We’re celebrating International Women’s Day by talking with two of our favorite females – the owners of Tropical Foods Carolyn Bennett and Angela Bauer. From their path to the top of their family business to leadership traits to advice for future generations, our leaders offer their insight into being a female in the workplace.
Carolyn Bennett (CB): I had and still have a vivid imagination. I was always writing stories in my head so I wanted to be an author.
Angela Bauer (AB): Archaeologist – I thought it would be so cool to travel the world and discover new things.
CB: During high school, I would work summers in the spice room or pulling orders. After I graduated from college (double major in Business and English), our retail store The Nut House needed seasonal help to stock bins and run the cash register. I never left to pursue other work, although a customer (who didn’t know of the family connection) tried to recruit me away from Tropical once. From retail, I went into sales taking orders. We didn’t have a lot of outside reps then and most of our orders came from grocery accounts that were established by my father. As our sales increased, I became frustrated with all the outs we were experiencing , so I asked if I could add some buying to my job. That is when I found my true love at Tropical and what I felt was my strongest asset for the company. From there, I trained and mentored with my father, moving into his office to work alongside him. It’s from this time period that I learned about commodities and also the process of making mixes that became our signature items.
AB: I’m the youngest of four so my glamorous summer jobs at the family business usually consisted of doing whatever I was told to do from answering phones, filing or running labels. I decided I better work somewhere else after college since there didn’t seem to be any room for me at Tropical. After graduating, I worked at a customs house broker/freight forwarder and then an import/export food trading company. It used my International Studies degree and Spanish – so very fun. I went back to MBA school because I found I needed more business knowledge than I would get on the job. After that I worked at a technology company selling “new” technology for cable TV (this was in the late 80s/early 90s). When I officially did decide to join Tropical, I was in Atlanta in outside sales for a year before moving to Charlotte to work in marketing, then sales director, then did some HR and culture work along with projects. Now I am CEO of the company.
CB: It has been a blessing. It has afforded me a lot of experiences with many different people in the food industry from all backgrounds and ethnicity. It has allowed me to use my creativity in making mixes based on my Father’s standards that have stood the test of time, along with many of his original mixes. The company is like my third child. I love it and am proud of it. Just like one of my children, I also worry about it, even though the company, like my children, are grown up.
AB: Whew – well fun, stressful, proud, pressured and gratifying – depends on the day. In general though, it’s allowed me more flexibility to handle personal life with professional life. This was not a common thing back in the 90’s and early 2000’s. I’m glad to see that the workplace in general has changed some since then which is great for future woman leaders and workers.
CB: The worst decision I made at work was arguing with a customer once. In retrospect, I would have been better off keeping my mouth closed. Winning the argument did not help our future sales with them. The best was coming to work for the company. Even though it was not a planned career, it evolved into a wonderful job, working closely with my family.
AB: My best decision was pursuing the women-owned certification. My worst was not saying no to some customers’ demands when we should have.
CB: I think listening skills are very important. It’s amazing what you can learn from others if you take time to listen, rather than do all the talking yourself. I also believe leaders who live and work with conviction and integrity will have no shortage of followers.
AB: Read and see between the lines. Pick up feelings of the business and your employees. Listen to hear. Be willing to let people make decisions on their own and do their job. Manage the expectations and don’t sweat the small stuff.
CB: Mother Teresa. What an impressive life for following her calling to serve the poorest of the poor. She fought through difficulties to follow her faith in the worst conditions serving the unwanted, unloved and uncared for communities.
AB: So bright I think I need shades! I’m currently CEO – so I expect to keep being very busy. I’m looking forward to very exciting times. I will be an empty nester at home, but I’ll still have baby #4: Tropical
CB: Finding balance for both work and family.
AB: To continue to move the workplace forward, not by being separatists but more inclusive too. Women have contributed so much now that we have a voice and a seat at the table. Now it’s about seeing what other voices are missing and how to include them more in the workplace.