by Jillian Netherland | photography by Nicole Rand
While women have historically been undervalued in the workplace, recent history has witnessed a changing landscape in business. Look around and you’ll see more female faces in leadership positions than you did 15, 10, even five years ago. In Lewiston Auburn, this is no exception – even, and perhaps especially within, traditionally male-dominated industries.
Nature and nurture
“I’ve worked hard for many years, ultimately putting me on the path to leadership,” shares Karen Sweetser, one of the three new owners of Gippers Sports Grill. Sweetser – who started as a server at Gippers 23 years ago – climbed her way up the ladder, first as head server, then bar manager, and finally front-of-house manager before taking on the rank of ownership.
“I have strong organizational skills – I put those to work and have applied them to every role I’ve held,” she explains.
For Sweetser, this skillset is likely part nature, part nurture. Being raised by a server, Sweetser was often in the restaurants where her mother worked. This early exposure to the restaurant business provided Sweetser with an insider’s view of the small details that make a big difference, such as memory for customer preferences and a genuine affinity for being around and interacting with others.
“I hadn’t planned on making the restaurant business my lifelong career, but it truly is where I belong,” states Sweetser. “The skills I learned gave me the opportunity to explore – serving skills are the same everywhere, so it was easy for me to move away and find a job where I could meet people – and it was the same skills that allowed me to grow to where I am now.”
The right (wo)man for the job
Not surprisingly, hard work and dedication to honing your skillset is a common theme among female leaders. Kayla Bartlett, Chief Financial Officer for Hebert Construction, echoes many of Sweetser’s sentiments.
“Throughout my entire career, I’ve worked hard, trying to provide value in any way possible without overstepping boundaries,” shares Bartlett. “Everything really comes down to listening – really listening, all the time. You never know what you might learn and apply it to different areas of the business.”
Although accounting was Bartlett’s career choice since the beginning, ultimately finding her niche in the construction industry had never crossed her mind. The early days of Bartlett’s career were spent in public accounting, putting in many hours and long days. Recognizing that she was indeed on the right career path but longing for more of a work-life balance, Bartlett took the next step in her career trajectory by joining a tech corporation.
“Working in tech was an amazing culture filled with incredibly smart people and a wonderful atmosphere,” Bartlett recalls. “It taught me the nuances of working for a small business.”
Eventually, the company sold, and Bartlett was back on the market for a job, this time with a focused goal: landing at another small business where she felt her skillset could make the greatest impact. It was with this goal in mind that she found Hebert Construction.
“Everything really comes down to listening – really listening – all the time .”
“At the time, I was focused less on the industry and more on the fact that it was a good, family-owned company,” Bartlett recounts. “Because of that, I can say I didn’t truly realize what I was getting into, but I quickly found that it was a great fit for me.”
As it turned out for Bartlett, the nuances of working for a construction company were an excellent match for her unique approach to challenges. Though accountants tend to be known for their structure and being rigid, Bartlett inclines to err on the side of flexibility, allowing for more creative, outside-of-the-box problem solving methods.
“Construction has a lot of unique challenges, keeping everything exciting and interesting throughout the day – which I wouldn’t have thought prior to being in the industry,” Bartlett shares. “The economy plays a huge part in the day-to-day business, which is changing constantly—we are always needing to adapt to supply chain issues or financing costs. I have extreme attention to detail, and it has played an important role in helping the business grow.”
Paving the way
While Sweetser and Bartlett both undoubtedly reached their positions of leadership through their own work ethics and talents, trailblazing the path for women leaders in LA began decades ago by several notable local women, such as Theresa (Terry) Samson.
“It was 1972 when Title IX came into effect—I was just a young gal—and it was mandated that all nonprofits should have no discrimination and allow women to serve on their board,” explains Samson, who was employed by Hudson Bus Line at the time. “My boss and his wife approached me about the Chamber, so I joined and became the first woman to serve on the board.”
This initial decision led to a ripple effect for Samson, who now jokes about her trajectory, recalling how she referred to herself as the token woman due to serving on so many boards throughout Lewiston. Samson’s service, business acumen, and commitment to her community garnered high praise and recognition, eventually leading to the creation of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s Theresa Samson Women’s Business Leadership Award. This annual award honors a successful female business owner or primary manager for her business success, career achievements, and contributions to the community – a lot of which to be proud. However, paving the way was not always glamorous or without challenges.
