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Entrepreneur co-founded a manufacturing company at a time when women owned only 4% of U.S. businesses.
Kathie Leonard, president and CEO of Auburn Manufacturing, stands in front of a broad loom recently. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal
MECHANIC FALLS — Fresh out of college and new to Maine in the early 1970s, a young Kathie Leonard was embarking on a career she had little chance of succeeding in, if you believed the odds. She was a young woman working in a male-dominated mill in Lewiston where, among other things, they made an industrial fabric to replace asbestos.
In 1972, women only owned 4.6% of all businesses in the United States.
As of 2019, women owned 42% of all businesses.
There are nearly 13 million women-owned businesses in the United States, employing 9.4 million workers and generating revenue of $1.9 trillion.
Women-owned businesses grew 21% from 2014 to 2019, and businesses owned by women of color grew at double that rate.
Source: Small Business Administration
Women started 49% of new businesses in the U.S. in 2021, up from 28% in 2019.
Women entrepreneurship is also growing around the world.
Globally, men outnumber women 3-1 when it comes to business ownership.
Source: The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2022
At about the same time, Katharine Graham became the first female chief executive officer of a Fortune 500 company, after taking the reins as the publisher of the Washington Post newspaper.
They were significant milestones at a time when women owned about 400,000 businesses, or 4.6% of all businesses in the country, according to the federal Small Business Administration. As archaic as it sounds, women in this country who wanted to take out a business loan had to have a male relative co-sign for the loan until 1988. Today, the SBA says there are over 13 million women-owned businesses in the U.S., or roughly 42% of total businesses, generating nearly $2 trillion in revenue.
“I was in on the ground floor of marketing an industrial fabric that was designed to replace asbestos. And you don’t have any idea how many applications there are where asbestos was used,” Leonard said.
Not just in automotive brakes and in ceiling tiles and flooring tiles, but as mechanical insulation on ships and as insulation wrapped around pipes throughout the petroleum industry — anywhere there was high heat, Leonard explained.
“I fell in love with it, it was just so much fun!” said she. Over the next three years, Leonard honed her marketing skills through her writing and what she calls her ability to explain things concisely. She said she took calls from engineers and answered their technical questions, even dabbling in trade shows, where she was the only woman behind a booth.
After three years, Leonard said she was ready to take the next step and make more money. She and a male partner founded Auburn Manufacturing and never looked back. “Basically, it was about having a better career. I wanted to grow, and at that time there weren’t a lot of ladders for women. So when you start your own business, you create your own ladder. And that’s what I did.”
The short-term goals were simple, said Leonard: pay the rent and buy clothes for her child — to have a family and not have to worry so much about her next paycheck. That was important to her, because she’d grown up without a lot as a kid and said she just didn’t want to do that the rest of her life. At 27 years old, Leonard said she didn’t have any long-term goals. “I just didn’t have any idea that it would last this long.”
OVERCOMING HURDLES IN A MALE-DOMINATED INDUSTRY
The president and CEO said she struggled in the early days to be respected as a business professional in the manufacturing arena. “Everybody who came to our business thought I was the secretary,” she said. “They would come in and they’d think that someone else — a male — was the boss and that I was . . .”
She shrugs it off now as just a sign of the times, but admits it was disconcerting. “I had a partner who was very good about saying ‘Oh, you want to talk to her.’ And I’ve been lucky like that. A lot of guys do that and it’s very much appreciated.”
Leonard said she lacked confidence and was anxious in the early years as well.
“When I talk to other women they want to hear that story — ‘how did you do that?’ and ‘how did it feel?’ — because that’s real,” she said.
Most of Leonard’s experience was on-the-job training. She did not get a master’s degree in industrial technology or engineering. “I went through a thing where I thought I shouldn’t be in this job,” she said. “I’m just a regular gal.”
It took her many years to gain confidence. Leonard said she did it through perseverance, going back to school and studying economics, human resources and accounting, all the skills they had to use to run the business. She calls herself a “cookbook learner” because she likes the directions — show her how to do something and she’s good.
“I also just kept forcing myself to do things,” Leonard explained. “The first time I got asked to speak in public I was scared to death. And I took a Dale Carnegie course and learned how to do that and just forced myself to do it, and I got through it. It’s been 43 years and it’s been tough, but I’m comfortable in my own skin now, but it took quite a while.”
WOMEN IN BUSINESS TODAY
Women have made significant progress in the business world in the past 50 years in this country, but plenty of issues remain at the forefront, among them being the gender pay gap and the percentage of women in top leadership positions.
As an indicator of how women have progressed in Maine, Maine’s Women’s Business List is a public directory of women-owned businesses across the state with some 200 businesses on the list. The Maine Women’s Network said it represents and supports hundreds of women in business in the state. The University of Maine business school has a Women in Business organization, while Coastal Enterprises Inc., or CEI, has a Women’s Business Center focused on women who want to start a business or grow their business in Maine.
Leonard agrees things are a lot easier for women today than they were when she first started out in business. “I think the younger women have made it easier for us, for everybody,” she said. “My age group led the way, but it was a rocky road. These gals coming up are just comfortable in their own skin all the time and I marvel at them, and it makes us all feel more comfortable. Now there’s more women in every group.”
Yet women are still in the minority in the manufacturing field here. Leonard said that’s why she believes exposure to STEM-based education — an acronym that stands for science, technology, engineering and math — is especially important for girls earlier in life.
According to the U.S. Commerce Department, women make up less than one-third of the 15.8 million people employed in manufacturing industries, and 1 in 4 manufacturing leaders are women. Census data show that workers in manufacturing make more income than the average worker. And while women in manufacturing make more than the median for women, they still make only 72% of the median male salary in the industry. With manufacturing becoming increasingly high-tech, some feel manufacturers risk overlooking highly skilled workers by not recruiting women.
Auburn Manufacturing actively recruits women, Leonard said. “We have quite a few women in production, even in weaving, where that didn’t used to be a woman’s job. But with the equipment that we have that helps move things around — you don’t have to be able to lift heavy things, and they’re very good at it.”
Reflecting on her 43 years at the helm of her company, Leonard said she’s amazed and absolutely proud of the company they’ve built and the employees — many of whom have been with her their entire careers — who have made it all happen.
“I’ve grown into it and I’ve done my homework all these years and I think now I’m good at it and I’m proud of that,” she said. “I’m so proud to have 50 people working here,” she emphasized. “It’s hard work but they don’t mind that if you have all the other things. We have benefits, we have a place in Rangeley where the employees can go and take their families. You know it does have a bit of the life balance to it. We’re not that strict but we’re all about getting the product out the door.”
As to the progress women have made in business since the 1970s?
“I think you just keep on keepin’ on,” Leonard said. “To go from 4% to 43% that’s a big change. So, you’re almost half, do we have to be more than half?”
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