As Wonder Woman reached blockbuster status this summer and the ALA plans to launch a Women in the Industry network group, AFX’s own wonder women — the all-female trio heading its sales force — discuss the evolution of women in the industry.
When it comes to sales leadership in the lighting industry, the managers at lighting manufacturer AFX, Inc., headquartered in Waukegan, Ill., are quick to point out that their situation is unique. The National Sales Manager (Colleen DeStefano), Eastern Regional Sales Manager (Lizzette Winters), and Western Regional Sales Manager (Julie Tatro) are all females in charge of handling a crew of mostly male sales representatives. I I sat down with all three managers at the June Lightovation to chat about the welcome changes that have occurred in the industry over the years.
“Lighting is still a male-dominated business, but it’s been changing,” explains Lizzette Winters. “Back in the 1990s, females in the industry were in the office handling support roles. When I came to Market, I was one of the few women sales reps.”
In those early days of women taking on a more visible role, there was some skepticism among male colleagues and customers about their credibility. As a result, females found themselves downplaying femininity and emphasizing their knowledge. “I had my own agency and when I called on electrical distributors, I wore jeans and drove my truck,” Winters recounts.
“You have to prove yourself,” adds Julie Tatro, who came to the lighting industry after graduating high school and taking a job as a receptionist for a lighting sales agency in California. “I started off answering the phones and segued into handling quotes. I fell in love with it,” she explains. Later she joined manufacturer Access Lighting and worked her way up to Commercial Sales Manager. “I really learned a lot there,” Tatro notes. She was came onboard at AFX two and a half years ago and is based in California.
Colleen DeStefano got her start in the industry 35 years ago when she worked for a fluorescent component parts agency that supplied parts to OEMs. She has been with AFX for 16 years and is based in Illinois. “You have to earn respect as a competent woman,” she remarks. “I think the men in the industry today have more respect for females in the business and there are now more women in lighting than ever before.”
While acceptance may take time to be earned, this team says it’s worth staying the course. “I’ve always felt respected,” DeStefano comments, but adds, “although I have had to prove myself in the industry. As a woman, you have to work that much harder. I never felt disrespected; maybe that’s what has kept me in the business. I liked the challenge of proving that I am competent and knowledgeable in what I was selling.”
Winters, who was raising an infant and battling cancer while repping, agrees. “My son was just a baby when I had to go to China for 10 days on business,” she explains. “I think the respect level for women reps has increased, particularly when it comes to our product knowledge. Still, I’ve had to prove myself over and over again.”
Those who snicker that an all-female sales management team would lead to constant “cat fights” would be sadly mistaken. “We’ve heard the comments, but it’s just not that way with us,” they say.
“Our friendship goes beyond business,” Winters notes. “You know that saying, ‘A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle?’ That’s how we are.”
“We back each other and empower each other. We help each other out all the time,” Tatro states.
“The three of us have been in lighting for so long and have experienced the same circumstances that it’s easy for one of us to pick up the phone and call each other and ask for advice,” Winters remarks. “We’ve got a lot of years of combined experience; we’re a force to be reckoned with!”
For this trio, there’s no other industry they’d rather be in. “We love what we do,” they say in unison. “There’s something different all the time and there’s always a new technology or code changes to learn. It keeps things interesting.”