LWC Drinks’ Emma Mitchell talks to Elit Rowland, founder of Women in Wholesale
LWC Drinks recently launched a new network to inspire and support women in the business – with the support of key senior male allies. In the first session, Emma Mitchell, PR and communications manager at the wholesaler, interviewed Elit Rowland, head of communications at JJ Foodservice as well as founder of the Women in Wholesale Initiative.
EM: How and where did your career in the wholesale industry begin?
ER: After leaving my role as editor of Better Wholesaling, I wanted to stay involved in the wholesale industry. I loved it, so I started offering PR services to wholesalers.
My first clients were the Today’s Group (now Unitas) and JJ Foodservice. Additionally, I continued working for Better Wholesaling as a freelancer. Working from home and earning a higher income made me very happy indeed.
What do you love most about working in this industry?
Our sector is full of entrepreneurs. I was lucky enough to meet Mustafa Kiamil, the chief executive of JJ Foodservice, during a wholesaler profile visit.
I recall spotting him in the staff kitchen area and requesting to take a photo for the magazine. He politely said he didn’t like having his photo taken, which was fair enough. However, when I explained I was a journalist, he kindly invited me to his office, made me a coffee and shared the extraordinary story of how JJ started, and its rapid growth.
I was utterly captivated and instantly knew that this was the kind of company I wanted to be a part of. A few years later, Terry Larkin, the group general manager, brought me on board as a PR consultant when I launched my own venture.
What truly set JJ apart was Mustafa’s support for experimentation – he encourages us all to be entrepreneurs and to try new things without the fear of failure. It was only with JJ’s backing that I initiated Women in Wholesale.
We even conducted inclusion projects within the warehouse, which helped us to increase female representation in our largest warehouse from 0% to 30%.
My commitment to JJ swiftly escalated from one day a week to three, until I eventually became an official employee. Now, after nine years, I am proud to consider myself a member of the JJ family.
What has been the biggest challenge you have faced as a woman working in a male-dominated industry?
Eight years ago, it was uncomfortable being the only (or one of a few) women in the room at industry events, but times are changing, and everyone is starting to see the benefits of having more diverse teams.
Today, thanks to a lot of work being done by the FWD and initiatives like Women in Wholesale, our sector is shaping up to be a great place to work. The culture is changing, and we have a lot of support from senior male allies who are the catalyst for change.
Back in 2012, only 11% of senior managers in wholesale were female – today, that’s increased to 20%, and positive attitudes towards shared parental leave and flexible working are all helping to support women who want to pursue more ambitious career paths.
But there are challenges and it can take years to break a culture of bias. It’s a generational issue and I personally feel that many of the challenges we have today will not be there tomorrow – our children are growing up in much better, more inclusive times.
What do you feel are some of the greatest barriers women can face when trying to make it to the top in the industry, and what are your top tips for overcoming these?
I personally feel that too many women wait to be asked or chosen for opportunities.
If you are competent and have what it takes to bring a new idea to the table or get a promotion, then ask for it. Build a compelling case. Senior managers are busy, and they need people who have the courage to put themselves forward. I’ve always been a big believer in making it easy for your managers to say “yes”.
Don’t give them too much to think about – lay it all out in a logical, factual way and demonstrate how your case will benefit the team and the business. If you don’t get what you want this time, don’t worry – you might get it next time. And whether you are aware of it or not – you’ve stuck your head out as someone with courage and ideas. That will get noticed.
Another top tip: you need male allies. Not mates, but senior people that believe in your vision. I was lucky enough to have some great senior allies in my career.
Support at the top helps to turbo-charge your vision and make it a reality.
You’ve created an incredible community with the Women in Wholesale Network. What inspired you to start this and what was your vision for it?
In a nutshell, I was tired of being the only woman at industry events – I knew there were other women out there who wanted to learn and network.
Growing up, my dad taught me that it’s good to have your fingers in a few pies – so instead of complaining about the lack of females, I saw the opportunity to make things better, and it had commercial value, too.
The first conference sold out within three months. The vision was to make women more confident and workplaces more inclusive. Gender inclusion was the most obvious starting point. Eventually we wouldn’t need a female-only network and the five-year plan was to transition to People in Wholesale – sharing recruitment and retention ideas.
Today, that’s happened with the launch of the Federation of Wholesale Distributors’ Diversity in Wholesale initiative, which we are proud to be part of and supporting.
And finally, if you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice when you were starting out, what would it be?
If you have a good idea, don’t be complacent. You need to keep adapting it to make it relevant. If you don’t have the time or the vision, then collaborate with people who do.