“My first duty and responsibility as a board member was serving coffee and donuts during the breakfast meetings,” Samson explains. “It was a little demeaning, but I did it, and continued to volunteer for every committee they had.”
This continued perseverance, positive outlook, and commitment to putting in the work led to doors being opened for Samson.
“Back then, women were nurses or teachers or worked in offices – there weren’t many women who were running businesses,” she shares. “I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to work up through the ranks at the bus company along with serving the community.”
Samson credits her job at Hudson Bus Line – especially her former boss, Ken Hudson Sr. – for putting her on the path as a female leader in the community.
“Being taken seriously is a shared theme among female leaders, regardless of industry.”
“Mr. Hudson was very community-oriented and always hoped I’d follow in his footsteps, serving Lewiston,” she explains. “He sort of pushed me into it – I was on the shy side in those days, never dreaming I would serve on a committee, let alone become board chairman.”
Samson’s boss may have helped her get her foot in the door to leadership, but the impact she was able to make was all her own. Through service to the community, Samson began to see a change in herself that she could apply to identifying and filling needs – a change that eventually became a lifelong project for Samson, involving herself and bettering the Chamber, as well as the Community College and Saint Mary’s Hospital through her service and commitment to Lewiston, as a resident and business leader with a female’s perspective.
“Looking back, it’s all very humbling,” Samson admits. “But if it helped – and I hope it did – to some of the ladies that followed in my footsteps and opened doors for them, I’m very happy for it.”
Rarely does someone reach a position of leadership without experiencing obstacles along the way. While these “growing pains” associated with career growth are mostly universal, female leaders are known to experience their own unique sets of challenges.
“Being in a sports bar, it’s harder for men to take you seriously, especially behind the bar,” shares Sweetser. “I had a great support system with my partner, the general manager who promoted me – he had been preparing me for a long time, although I didn’t know it at first. He taught me a lot and involved me in everything so I could run the restaurant.”
CFO, Hebert Construction
Partner/Owner – Gippers Sports Grill
1st Female President – Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce
“you can’t take from your community without giving back because sooner or later, the well will dry. Always leave your community better than what it was when you entered it.”
Being taken seriously is a shared theme among female leaders, regardless of industry.
“I am younger, and I also look younger, which has me constantly feeling like I need to prove myself,” admits Bartlett. “Fortunately, my skillset has helped greatly, and after a few interactions, I’m welcomed at the table.”
While the initial impression may take more effort for women, the perspective and influence cannot be denied, with each female leader leaving a lasting, positive imprint through their work.
“It was a learning process, all of it, serving on different boards, learning the ins and outs of various organizations and their structures,” shares Samson. “Everywhere I went, I tried to make it feel more like a family organization than a strict business, and I would say I succeeded.”
The next generation of leaders
As an old saying goes, ‘when you earn your seat at the table, it becomes your responsibility to make room for others.’ Arguably, this is of utmost importance for women leaders, especially as the landscape continues to evolve and strengthen for each generation.
“In my line of work – and any line of work – flexibility is key,” Sweetser explains. “Maintain control of every situation as best as you can, but try not to see in only black and white – bend and twist and change things up when needed.”
Though accounting and hospitality are different lines of work, the flexibility factor of both is of equal value, especially when it comes to finding new solutions.
“The first idea may not always be the best one, and if you are listening, you may be able to come up with a new, better solution,” shares Bartlett, who is a strong proponent of the power of curiosity. “Ask questions – the hard ones, the silly ones, the mundane ones – and listen to how people answer. You never know what you’ll learn, or how that information could be useful to the business or growing your relationships to people, in the long term.”
For Samson, her mentor’s initial advice still rings clearly in her mind and remains the advice she passes along to others.
“Mr. Hudson always said, ‘you can’t take from your community without giving back because sooner or later, the well will dry,’ and ‘always leave your community better than what it was when you entered it,’” she recalls fondly. “Even to this day, I keep looking at different areas in the community where people can help, and I hope the next generations follow my footsteps and continue to build upon its betterment.”
Gippers Sports Grill
Auburn | gippers.com
Lewiston | hebertconstruction.com
Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce
Lewiston | lametrochamber.com