Colorado women power the new manufacturing economy—and ponder their future

By Bart Taylor | Oct 27, 2015

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Eric Peterson's terrific profile of Rubadue Wire and CEO Sue Welsh serves the much-needed purpose of shining a light on one of Colorado's most accomplished manufacturers. It's also segue to a worthy topic, that of the profound influence of leading women in Colorado manufacturing.

Welsh's story is noteworthy because she leads a growth company in an industrial sector, operating in global markets. There's added interest because she does it alongside more men than women. It's compelling because she's the one sibling of 10 who emerged to lead her father's business. I'd say she has star power; she'd disagree.

In Colorado, she has company. We've featured a long list but the upshot here, in Colorado, is that more women are not only extending family legacies in industrial companies -- like Welsh, Susan Cirocki (Arrow Sheet Metal), and Katie Munro (Munro Companies) -- but are leading a regional manufacturing surge in other sectors.

Liz Myslik (Fresca Foods), Kim Jordan (New Belgium), Koel Thomae (Noosa Yogurt), Mo Shaffer (Coyote Gold), Beryl Stafford (Bobo's Oat Bars), Megan Reamer (Jackson's Honest Chips), and others we've profiled are the face of a regional food and beverage sector tipping the national scene on its side. Annelise Loevlie (Icelantic), Diane Boyer (Skea), Tamara Smith (Gibson Athletic), Jessica Montoya (COSewn), C.J. Riggins (KidRobot), and Nicole Smith (Mary's Medicinals) are among the region's lifestyle manufacturing leaders. And the list goes on.

Public figures like Denver City Councilwoman Robin Kniech are effective advocates. Kniech is especially well suited to advance manufacturing. She hails from a Midwestern family with roots in manufacturing. "Denver is blessed with some strong women leaders in manufacturing, in sub-sectors like apparel where they are clearly leading, to women inventors using contract manufacturers and those who grew up in the industry and now run smaller, family owned shops," she told me. "The challenge," she added, "is whether and how the industry is willing to adapt to attract women workers."

It's a provocative assertion -- that manufacturing must change to be a more diverse sector. "Lessons learned from other industries indicate that you can't just 'add women and mix'," she says. "You have to think thoughtfully about the fact that statistically, women are still responsible for more home and parenting/eldercare responsibilities, which impacts the kind of workplaces most likely to attract them. For example, last-minute mandatory overtime, a practice in some manufacturing environments to cope with staff shortages or sudden changes in demand, might not be a good fit for women."

Kniech adds, "The good news is that changes that make workplaces more attractive to women benefit all workers, including men, and are also similar to some of the trends more likely to attract millennials."

Stacey Bibik, controller at Stacy Machine & Tooling and also a manufacturing brat, sees it differently. "I'm a tough gal," she admits, "and I tend to stay away from the whole 'workplace needs to be more female-friendly because we're caregivers' argument. Statistics and surveys have supported the fact that including, engaging, and advancing women in the workplace improves the bottom line."

"So why the shortage in manufacturing?" she asks. "Because women lack encouragement and education about the realities of employment in manufacturing, and those realities relate to the personal satisfaction of making things and the diversity of career pathways available." Bibik's also standing up a Colorado chapter of Cleveland-based Women In Manufacturing.

Colorado's lucky to have both women advocating manufacturing. More than that, the sector needs both voices. From my uninformed perch, there's profound truth in each perspective. Both are right.

And the irony of manufacturing's big tent (and getting bigger) is that high-growth industries like natural products and apparel, led by women, will shape manufacturing into one of the economy's most diverse sectors. Regardless of historic barriers.

Now that's rich.

Bart Taylor is founder and publisher of CompanyWeek. Contact him at btaylor@companyweek.com.

Reach Denver City Councilwoman Robin Kniech at robin.kniech@denvergov.org, or Stacey Bibik at sb@stacytool.com.