Closing the gender leadership gap in rural USA
By Linda Johnson, executive vice president, operations, Digi-Key ElectronicsElectronics In-Depth Women in Manufacturing Engineering Supply Chain Digi-Key distribution equity industry women
How Digi-Key and Women in Electronics group are working together on equity opportunities
In 2018, under the stewardship of Executive Vice President of Operations, Linda Johnson, Digi-Key started a NW MN chapter of Women in Electronics (WE), a community of women in the electronics industry committed to working collaboratively with our male counterparts to advance opportunities for women in the Electronics and related industries. Since then, membership and participation has continued to grow within Digi-Key bringing increased networking and learning opportunities with it.
The problem: Seclusion and underrepresentation
Women in leadership positions at Digi-Key have already had a massive impact on the success of the business and the industry. Take VP of Operational Excellence & Trade Compliance Teri Ivaniszyn, who is responsible for setting up the largest Foreign Trade Zone (FTZ) in the United States. Or Missy Hall, who is responsible for growing the Digi-Key Marketplace offering from a $0 to $75 million business in just three years.
In the electronics industry at large, only 16% of senior-level positions and 10% of executive-level roles are held by women. Digi-Key wants to change that, both at home and across the industry.
But employees at Digi-Key’s headquarters face the unique hurdle of being tucked away in the northwest corner of Minnesota. It’s probably the last place you’d expect to see a global electronics leader. But here we are, and we’re proud to be increasing opportunities for our local community and empowering our employees to grow in their careers. But being this far removed from other tech hubs means it is harder for our team to attend industry networking events, leadership speaking tours, and participate in cross-business mentorship programs, which is why WE has been such an important initiative.
There’s a lot riding on the success of Digi-Key. Thief River Falls has slightly more than 8,700 people living in it, 41% of whom are employed by Digi-Key. The responsibility of being a major local employer is not lost on leadership and this WE investment is an initiative that is paying dividends for the community at large.
How Digi-Key and Women in Electronics partner to address the challenge
The Thief River Falls chapter of WE chapter is a dynamic group that supports its members and the community at large in a number of ways.
First, there are monthly trainings. One attendee noted that, “the way the information is presented keeps it at the forefront of your mind,” which has helped many feel more confident in their communications and more empowered to bring their ideas forward.
Then, the mentorship program has been an invaluable resource for many. It connects women in different roles and stages in their careers and promotes collaboration, support, and career development opportunities. It’s become a place for many to be able to feel safe and discuss challenges they’re facing with someone who has an outside perspective. Furthermore, it has opened doors previously unavailable to many. Some employees, once mentees, are now looking to become mentors and help encourage the next generation of women in tech.
Attending the annual WE conference has also given Digi-Key employees a sense of camaraderie with others in the industry. The feeling is that all titles go out the door and we just enjoy being together. Said one employee, “I don’t think I’ve ever been to a conference where I’ve felt more kinship with people. It was amazing and it was immediate. It didn’t matter who you are. I sat with competitors at my table. Didn’t matter. You were there as women learning about leadership and supporting each other in the industry, and it was really special.”
How Digi-Key encourages participation
It’s one thing to say you support women in the workplace and it’s another to actively encourage it. Digi-Key wants to make it as easy as possible for employees to participate in the program and does so by streamlining the path for its employees to attend events and access resources. As a platinum sponsor of WE, Digi-Key can offer paid memberships to many who may not otherwise have been able to participate.
When Digi-Key hosts events onsite, employees don’t need to take time off to attend. They also offer virtual attendance to make these events accessible to all of their team members, no matter where they are in the world. Not just that, but participation is not limited to leadership. Anyone can attend chapter meetings to learn more. We (men and women) need to be united in supporting the unique challenges women face in this industry and many others. It is something we all need to be aware of and work to effect change. This paves the way for more employees to be able to get involved and grow in their career.
Digi-Key is also making WE part of their regular business toolkit. They actively participate in the WE job board, posting positions and seeking talent. The WE trainings are also all archived, so Digi-Key members can access these resources for future reference, amplifying the impact. By rolling it into people’s workflows and encouraging everyone from individual contributors to senior leadership to gain leadership skills in a way that’s accessible to employees and scalable for the company.
On-site and virtual trainings
Perhaps the most frequent and tangible ways that the two organizations partner is through trainings. Women in Electronics has been able to send trainers to Digi-Key’s headquarters to speak to employees, which is especially exciting, given the geographical challenges.
But they don’t just wait until there’s an on-site opportunity. They’ve been able to host virtual events that cover everything from health to personal growth to industry trends. Everyone can attend, making these events accessible and impactful to the whole company, regardless of role.
Gaining a community inside and outside of work
The partnership between Digi-Key and WE is impacting all levels, from organization wide to people’s lives outside of work. From gaining a new community to supporting personal and professional growth, participants are quick to rave about their experience.
It’s connecting women across the company, who would otherwise not have the chance to meet. And it’s reinforcing community ties between the employees and is opening networks of collaboration across departments.
Outside of Digi-Key, employees are able to connect beyond the organization. They can talk with peers and mentors about personal and professional growth, as well as gain deeper industry insights. One of the key themes members have noticed is how everything is connected in the industry, like between rep firms, ODMs and distribution. These diverse views are helping people thrive in their roles and continue to ensure Digi-Key is a global leader.
Impact on people
Work is part of life. But bringing life into work can be difficult to navigate. WE is helping Digi-Key employees blend the two so work makes life better. One employee notes that the mentorship program was invaluable to her for this reason. Her mom was dealing with dementia, which of course, brings stress and logistical questions. Having a mentor to be able to bounce ideas off of helped her navigate that stressful time. She notes that one of the hardest parts of it was having the vulnerable conversation in the first place and that having such a supportive mentor was a game changer. Now, she hopes to be able to continue that type of support internally and help others feel less alone when they’re dealing with their own challenges.
Impact at Digi-Key
Being able to connect with other people in the industry helps the team gain a broader context for challenges they’re facing. It’s helpful to be able to understand market trends versus competitor forces. At the WE conference, one employee got to sit next to a senior vice president of engineering from a contract manufacturer who was able to talk about forces impacting her industry, that was causing challenges in her own job. That off-the-cuff industry insight is something that’s not replicable in other formats accessible to most of the Thief River Falls residents.
There’s also a shared sense of empowerment across the company. Women are standing up straighter, more confident in their skills, and bringing their ideas to the table, powering Digi-Key’s future success.
Ripple effects beyond the business
By bringing more diversity into leadership positions, the ripple effect in the surrounding Thief River Falls area is hard to underestimate. The data shows that there is currently disparity at the leadership level in this industry, and many others. There are many studies that show a significant financial case for gender parity. Raising the level of awareness of the advantages a more diverse leadership team brings and providing the training and support to encourage and effect change, will reap benefits for Digi-Key and our community. First, with more women rising in the ranks, household incomes are increasing. Then, Digi-Key as a business is benefiting from more diverse perspectives, as well as increased employee engagement. This allows the business to grow, thus expanding employment opportunities and improving the quality of life in northwestern Minnesota.
Linda Johnson is executive vice president, operations for Digi-Key Electronics. Digi-Key is both the leader and continuous innovator in the high service distribution of electronic components and automation products worldwide, providing more than 13.4 million components from over 2,300 quality name-brand manufacturers.
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