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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Elaine Marshall, Machelle Sanders talk about their paths to leadership

Last week, I was in a lecture hall at Cape Fear Community College in downtown Wilmington, listening to two women talk about their lives and experiences in business and government. Both rose from small town beginnings to the top ranks of North Carolina’s state government. Both were born at a time when this would have been improbable. The speakers were Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and Commerce Secretary Machelle Baker Sanders.

They were talking to a launch meeting of the Women Business Leaders forum of the Defense Alliance of North Carolina (DANC-WBL). DANC is an advocacy group that promotes the  military and the defense industry in North Carolina. The defense sector is the second-largest in our state’s economy, behind agriculture. The new forum, headed by Iris Phillips, CEO of Grace Federal Solutions of Raleigh, has been created to help women-owned, defense-focused businesses grow and collaborate.

Marshall and Sanders were there to provide some historical context, advice and encouragement.

Elaine Marshall 

Marshall, born in a rural Maryland community on the Pennsylvania border in 1945, came south after graduating from college in 1968 with a textiles degree, taught school, got married and opened a decorating business in Dunn, in Harnett County.  Like retail business folks do, early one summer she went to the bank to get a line of credit for her Christmas inventory.

Elaine Marshall

The banker looked around and asked where her husband was. “I say, ‘Well, I don’t really know.’ They said, ‘Come back tomorrow at the same time and bring him,” Marshall told her listeners.

“So I came back the next day. Brought my husband along. The banker only talked to him. I was right there, but no eye contact. I really felt like a potted plant off in the corner. I’m seething, because I wasn’t part of the conversation.”

When the banker asked questions about the business, her husband had to turn to Marshall, of course, because he didn’t know. “And I’m sitting there thinking, if this loan gets paid, it’s due to my work.” This wasn’t the first time she’s told this story over the years, but it’s one younger listeners should hear.

Time marched on, but attitudes shifted slowly. Marshall got her law degree from Campbell University in 1981 and became a partner in a Lillington firm, at the county seat. “I actually got mail that was addressed to ‘Lady Lawyer, Lillington, NC.’ So they popped it into my box, and you’d open it up and it would say, ‘Dear Miss Elaine,’ and it really was for me.”

She got into politics and was elected to the state Senate in 1992. In 1996, she ran for secretary of state as the Democratic nominee. Her Republican opponent was NASCAR legend Richard Petty, who had massive name recognition.

Marshall beat him by more than 200,000 votes, becoming the first woman in North Carolina’s history elected to a Council of State office.

“Talk about breaking glass ceilings,” she said.  “Unfortunately, most of the news coverage about that was about who I beat. The stories were not particularly about history-making for women. About Petty, not about the importance of the office or who got elected. That’s how women in politics were treated at the time.”

“I don’t want you or your daughter to ever feel isolated, as I have been in the past, as a woman business owner or as a political office-holder.”

Machelle Baker Sanders

Sanders was born in 1963 in Belhaven, a small, waterfront town, to parents who were Black educators. Her father, the legendary high school basketball coach, Albert Baker, began his coaching career in the segregated Beaufort County schools.

Today, there’s an emphasis on getting more young women to consider careers in science and engineering, in STEM fields. In the early ‘80s, there was less emphasis.

Machelle Sanders

Sanders went to N.C. State and graduated with a bachelor of science degree in biochemistry Her timing was good, because North Carolina was emerging as a powerhouse in life science. She would rise to be a top executive at Biogen, a major presence at Research Triangle Park, and serve on the board of the N.C. Biotechnology Center, one of the chief catalysts for North Carolina’s life science success story.

“I spent over 32 years in the life science sector,” she said, “ a sector that is dominated by males. I grew up looking like I look. I’m a Black female from rural North Carolina.” In 2021, after four years as secretary of the Department of Administration – the state government’s business manager – she became the first person of color to run Commerce

Last week, she noted the significance of the new organization she was addressing. “Women together, we are a powerful force.”

“How many of you are business leaders?” she asked. Hands went up throughout the lecture hall. “Many of you. Who would have thought or would you have said 15 years ago that you would be where you are today? How many people told you when you were a little girl, that you have the possibility of even starting or owning a business? Is there anybody? No one.”

“That just goes to show that anything is possible.”

While women make up 47% of the workforce in the U.S., Sanders observed, women don’t exceed 25% of the employment at the top five defense contractors. Many workers in the sector are veterans, like the roughly 13,000 to nearly 21,000 who transition out of the military each year from North Carolina bases, and military experience is often a pathway into the defense industry. But more than 80% of the active-duty military is male, and women represent only 12% of the veteran population in the state.

The state is trying – through the NC Military Business Center, DANC, and the Defense Technology Transition Office, as well as the universities – to attract more defense business, particularly research and development work.

“But if we’re going to do that, it’s going to take all of us. Not some of us, but all of us. And that includes you,” she said.

She encouraged the group to get mentors they can call for advice, and sponsors who can be crucial references, and can be on the lookout for business opportunities. And she told them to be confident and reject the “imposter syndrome” that causes people to question whether they really deserve to be where they are.

“Like you’re going to be found out. ‘I shouldn’t be the founder or CEO of my company. I shouldn’t be directing this organization.’ You are there and you are in these positions not by some lottery system. You are in it because of who you are, your qualifications, and because it’s your time.”

“Sometimes as women,” said Sanders, “we tend to doubt ourselves and talk ourselves out of the situation because we go through a list of all the things we don’t have, instead of all the things we do have. And all the qualifications that we don’t meet, and we tend to chase all the butterflies that people will lead you to believe. That you need this or you need that, and you’re never enough to do this.

“You have exactly what you need. You are more than enough to do great things in your community, in your business.”

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