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‘It’s in My DNA’: A Roundtable Q&A

Impressions gets candid with a few women leaders in the decorated-apparel industry.

By Dustin Shrader, Managing Editor

April 28, 2020

The world has seen a cultural shift in the past few years, with women in all industries being embraced in roles ranging from supervisors and directors to C-suite executives — and every leadership rung on the proverbial ladder in between.

As 2020 unfolds, female business-leadership roles have hit an all-time high. According to 2019 Grant Thornton LLP research, 29% of senior-management roles are held by women, while 87% of global businesses now have at least one woman in a senior-management position.

Today, women are championed as part of diverse workforces that include a cornucopia of identities, personalities and ethnicities. Equally as diverse are the backgrounds and experience levels these women leaders bring to their respective tables, and the decorated-apparel industry is no exception.

For example, before becoming president of Madeira USA, Shirley Clark was the company’s sales manager and had experience from other industries. Jeanene Edwards, vice president of marketing, Fruit of the Loom/JERZEES, was in journalism before working in marketing with a national retailer. Michelle Moxley, director of innovation, The M&R Cos., has a background in graphic arts. After working as a development artist for Nike and the Jordan brand, she was Gildan’s Honduras R&D embellishment manager.

Carleen Gray, CEO, GroupeSTAHL North America, has been with the company for 22 years. Wedged in between was a stint in the automotive industry, where she says lessons learned in the decorated-apparel industry helped significantly.

“There was a six-year period [outside of Stahls’] when I worked within the automotive industry, and I never dreamed my decorated-apparel experience would help me there, but it was crucial in managing the Jeep, Dodge and Chrysler merchandising programs,” she says. “My entire career has been deeply entrenched in building brands and helping people grow their businesses with decorated apparel.

Impressions recently sat down with Clark, Edwards, Gray and Moxley to discuss their experiences in the industry, responsibilities to future generations of female leaders and much more.



Impressions: This industry historically has been perceived and characterized as male dominated. Do you think such a characterization is fair or true? Why or why not?
Shirley Clark: Maybe it’s because I grew up with five brothers, but I’ve never really felt that perception. My process has always simply been to get the job done. In the case of my own career, this has often been to secure growth in sales, to expand the reach of a company [and] to have a positive effect on whatever industry I’m in.

Jeanene Edwards: I think you could say that any industry historically has been male dominated. The decorated-apparel industry is far more balanced due to the very personal nature of selling apparel. From personal observation at trade shows and distributor open-house events, I speak with as many women as I do men. And frequently, it’s the women who are asking detailed questions about our product line, our printability and our pricing. It’s obvious that they’re the business owner or manager and have a significant role in its success.

Carleen Gray: That characterization is definitely changing — so much so that I don’t even like to respond to this type of question. At Stahls’, becoming the CEO wasn’t so much of a gender breakthrough — Stahls’ has had women in leadership positions from day one. It was more about the fact that someone was promoted to this position from within the ranks, and that is what made it significant for everyone at the company. For me, success isn’t about breaking through a glass ceiling or changing stereotypes; it’s about how well someone does a job.

Michelle Moxley: I think it’s becoming more diverse every year. There are more women in dominantly male positions than ever before. There is still a strong masculine element, but it is definitely more balanced than, say, even five years ago.

Impressions: Is it enough for a woman to do her job and work hard in order to succeed in this industry?
Edwards: I’ve always been fortunate to work for organizations where your job performance, not your gender, determined your success. At Fruit of the Loom, our CEO is Melissa Burgess Taylor, so we’ve definitely broken the glass ceiling here. My recommendation to men and women is that if you want to succeed and get ahead, you must demonstrate initiative and go above and beyond your current job responsibilities.

Moxley: Is it [enough] for anyone? Sometimes I think I work harder than the next guy, or I have to because I am female, but other times I think it’s because it’s in my DNA to work really hard. It’s what I do, and if my gender was different, I would still do it. If your gender is interfering with you succeeding, it says more about the people you are working for than anything else. Find a new path, forget the people that aren’t your cheerleaders.

Impressions: What challenges or obstacles have you faced as a woman in this industry, and how did you overcome them?
Gray: The ability to face challenges head on is easier with the right team. So much of my confidence comes from knowing the team’s strengths. Business challenges we’ve faced include implementing new technology, financial management, regulation and compliance, recruiting top talent, finding the right strategies for growth and more. In the long run I’ve found that sticking true to a simple tenet, such as “Get [Stuff] Done,” is what really works.

Moxley: I remember my first trade show, 2003 probably, someone commented, “You don’t look like a screen printer.” It wasn’t until much later I realized the comment was in reference to me being a woman. I am not a statistic or an underdog. At times in this industry, I have been labeled “the girl.” You deal with it and push through it. Be tough, be true and realize you can be as good as the next “guy” — better, even.

Impressions: Who has had the biggest influence on your career?
Clark: Probably my predecessors, in every position I’ve held. In each case, they have set the bar, giving me a goal to surpass and setting the stage for growth and expansion. It has then been up to me to step up, create a road map and move a company into greater market share and sales.

Edwards: My first job was working for Pace Membership Warehouse, a start-up membership warehouse club that was eventually sold to Sam’s Club. Celia Swanson was the only female vice president and she was a terrific example of how women could lead and be respected in a male-dominated organization. She went on to become the first female executive vice president of Walmart.

Gray: Ted Stahl has been a guiding force, inspiration and mentor from the beginning.

Moxley: My theory has always been that there’s no school for this. So I’ve always tried to find the people who I admire most and weasel my way into working with them. Working for Larie Thomas really exposed me to the best foundation for the career choices I made. Working with Jamie McCrae taught me how to make strong industry relationships. Working with Beppe Quaglia has been a constant inspiration. Finally, working for Dave Gardner was a true highlight of my career.

Impressions: What responsibility do you think you have to future generations of “glass ceiling-breaking” women, if any?
Clark: I try to enable women and men to accomplish their roles with support and the tools they need to succeed. I maintain an open-door policy, listening to ideas and suggestions. My responsibility to women in particular would be to point out that — if they have the ability and dedication — there is no reason that should prevent them from succeeding and earning the respect of their peers.

Edwards: The best advice I have is to take responsibility for your own development and look for opportunities to show what you can do. If you feel you’ve hit a glass ceiling in your organization, you can make them aware that it’s there. Lastly, if you’re not being given the opportunities or even the credit you feel you deserve, then it might be time to seek them elsewhere. In today’s hot job market, talented people have lots of opportunities.

Gray: The biggest responsibility comes with the realization that you are making decisions that impact everyone in the company. Both men and women. I have a responsibility to focus on making the right business decisions for our customers, our company and our team members for the long haul.

Moxley: Do what you love, love what you do. My responsibility to women in my industry is to continue being me and do my very best. I try to pay it forward as much as I can, but I expect authenticity and genuine investment from those I work with. “Believe in something and be that thing” is my motto.

Impressions: What advice would you give to other women looking to succeed in this industry?
Clark: This is a wonderfully creative industry, and one that is pretty nurturing compared to others. Creativity, excellent service and product quality are going to give one a significant edge, regardless of gender.

Edwards: Printed apparel and promotional products are great career paths for women, as the industry relies on relationships and service, which are areas where women tend to excel. Do amazing work and it will speak for itself. If you offer unique products with a stress-free experience, your customers will tell others, especially in our social media-driven world.

Gray: Don’t be afraid to speak up. Say what you really believe in. Be curious and show motivation. Be the person who figures it out.

Moxley: Learn from those that came before you; always be willing to learn something new; ignore the naysayers; and be an original.