Breaking Down Perception Barriers to Women in Leadership

This blog features insights from Regenia Sanders, EY Advisory Principal for the Supply Chain and Operations practice.  Regenia leads the Americas Supply Chain practice for the industrial products sector.  In their strategic alliance, EY and JDA are helping clients transform their supply chains for the digital future.

Reginia discusses her unconventional path toward a 20+ year career in supply chain, how she champions diversity and inclusion personally and professionally, and how establishing a scholarship at her alma mater was one of the most powerful ways she has been able to pay it forward and bring more young women into careers in STEM.

How did your career start out?

I have been in management consulting for just over 20 years. I majored in mechanical engineering as an undergrad and thought I would go into engineering or academia for a career. What I realized during graduate school is that I am a people person and was more interested in the business side of engineering. So, I took a non-traditional route upon graduation, and instead of going into research or getting my PhD to be a professor in engineering, I went into management consulting.  I’ve been able to stay close to the engineering environment by spending most of my time working with manufacturing clients.

What is your role at EY? What did you do before that?

I am coming off the cusp of serving as the global leader for our supply chain intelligence solution, through which we offer supply chain analytics that help our clients identify areas for improvement across the supply chain.  Currently, I am the practice leader for the supply chain planning practice and the supply chain lead for Advanced Manufacturing in North America at EY.

I started my career at another large firm for 15 years doing consulting in a similar role. After that, I worked for five years at a small boutique operations management firm focusing on private equity portfolio companies where I helped build their business technology and supply chain practices, before I came to EY.

How did you get into a career focused on supply chain and technology? Is it what you envisioned your career would be focused on?

It is not what I envisioned I would be doing when I started my career! I thought I would eventually become a college professor.  When I discovered consulting, I realized I’d found the best of both worlds where I was able to leverage my problem-solving skills and attention to detail learned in engineering, but in a business setting.  Consulting allowed me to become a supply chain practitioner ‘on the job,’ based on the projects I worked on – ranging from coding MES systems to configuring production scheduling solutions.   My work allowed me to touch and gain experience in sourcing, inventory management, manufacturing and fulfillment operations.

Tell us about the organizations you work with when it comes to STEM.

I am passionate about STEM education and helping to get young women engaged in technical fields. It was a game-changer for me, so I spend a lot of time at my alma mater, Auburn University, as well as non-profits, encouraging and talking with students – particularly young women who are pursuing careers in science and technology.

I sit on the advisory board for the National Society of Black Engineers, which I joined as an undergrad.  I am also on the alumni board of directors for Auburn University.  Most recently, I joined the board of TAGed, the non-profit arm of the Technology Association of Georgia (TAG).  TAGed focuses on creating experiences to help educate, expose and connect middle and high school students to STEM.

When it comes to diversity and inclusion, how do you champion this in your organization or network?

Diversity and inclusion are super important to me. In most of my professional settings, I find myself being the only black person and the only female.  In every organization I have worked in, I have been a champion for diversity, serving as a role model for young women, and those of ethnic diversity.   I want to show them what is attainable no matter their background. This is especially important to those that don’t see people like them in roles they aspire to. I believe having women and ethnic minorities in leadership positions in supply chain helps the next generation see what they too can achieve.  Since I’ve been at EY, I have been part of our team focused on advancing diversity and inclusion within our supply chain practice and have also organized a couple of groups on ethnic diversity. It’s really all about increasing awareness, cultivating a sense of belonging and helping others progress personally and in their career so that everyone is positioned for success.

What do you see as barriers to women in leadership and why?

Perception and unconscious bias.

For example, the perception is that leadership roles – for women in particular – are very taxing and may require too much time with also balancing having a family. But this is an assumption, because everyone needs work/life balance. I am single, for example, and though I do not have a family, it does not mean I don’t need personal balance too. However, I can also have a very rewarding and fulfilling career and be successful at it.

So, I try to be an advocate for people and raise awareness that advances women’s role in the workplace.

What leaders – male or female – do you admire and why?

Rather than name a leader or leaders, because there are so many I admire, I’d rather focus on attributes of a leaders  I admire.

First, I admire those who stick to their personal values and operate with integrity. That is of utmost importance.

Second, it is important to have a sense of stewardship. A mentor told me early on that the true mark of a leader is how they develop those around them. That had been and continues to be my mantra as I pay it forward, as has been done for me during my career.

Third, true leaders are open and willing to listen to the people around them.  They are humble. A detriment of leadership is when you think you have all the answers. A real leader knows they don’t have all the answers and collaborates with their teams to get to the ‘right’ answer.

Finally, follow through is important. Leaders follow through, and it is as simple as responding to an email because from my perspective, failure to acknowledge teeters on disrespect. Follow-through also applies to being a person of your word.  This links back to operating with integrity.

What is the biggest challenge for the next generation of women in tech (or supply chain)?

Enrollment in the technology field by women is down in the last three years. We need to start educating earlier and making young women aware of the opportunities for STEM majors. This will go a long way in helping us attain a critical mass of women in this field. Supply chain is a rewarding career with multiple facets and now with the new technology innovations that are being applied to supply chain, there’s always something new.

What advice do you have for someone taking on a leadership role for the first time?

Listen. Be a sponge and soak it all in. And, seek out role models. When I started in consulting, I found those in positions I aspired to and sought them out. You must be bold in going after what you want and in building relationships.

It is also important to be deliberate and know what you want. Early on, someone told me the importance of having a personal mission or purpose statement that is complementary to that of the company you work for.  My own purpose statement is to help people and organizations achieve their full potential – I’m able to do this daily with my teams and my clients.

And finally, embrace every opportunity. I have done this a few times in very big ways during my professional career and it’s paid off every time.

What is the best risk you’ve taken and why?

First was when I decided to take a non-traditional path in engineering to go into consulting after college. It was pretty daunting.  I was worried about what others might think, but in the end, I stepped out on faith and the rest is history.

Second was leaving my first firm of 15 years. It was all I knew, but it ended up being the best thing I could do to grow in ways that I don’t think I could have had, if I stayed.  It allowed me to apply all  my experiences and take it to the next level of growth.

In both situations, I knew I’d made the right decision because of the sense of peace I had immediately after making the moves.

What’s one leadership lesson you’ve learned and really taken to heart?

I am very type A and also an only child who was used to getting her way growing up! One big lesson I’ve learned is just because it is not the way I would do it doesn’t mean it is the wrong way. I have a growing sense of humility that I didn’t have before. It’s important to take a step back, listen and learn and embrace new ideas from other people.

How has your life experience made you the leader (or who you are) you are today?

I am the person I am because of my parents and the wisdom they instilled along with faith and the mentors who took the time to help me along the way. Today, I feel accountable to those on my teams to do my best. They push me — as do my peers. As the saying goes, “iron sharpens iron,” and I have been fortunate to be surrounded by people that push me to succeed.

What is your proudest achievement?

I started a scholarship at my alma mater for young women of color who are in pursuit of an engineering degree. It was a super-proud moment for me. Both of my parents have passed away, and the legacy they instilled in me was giving back and having a sense of civic involvement. To get to a point in my career to go back to my alma mater and meet the recipients of my scholarship and talk to them and hear their stories has been so rewarding.

One of the recipients of my scholarship was the first person in her family to go to college and if she didn’t get the scholarship she would have missed at least one semester.   The impact of hearing that was overwhelming.   Being able to give back in this way has been huge for me.

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