NATIONAL REPORT — Now in its ninth year, the Convenience Store News Top Women in Convenience (TWIC) awards program has recognized more than 400 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 quarterly 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 Melanie Isbill, chief marketing officer at RaceTrac. She is active within her company as a board member and executive sponsor of LEAD, RaceTrac's business resource group with a mission to support women with self-development. In 2021, Isbill was one of the five women celebrated by TWIC as Women of the Year.
CSNews: 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?
Isbill: While I believe there is still opportunity to grow gender equality in our industry, I have seen exciting change over the past few years. More strong female leaders are gaining attention and being recognized for their value through awards like TWIC, while also earning C-suite level roles within their organizations. In some cases, women now hold positions that have exclusively been filled by men. It's exciting to see the evolution of corporate America in general and an increased focus on diversity of thought across the ranks in our workforce.
CSNews: What is the most positive change you have personally witnessed?
Isbill: The most positive change I have witnessed is seeing our industry embrace the value of diversity. In a space that is almost 100 years old, it would be easy to not challenge the status quo of a "traditional convenience store" or be open to new ideas that could move the needle.
At RaceTrac, I encourage all of my teams at every level to have a voice and share their thoughts and opinions, even outside of their day-to-day responsibilities. Subject matter expertise is great, but there is something we can all learn from each other, whether it be from professional or life experiences. In countless ways, I have witnessed the direct correlation between having diverse teams work together to drive our industry forward each day.
CSNews: Along your career path, did you personally experience gender bias or inequality? If so, how did you overcome?
Isbill: It is unfortunate that I think most women in leadership have experienced gender bias or inequality at some point during their careers. I am fortunate that I have never experienced it in a way that has impacted my personal growth opportunities, but I have experienced bias in more subtle, underlying ways.
In graduate school, it was often assumed that I was a plus-one at parties and my date was the MBA student. In the industry, I have observed moments where the room is addressed with a tone where the men are considered to be the obvious breadwinners, and the women are assumed to simply be the wives who get to benefit. In none of these cases do I believe there was ill will or malice, but simply unconscious bias and awareness that our world and industry are still working to overcome.
To overcome these moments, I try to anchor in the positive intent of these individuals and, when appropriate, address the unconscious bias that seems to be present. I lean on my internal confidence and core belief in the good in people to know that these moments are unintended, and I can help move our industry and my peers forward by supporting a change.
CSNews: What barriers to advancement do you see still existing in the c-store industry?
Isbill: I believe our biggest barrier to overcome as an industry is the historic reputation of being a "Good Old Boys" club. While there is now diversity among the key players in our industry, externally the perception still has quite a bit to overcome. This hurdle places greater pressure on recruiting strategies to find top diverse talent and proactively communicate how our industry has evolved. It’s a tall order, but I’ve already seen encouraging strides.
CSNews: What is your advice for other industry women looking to rise to higher ranks?
Isbill: My advice to women looking to rise to higher ranks is three-fold. First, identify your authentic leadership style. Not every style works for everyone and trying to replicate someone else's style is not likely your best route to success. Second, look for every opportunity to grow, whether that be taking on a new role that is out of your comfort zone, or observing those around you at all levels for ways you can learn from them.
Third, use your voice. I often say, if you have been asked to be in a room, you are in the room for a reason. While stating the obvious, it is a good reminder to be confident in sharing your perspective in sometimes intimidating rooms, especially when you are there representing a diverse voice.
CSNews: How are you helping the next generation of industry women succeed?
Isbill: Too many times, I have seen leaders make assumptions about their team members' goals and choices they will make based on their own biases. I prioritize truly understanding my team members and asking them rather than relying on my own perceptions. This allows me to hone in on my team members' passion points and connect them with opportunities that match up both with their desires, as well as areas that will benefit the business.
Additionally, I strongly encourage team members to work on projects outside of their silos, enabling them to gain greater exposure and learning opportunities, and increase their awareness of ways in which they might grow.
Finally, I am a vocal proponent, both internally and externally, of the value of D&I (diversity and inclusion) and ways in which we can continue to evolve both our company and the industry to push to be an inclusive place, which will appeal to a diverse talent pool allowing us to attract and retain the best team members.