Expanding Opportunities for
Women in Business

March is Women’s History Month, and  at First Bank  & Trust, we thought it would be a great time to honor women business leaders in our community.

Today, according to the National Women’s Business Council, 36.3  percent of all pri- vately-held businesses in the United States are owned by women, up from 28.8 per- cent in 2007. Women are also  becoming increasingly visible leaders in everything from government to nonprofits and  large multinational corporations.

Women Business Leaders in Evanston

One such  female business leader is Jennifer Kalas,  president of IRMCO, an Evanston- based manufacturer of oil-free metal forming and  tube bending lubricants.

Kalas  started her career as an accountant with Crawford Laboratories in Chicago, rising through the ranks to take on roles in purchasing industrial chemicals, produc- tion scheduling, plant operations and  eventually general manager. In 2000, Kalas joined IRMCO as Chief Financial Officer, and  in 2011, she  was  promoted to president, where she  oversees the company’s research and  development department, sales, IT, finance and  operations.

We sat down with Kalas  and  asked her about what it was  like for her moving up the corporate ladder as a woman and  what advice she  has  for other women business leaders.

FBT: Both Crawford Laboratories and IRMCO were run by men with decades of experience in their positions when you worked there. How  do you think you were able to rise up through the ranks as a woman?

Kalas: Coming from a family where I was  the only  daughter with four brothers, I grew up in a male-oriented environment. We were taught from a very young age to work hard, focus  on the task at hand, and  do the best we can.  Because of this, I’ve never felt that things were harder because I was  a woman.

In the beginning years of my career, I progressed through various positions eventu- ally leading to general manager of the company. Along the way,  I learned as much as I could  from my superiors and  volunteered for every task and  job that I could. Fortu- nately for me,  the owner of Crawford Laboratories had  as much respect for a wom- an’s ability as he did for men  and  taught me as much as I was  willing to learn.

Later, I joined IRMCO as they were looking for someone who  had  a finance back- ground but could  also  manage the operations of their business. I took on every opportunity that came my way  and  was  promoted to president when the owner moved to the south to be closer to customers and  prospects. Today, I think it’s important that people understand that there are many opportunities in manufactur- ing for both men  and  women.

FBT: What are some of the skills and personality traits that make someone a good manager?

Kalas: One needs to have a positive attitude, be flexible, listen to your employees, understand different types of personalities and  know how  to motivate each  of them. You need to be a team player, lead  by example, and  not just be a so-called manager. Lastly, you need to recognize and  develop talent.

FBT: What are some of the biggest challenges that business leaders face today? What are some things that business owners need to focus on to make their com- pany more successful?

There is a big shortage of skilled labor. As mentioned earlier, manufacturing has changed and  requires the workforce to be better educated and  trained. We need to get more people aware of the job opportunities in manufacturing.

As a 30-year veteran, I’m now  realizing the importance of understanding and  devel- oping the next generation of the workforce. What are their needs and  what moti- vates them? It’s a different world today than it was  a few  decades ago.

For small-and mid-sized companies, there’s always the conflict between navigating growth while maintaining your profitability and  figuring out how  to use  your capital wisely.

FBT: Throughout your career, what changes have you seen for women business leaders?

Kalas: Today, women are leaders in all arenas. There are so many more avenues for women to get an education, which leads to more confidence when competing with men.

The increase in child  care opportunities gives  women the opportunity to have a career and  raise a family. Also, the acceptance of a father as the stay-at-home parent has  given us more flexibility to further our careers.

FBT: Do you have any other advice for female business leaders?

Kalas: Yes. Be sure to pass along the credit for success to those under you.  Ego can be such  a deterrent in business. Take  risks and  view  them as opportunities. Network as much as possible and  find  women mentors, not just for a new  job, but to gain knowledge. Get involved and  stretch your comfort level  to build up your confidence. Don’t be afraid to ask  for more — men  do. Most importantly, try to do what you love. It may  take a while in your career to find  out what that is, but if you work hard enough and  spread your wings, you’ll most likely  find  your passion.

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