LAS VEGAS — As more companies recognize — and take action on — the need for diversity in the workforce, PMMI’s Packaging and Processing Women’s Leadership Network (PPWLN) explored the implications of gender in mentorship as more women step into leadership roles throughout manufacturing.

During PPWLN’s networking event at Pack Expo, a panel of industry professionals, moderated by Stephanie Neil, editor in chief of OEM magazine, discussed what mentorship looks like within the evolving context of diversity and inclusion

Panelists included Tracey Noonan, founder of Wicked Good Cupcakes; Sharron Gilbert, president and CEO of Septimatech Group; Jan Tharp, president and CEO of Bumble Bee Seafood Co.; and Yolanda Malone, VP of global RD Foods at PepsiCo.

For all employees, flexibility and understanding the specific needs for advancement are top of mind at PepsiCo, according to Malone.

“I think the culture really helps to set that tone,” she said. “It’s about walking the walk and talking the talk. That’s what we’re striving to do, to ensure we’re not just saying, ‘It’s really nice to have a diverse leadership team.’ We’re actually showing that we’re serious about it and hiring diverse leaders.”

As more women are recognized as potential leaders in manufacturing, organizations such as the Manufacturing Institute, which operates its STEP Women’s Initiative, have emphasized a need for more women to mentor other women.

For Neil, it begged the question, are men as effective mentors for women as other women are, or should gender even be a factor?

From Noonan’s perspective, it’s all about the experience of the mentor. When she first launched Wicked Good Cupcakes, there were times when she wasn’t taken seriously as a business owner because of the product she sold.

“People would actually call me ‘cupcake,’ and it made me so angry,” she recalled.

But that changed when she received an investment from Shark Tank’s Kevin O’Leary, who has publicly shared his propensity to invest in female entrepreneurs.

“I do think men can successfully mentor women when they’re comfortable in their own skin,” she said.


“I do think men can successfully mentor women when they’re comfortable in their own skin,” said Tracey Noonan, founder of Wicked Good Cupcakes.


Malone emphasized that, it’s about surrounding yourself with people who will give you honest and constructive feedback, and that often calls for balance.

“I call them my ‘personal board,’ and they’re both male and female,” she said.

They consist of peers from other companies as well as current or former coworkers, and they’re all people who know her well enough to have open and candid conversations.

“When I have something to think about and need to talk about it, I call my personal board. And I don’t necessarily call them one at a time; I might cooperate with them collectively because I need a balanced approach. Am I thinking about this strategically? Am I missing something? Did I go off task? And my board can course correct me.”

At its core, mentorship is focused on those who can help a person grow personally and professionally.

“You need people who will be honest with you, and it doesn’t matter if they’re male or female, or even at a CEO level or someone who works for you,” Tharp said. “It can be anyone. It’s the honesty that you want.”

In looking at gender gaps in the workforce, aligning mentorship solely by gender can actually be counterintuitive to diversity goals. For women to excel in the workplace, diversity of thought is critical, and that applies to their mentors as well.

For more information on PMMI’s PPWLN, visit