Elaine Marshall, Machelle Sanders talk about their paths to leadership

Elaine Marshall and Machelle Sanders, two prominent women in North Carolina’s state government, recently spoke about their paths to leadership at a Women Business Leaders forum event. Marshall, currently serving as Secretary of State, shared her experiences facing gender discrimination in the business world and politics. The Commerce Secretary Sanders discussed her challenges as a Black woman in the male-dominated life science sector before entering the government. Both women emphasized the importance of women supporting and empowering each other in business and leadership roles. They encouraged the audience to have confidence in their abilities and reject imposter syndrome. Sanders also highlighted the need for more women in the defense industry and offered advice on finding mentors and seizing opportunities.

The inaugural Women Business Leaders forum hosted by the Defence Alliance of North Carolina (DANC) and NC State University Industry Expansion Solutions kicked off on August 21 at Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, North Carolina. The mission of the event was to “Unleash the potential of women business leaders, propelling the defense industry forward with a vision that embraces: purposeful growth, entrepreneurial vision, empowered leadership, innovate to thrive, stronger together, connecting trailblazers, forge collaborative pathways and ignite creative excellence.”

The event moved forward with more than 60 businesswomen from various industries in attendance. Executive Director of the DANC Tammy Everett spoke about the diverse makeup of DANC including women in the military, government agencies, academics, associations and professional services. The event aimed to inspire and provide guidance to women in business.

Iris Phillips, President/CEO of Grace Federal Solutions, LLC and one of the WBL forum pioneers spoke to the group about how women can and are supporting the defense industry in various leadership roles. She started her presentation by playing “Super Woman”, by Alicia Keys and proclaiming that every woman in attendance could become a “Super Woman”. She spotlighted the importance of a sort of sisterhood; a network of women working in the industry as a cohesive force to help each other realize their goals.

Elaine Marshall, the North Carolina Secretary of State, shared her experiences facing gender bias in business and politics and how she overcame those challenges. When she acknowledged she was the first woman elected to state office in North Carolina, she quipped, “Talk about breaking glass ceilings”. Marshall’s overall message emphasized the importance of women supporting each other and breaking barriers in male-dominated industries, especially the defense industry.

NC State University Industry Expansion Solutions (IES) Marketing Director Loree Blue detailed how women are impacting the defense industry and supporting the warfighter. One of the women-led companies she highlighted was Nicelle Technologies, LLC led by Ericka Ford and Cheryl Wooten. Nicelle has developed an eco-friendly process for reducing the carbon footprint of acrylic fibers, which are used in performance clothing, nonwovens, and carbon fiber for the Department of Defense

Blue touched on how Industry Expansion Solutions and the North Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NCMEP) continue to enhance state and federal collaborations in military and defense infrastructure, as well as building a strong defense manufacturing ecosystem in North Carolina.

Founder and CEO of PlazaBridge Group Teressa Spangler’s book, “All That I Am: Now That I Know: 17 Life Lessons for Women Entrepreneurs on Dreaming Big, Failing Big, and dusting yourself off to DO IT all over again!” was presented at the forum. The book chronicles how Spangler beat out 240 men to become the #1 saleswoman in the company she worked for. She funded a startup that grew from $23 million in revenue to $400 million in less than five years.

Business Leaders Forum

Machelle Sanders, the Commerce Secretary, discussed her journey as a Black female in the life science sector and encouraged women to have confidence in their abilities. “Your uniqueness is your strength. Your uniqueness is your power,” proclaimed Sanders. She also discussed the need for more women in leadership roles in the defense industry and the efforts to attract more defense businesses to North Carolina.

Phillps reflected on the event saying, “We were honored to have Secretary of State, Elaine Marshall, and Secretary of the NC Department of Commerce, Machelle Baker Sanders, as our special speakers and a host of women entrepreneurs who shared their experiences.” The event also included a diverse group of professionals from within the defense sector who shared their knowledge and wisdom.

Phillips added, “As Chair of the Women Business Leaders (WBL) forum, I already envision an even bigger forum for next year. An event enriched with opportunities to exchange ideas, ask questions and dive into topics about defense all while fostering growth and camaraderie. Thanks to all who attended and contributed to making this inaugural event a success. Updates regarding next year’s event will be available soon. Remember that as women united, we can confidently shape our dreams into achievements and face challenges. I’m excited to meet you on this next great adventure!”