NATIONAL REPORT — Now in its sixth year, the Convenience Store News Top Women in Convenience (TWIC) awards program has recognized more than 200 of the best and brightest women making a positive impact on not only the companies they work for, but also the entire convenience retail channel.
TWIC is the only program that recognizes exceptional female leaders, rising stars and mentors among retailer, supplier and distributor firms in the convenience store industry, from the C-suite to the store level to the independent entrepreneur.
In TWIC Talk, our bimonthly Q&A series, we interview a past TWIC winner about what it's like to be a female leader in the convenience store industry today — the opportunities, the challenges — and get their words of wisdom for up-and-comers seeking to blaze their own trail.
This month’s TWIC Talk subject is Lesley Saitta, CEO of Impact 21 Group LLC, a consulting firm specializing in the petroleum/convenience, c-store and retail markets. In 2017, Saitta was one of the five women celebrated by TWIC as Women of the Year.
How would you describe the current state of affairs for gender equality in the convenience store industry? How does this compare to 10 years ago?
I spent the first 15 years of my career in the chemical industry, so the convenience channel appeared to have a high degree of gender equality in comparison, even 25 years ago. Today, many of our clients have gender equality at the store-manager level, but have found it challenging to promote to district manager or to the corporate office. There are many reasons for that, but I would say the tide is turning. As an industry, there have been quite a few diverse executives coming from other industries and/or being promoted from within, and that sends a very positive message. Many retailers are focused on understanding the needs of their workforce and providing mentors, networks and flexible career paths that help give high-potential females an opportunity to develop, perhaps in less traditional ways. It takes time, but continuing to highlight more role models within our channel will definitely attract diverse talent to the opportunities that exist.
What is the most positive change you have personally witnessed?
Probably one of the most visible changes I personally witnessed was the appointment of Sonya Hubbard as NACS chair in 2008. Sonya’s company had been a client of Impact 21 and she was an incredible leader, role model and advocate for our industry. Since that time, there has been a great deal of recognition within our channel for women across multiple job levels and functions, which has truly been remarkable. As women, it’s great to see the path that other female leaders have taken and learn about the remarkable contributions they have made. The Convenience StoreNews TWIC recognition reception is an annual reminder of these achievements.
Along your career path, did you personally experience gender bias or inequality? If so, how did you overcome?
As someone who started out in 1979, this went with the territory. But perhaps the most difficult part was that I was often “the only one” (female) in the room. It was sometimes hard to get my voice heard and be taken seriously. I often had to work harder than anyone else to be recognized. Fortunately, I was hardwired to take this on as a challenge and often found myself in a position to make change within my organizations that could positively impact the future for others. I worked very hard to create trust with my peers and demonstrate through hard work and results that gender simply wasn’t an issue. Most importantly, I found incredible role models and mentors throughout my career that helped me navigate new roles and identify the skills I needed to succeed. This has been true throughout my career and my life. Whether it’s a personal board of directors or professional mentors, I am constantly seeking out advice and support, and I encourage everyone to do this no matter how long they’ve been in their positions.
What barriers to advancement do you see still existing in the c-store industry?
While there really aren’t any barriers to advancement in the c-store industry today, there are still some opportunities for companies to understand that a diverse workforce may require a new way of thinking and flexibility on development and advancement opportunities. It’s not even a gender issue, but rather an employee issue. Generationally, the workforce is changing.
What is your advice for other industry women looking to rise to higher ranks?
I always tell other women to get as many different jobs and experiences as you can throughout your career. Apply for promotions, even if you don’t have every qualification. You can learn. Take on special projects and lead cross-functional teams that provide visibility to leadership and/or other parts of the company. Surround yourself with teammates and mentors that share your passion and work ethic, and don’t worry about getting credit. If you take on new responsibilities, get results and lift others up, you will be recognized.