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STEP Ahead Awards Highlight Outstanding Women in Manufacturing

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Some of the most impressive women in the industry gathered in Washington, D.C., last week for The Manufacturing Institute’s ninth annual STEP Ahead Awards—the first in-person ceremony since the pandemic began. The awards, and the leadership training program that precedes them, are designed to recognize and advance women’s achievements in the fields of science, technology, engineering and production. This year, honorees and “emerging leaders” from both 2020 and 2021 had the opportunity to attend the events, as last year’s events were online-only.

The leadership program: For the leadership training program, the MI brought in distinguished experts to help honorees advance their careers in the industry.

  • The program, consisting of general sessions and preselected breakouts, covered a range of must-have professional skills, such as negotiating. It also featured industry executives and STEP Ahead alumnae who provided firsthand accounts of their experiences in manufacturing, along with advice for navigating a career in the industry.

The awards ceremony: The awards gala took place on Thursday night. Nearly 600 guests gathered in person, adhering to strict health and safety protocols, including a vaccination requirement, while hundreds tuned in online. The program featured:

  • MI Executive Director Carolyn Lee;
  • 2021 STEP Ahead Chair and Johnson & Johnson Executive Vice President and Chief Global Supply Chain Officer Kathy Wengel;
  • NAM President and CEO Jay Timmons; and
  • Keynote speaker and Gravitas Founder and CEO Lisa Sun.

The awards sponsors included BASF, Johnson & Johnson, 3M, Trane Technologies, BorgWarner and Rockwell Automation. This year’s STEP Ahead Vice Chair and 3M Senior Vice President and Chief Corporate Affairs Officer Denise Rutherford and Ketchie Inc. President and Owner Courtney Silver served as the masters of ceremonies.

Leading in a crisis: The speakers acknowledged the toll that the pandemic has taken on manufacturers and praised the honorees for contributing to the industry’s robust response.

  • As Lee put it, “How many times did we get knocked down? How many times did we think, ‘Maybe we got knocked out’? But we’re still here. And we’re here and we’re standing because of you, because of manufacturing. The women in this room and industry and our world are going to come out of this stronger than ever.”
  • Wengel echoed this sentiment, saying, “When I look around this room, it hits me: the incredible impact on human life that manufacturers from so many industries … have made in the past 22 months.”

Creators needed: Timmons, who has been traveling with Lee to promote the NAM and MI’s Creators Wanted Tour Live mobile experience, talked about the importance of attracting more women to the industry.

  • “With your example and your mentorship, you’re giving more and more young people a reason to say, ‘I want to be just like her,’” he said. “And we urgently need more people like you.”

Setting an example: Keynote speaker Sun had the crowd laughing and cheering as she talked about the critical importance of self-confidence for women.

  • The child of Vietnamese immigrants, Sun worked for 11 years at consulting firm McKinsey & Company. During a year-long sabbatical from the firm, she decided to launch her own fashion company to help other professional women look and feel confident.
  • “My 22-year-old self was told that I didn’t have any gravitas; it spurred me to action,” said Sun, referencing the origin of her company’s name. “McKinsey just came out with their ‘Women in the Workplace’ study. Women were the reason that we got through this pandemic … [but] traditional HR structures will not value the things that we did: empathy, relationship building … We have to give ourselves credit first.”

The reactions: The social media response was excited and optimistic—and often just plain proud!

The last word: As Lee told the honorees, “The ripple effect of your example goes a long way—strengthening our industry and changing our world.”

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