Three Columbia-area business women working successfully in male-dominated industries
By April Blake, Haley Kellner and Julie Blevins
Photographs by Tonya Palmer
We tend to marvel at girls who play on their high school football teams, women who fly fighter jets, and female astronauts and firefighters. They go head-to-head with men in ways that require strength and stamina not typically associated with women. But women often break ground working amid men in less visible male-dominated arenas, fighting stereotypes, misogyny and harassment, or simply working harder than their male colleagues to get ahead. Suzanne Brunnemer, Lasenta Lewis-Ellis, and Stephanie Vokral each achieved success among male peers in her own way.
The Family Mann
Suzanne Brunnemer might have started out as daddy’s little girl, but she’s now the Mann in charge at West Columbia’s Mann Tool and Supply. Brunnemer has been serving as the president of the power tool supply store since 2012 and is finally starting to feel like she’s truly in an executive role, despite growing up in her family’s business, one that has been around longer than she has been alive.
Her grandfather started the business in 1944 as Mann Electric. The company has morphed over the years as the family and the needs of the building community changed. But it has been family-owned and operated from the beginning. The company changed in the 1970s from being an exclusively motor-focused company, and since the 1990s has been about 50-50 electric motors and power tools. Brunnemer didn’t originally plan on going into the family business. In fact, she headed to college with plans to become a band director. “I found myself at work more than school, which is how I ended up here,” she said. “I changed my major to marketing and kind of created a role for myself here while still doing the menial tasks I always had.”
Women have to work harder than their male peers
Starting full-time at Mann Tool at the age of 22, she struggled a little bit with the transition from working for dad in the summers to supervising the same people who used to be her work buddies. “That, of course, isn’t a gender-specific problem, but sometimes it’s hard for people to take someone’s little girl seriously, whether it’s from a coworker or a client relationship,” Brunnemer said.
Being taken seriously was one of the few bumps in the road on her way to becoming president of the company. But she pointed out that sometimes confidence comes with age and wisdom. “My dad never told me I’d have to work harder [than a man] to succeed in this business,” she said.
It’s a family affair
These days, you can find Brunnemer in a wide variety of roles around the business, even out on the sales floor discussing the specs of a chainsaw with a customer. But mostly she spends her days using her marketing degree to work on the website, digital projects, anything IT and social media. She also oversees the accounting function of the business, and has a big role in purchasing products and interacting with vendor reps.
Mann Tool is still very much a family affair, too. In addition to continuing the family business herself, she has a cousin who will be her successor down the line. And her husband serves as the general manager. “He treats me like a rock star, and makes sure I can just get to work,” she said. “He’s a huge support to me.”
One big thing that Brunnemer feels she brings to the company now is her unique leadership style and her commitment to con- structing a company culture where every employee recognizes that they can do anything they set their minds to. “I can’t pin down if it’s gender-related or generational — in Dad’s generation, gratitude for a job well-done was a paycheck at the end of the week, and career fulfillment wasn’t thought of like we do today,” she said. “As a woman, it’s important to me to be satisfied in the workplace, and I want my people to want to come to work every day and be just as satisfied when they go home.”
The Construction Model
Lasenta Lewis-Ellis entered the construction industry wanting to build her mother a home. It was her dream. Focused solely on the education needed to accomplish that dream, she says she didn’t really care about anything else. “I didn’t think about what that meant – being a woman or being a Black woman,” she says. “I just knew that it was something that I wanted to do.”
So, she set out to do it, facing obstacles as they came, making space for herself where there wasn’t any. Lacking guidance and
role models in the industry, Lewis-Ellis found mentors in books and workshops, by watching those she admired from afar. And when she struggled to find work despite having three college degrees, Lewis-Ellis created a job for herself.
“I got tired of struggling and not having enough money to take care of my family,” she said. Rather than waiting for someone to recognize her skill set, Lewis-Ellis stepped out on faith to start her own business. Today, LLE Construction Group, LLC provides general contracting, project management and facility maintenance throughout the community, working mainly with local school districts and more recently on residential projects.
Using challenges as lessons with which to mentor other women
Lewis-Ellis became the business leader she is today by facing these challenges, and she wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. But she doesn’t see why those new to the field shouldn’t benefit from lessons she’s already learned. While other professionals seem to shrug at those struggling alone, Lewis-Ellis believes, “It’s okay to share those mistakes with other people, so that they don’t go down that same path.”
Support like this is key to the future Lewis-Ellis envisions for the construction industry. A world where competitors become collaborators, where large companies work with small businesses without extra incentives, and where women are welcomed and supported. It’s a vision Lewis-Ellis sees not only as realistic, but beneficial to the community as a whole, given that businesses working together can better offer the best services possible.
Once again, Lewis-Ellis isn’t waiting for this dream to magically appear. She leads by example, and she enlists other women to do the same. Already, she says, the few women in construction support one another. “We give each other advice. We call each other to see how we’re doing.” And for every woman she’s mentored, Lewis-Ellis hopes a trickle-down effect has begun, building on itself “until eventually we have a good collaborative community” for all.
Stephanie Vokral, founder of The Financial Knot and a certified financial planner, knows money. “What I didn’t know at the time of my divorce in 2004 was ‘divorce money’ and how divorce impacts your future,” she said. Vokral has been a licensed financial advisor since 1998 and spent the last seven years focusing on helping clients navigate the financial complexities of divorce. She has completed a specialized educational program in professional divorce analysis as a certified divorce financial analyst practitioner. She evaluates the tax implications of dividing property and the financial impact of various settlement options for dividing marital property. And she can assist clients in completing their Financial Declaration, assist in mediation, advise on property settlement issues, and more.
Early on in her career, Vokral’s father, who was a stockbroker, encouraged her to choose a financial career at a time when the field was dominated by males. “I wanted to help people,” she said. She faced significant resistance from men early in her career, dealing with everything from blatant sexual harassment to a branch manager who clearly did not want women in an advisor role and actively prevent- ed them from opportunities to advance. Today, no one questions her expertise.
“I’m here to help women during transitions like divorce, retirement, death of a spouse or a job change,” said Vokral. “If a woman has not been the CFO spouse during her marriage, she may be blindsided by the decisions she must make,” said Vokral.
Making finance female-friendly
While the majority of her clients are women, Vokral also works with couples as a financial neutral to settle their financial affairs amicably. “We are dedicated to providing a kinder process for all involved, particularly children. My divorce gave me a passion for families going through divorce and helping them survive it financially. Empowering my clients is rewarding work.” She also aims to keep more money in her client’s pocket instead of wasting money on the litigation process. “In the end, it all comes down to negotiating. The goal is to keep both parties at the table to help them avoid prolonged litigation, if possible.”
Vokral recognizes that women are emotionally overwhelmed during divorce and often reluctant to reach out to a financial profes- sional.
“The perception is that you have to understand your financial picture and be able to communicate it, but you do not. It is our job to gather the data and advise. Women can also be uncomfortable discussing fees and money. We understand because we are women. We help our clients navigate these discussions with grace,” said Vokral. “A woman should consult an attorney to understand her rights, but they are not always the best party to negotiate your finances. Hiring a CDFA and/or a CFP to help protect yourself financially is a wise decision. It is not the role of your attorney to tell you how the decisions in your divorce will affect your financial future. These decisions can impact women for the rest of their lives. We provide advice on what assets will assist them the most to meet their goals.”