As technology advances at lightning speed, the gender and diversity gap in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields continues to widen. Women make up 50 percent of the labor market but only 28 percent of the STEM field. And, only 1 out of 20 scientists and engineers are Black or Latina women.
Attributing factors include the following.
Finally, a hidden issue plagues the STEM industry: personal protective equipment (PPE) designed for men. How can women dress confidently and portray a professional image when faced with oversized clothing, boots, and safety gear. As a female engineer, Ana Kraft experienced this dilemma daily and decided to do something about it.
Ana Kraft to the Rescue
In my book, The B Words: 13 Words Every Woman Must Navigate for Success, I discuss 13 words women must navigate, and Ms. Kraft is living the B-word, "badass," as she founded Xena Workwear to provide women with stylish, comfortable safety shoes that never existed on the market so they can finally feel confident and express their personalities at work. Ms. Kraft's vision is to increase the number of women in STEM and the trades by strengthening the community of female leaders and inspiring more girls to explore these well-paid careers.
What follows is an interview with her.
Tricia Kagerer (TK): Tell me about your journey and why you decided to start the Xena Workwear company?
AK: I started the company out of frustration. It all started with the shoes. I was the youngest, only female project manager leading planning sessions for multimillion-dollar projects. Yet, every day, I either put on my ill-fitting, uncomfortable, oversized boots and dressed like a lumberjack, or I dressed professionally but had to take a detour back to my office to change my shoes each time I entered the production floor. It was a distraction and a deterrent. After complaining for years, I finally decided to do something about it. And that is how Xena Workwear was born.
We officially launched our business in May of 2019 with two models in two colors. The response was overwhelming. By word of mouth, orders flooded in from around the world. We have received orders from 5 different countries and all 50 states.
We also set up an active Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/groups/xenamoves) to align our product development to meet our customers' needs. Our latest design—the Omega boot—provides ankle coverage and a lower heel and is designed based on our customer requests.
TK. What are your Five Leadership Lessons?
AK: Lesson 1: Build the Right Team
Inspired by the Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, I wanted to build a team of self-starters. I believe when you have the right people in the right seats and give them the right tools and autonomy to do what they do best, you will see great results.
Lesson 2: Value Transparency and Communication
I value honest and direct communication. It is probably my German way that can sometimes be difficult to handle, but instead of sugarcoating things, I directly express what I like or dislike and expect the same from my team.
Lesson 3: Implement a Strong Routine That Works Best for You
We all have different biorhythms and perform best at other times of the day. Although I am a night owl and do most of my creative work in the evening, I found it very helpful to have a better morning routine that will set me up for a successful day. Before I check emails and start dealing with problems, I do a workout, a meditation, and review my daily goals. Only then, I begin tackling the most important tasks right away and try to get them done before noon.
Lesson 4: Focus on Becoming a Better Version of Yourself
Instead of getting distracted by comparing yourself to the competition and other people, it helped us focus on what we do best: developing high-quality products based on women's input and providing excellent customer service.
Lesson 5: Take a Break To Recharge
In the beginning, we worked every single day of the week. I quickly realized that productivity goes down if you don't allow your body and mind to recharge. Now, I take 1 full day off every week to start my new week focused and energized.
TK: What are some of the unique challenges that women face when "dressing" for work in nontraditional roles? How does it impact a woman's self-confidence?
AK: Historically, safety PPE for women followed the "shrink it and pink it" philosophy. Ill-fitting pink PPE can undermine a woman's confidence and become a distraction. As a project manager, I was the only female, leading a multimillion-dollar team. I have been fortunate to have very positive experiences as the only woman on the team, but I did have to work harder to prove myself, and self-confidence is a big part of success.
TK: Each Xena box has a quote. What inspired you to choose that quote?
AK: A lot of thought went into that quote. It reflects what we stand for as a company.
- Be safe. Safety is the number one priority at work. And, by providing PPE women love, we hope to create and enhance safety.
- Be you. Be yourself and express your own personality. Embrace all aspects of yourself.
- Be a badass. Women pursuing STEM fields have very few role models, and they are a bit rebellious. They are embarking on the unpaved path. They live life on their own terms.
TK: COVID has drastically impacted women in the workplace. Has your company been impacted? What are some recommendations for others?
AK: The COVID pandemic has drastically impacted our sales for the first half of 2020. As a new company, it could have been devastating. And yet, we are still here, and we are going strong.
I have learned to focus on the positive. We launched our Sheroes campaign blog, where we highlight the less-covered stories of women who are doing everything from building face masks to replenishing our food supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
TK: What is next for Xena Workwear?
AK: We just launched the Everywhere Blazer that is designed for women in the field and on the manufacturing floor. The Everywhere Blazer combines high functionality of a utility jacket with the stylish looks of a professional blazer. It's the perfect piece for women on the move who want to feel confident in any setting. The new riding boot, Nova EH, was inspired by the sleek form of equestrian boots that will elevate workstyles year-round, with flexible elastic that accommodates narrow-to-wide feet and narrow-to-medium calves.
We will continue to listen to our customers and design boots that are functional and beautiful so women can finally be themselves as they pursue their career aspirations. After all, Cinderella did get one thing right: "A pair of shoes can change your life!"