson said.

Moreover, she welcomes a more diverse workforce that represents a company’s community.

“We need to change the narrative of what it looks like to work in manufacturing,” Johnson said.

Brin started her career on Wall Street before moving to start her own businesses. Her current business, bFIVE40, is a custom textile manufacturer in the coastal town of Little River. Her first business, Bonk Fit, was where she learned how to make mistakes.

“You just have to wear it on your sleeve,” she said.

Fuel the competition

Grom learned how not to fear competition but to fuel it. She found learning from competitors and influencers in the industry helped her in her career. She touted the Cleveland-based Women in Manufacturing, a nonprofit “dedicated to supporting, promoting and inspiring women who have chosen careers in the manufacturing industry.”

Bovender ended up buying Grand Forest when the previous owner retired. While she was hand-picked to purchase the company, she found things were different when she had the reigns.

“It’s very different being the CEO and owner,” she sad.

Bovender also emphasized the value of normalizing nontraditional female roles and getting women exposed to different manufacturing roles.

“They can start in production and work their way up,” Bovender said.

Brin said it’s hard to navigate the way to the top. Instead, she found it helpful to find the little wins and take people along.

“In the ’90s, when women did find success, they didn’t want to share it,” she said. “That dynamic is changing.”

Nothing abnormal about it

“There’s nothing abnormal about what we’re doing,” Grom said, noting the importance of leaders investing in themselves and others.

Many of the speakers emphasized mentorship, giving others a chance to learn from their own mistakes. For Bovender, reaching out, asking for help, building a network and being open to challenges were the keys to success.

“I don’t know if I would tell myself to make it easier,” she said.

The panelists

  • Carrie Bovender, president at Grand Forest
  • Donna Brin, president and CEO at bFIVE40
  • Laura Bordeaux, ASC plant manager at Zeus Industrial Products
  • Mary Ellen Grom, executive director of customer experience solutions at AFL
  • Monica Johnson, talent acquisition director at Michelin

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