International Women in Boating re-ignites

By Wanda Kenton Smith

I’m old enough to recall going to boat shows and being only one of a few female executives in attendance. While I’ve always enjoyed the company of male colleagues, I longed to meet other women who shared my career of choice. 

Back in the early ‘90s, I founded International Women in Boating (IWB) with the goal to provide opportunities for women to connect and meet others who shared the same passion for the boating business. IWB experienced a great deal of interest and enthusiasm at launch, thanks to an enthusiastic and hard-working board of directors and a captivated audience who responded favorably to the concept.

Over a few years, the membership grew to more than 300. Annual events were held at the national IMTEC show, along with docktail parties at boat shows around the country. In addition to networking events and professional development initiatives, IWB also launched an inaugural awards program to recognize the outstanding achievement of women in the boating industry.

As the size and scope of the association grew, so did the need for administrative management and funding. The NMMA agreed to assume the administrative function which was initially volunteer-driven. Over time, however, with the departure of key female NMMA executives who had championed the cause and served in leadership roles, the once-robust association lost momentum and staying power.  

Two years ago, I was honored to join the legacy of outstanding women trailblazers and recipients of the Darlene Briggs Woman of the Year award. I was asked by Darlene’s husband Gary if I would consider organizing a group of previous award winners to discuss ways we might work together and give back. Thanks to the support of Liz Walz of the MRAA who helped facilitate conversation, I connected with more than a dozen winners to inquire about interest in organizing. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

I was invited to moderate and manage a women’s leadership panel for the inaugural Boating Industry Elevate Summit in 2019 to share best practices and strategies for career success. I invited five outstanding women executives from different segments of the industry to participate including Angela Pilkington, executive vice president and chief of staff, Correct Craft; Susan Bonivich, Director of Marine Leisure Sales, Volvo Penta of the Americas; Kristin Frohnhoefer, president of Sea Tow International; Keri Doscher, vice president of Emerald Coast Marine Group; and Kathleen Burns, executive director of the Connecticut Marine Trades Association.

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The shared knowledge of these powerhouse women sparked a fire and many in the audience asked how we might replicate this programming elsewhere. In addition, the panelists all remarked how much we had enjoyed working together and learning from one another’s experiences. 

Throttle forward to the 2020 Miami Boat Show. Angela Pilkington, Susan Bonivich and I organized an initial one-hour meet and greet involving a group of 16 women from different segments of the industry to discuss interest in forming a women’s marine leadership association. As I sat at that table, I was truly humbled to hear from many women who have personally inspired me throughout my own 40-year industry career. It was awesome and the response was 100% in favor. 

Post-Miami, an ad hoc steering committee was formed and is underway to review potential association opportunities, administrative and funding requirements and ultimately, to develop initial vision/purpose/positioning statements for consideration. Once the foundation is in place, we plan to host a series of focus groups (likely online) to discuss concept and direction. 

While COVID-19 has slowed down our efforts and timing somewhat, the enthusiasm remains relentless. Joining myself, Angela Pilkington and Susan Bonivich on the executive team is Sr. VP Ann Baldree of Chaparral and Robalo Boats, and Natalie Briggs Carlson (Darlene’s daughter) of the MRAA Foundation.

We’re excited about working with others throughout the marine industry and launching a dynamic new chapter and organization to help promote leadership development, mentoring and networking opportunities. 

If you’re interested in participating in a focus group or would like to be added to our database for future membership plans, please email your contact information – wanda@kentonsmithmarketing.com. 

Wanda Kenton Smith is president of Kenton Smith Marketing, president of Marine Marketers of America and CMO of Emerald Coast Marine Group. For more information: www.kentonsmithmarketing.com.

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