November 29, 2016
thought leaders | The DC Velocity Q & A

Mission control: interview with Sheila Benny

Mission control: interview with Sheila Benny

Optricity's Sheila Benny has made it her personal mission to give back to the supply chain community through mentoring young people and leading an industry association.

By Susan K. Lacefield

In one of her last acts as president of the Warehousing Education and Research Council (WERC), Sheila Benny stood before attendees at the group's 2016 annual conference and urged them to remember that they and their supply chains help save lives. After all, it is supply chains in general that ensure that the necessities of life—such as food, medicine, water, clothes, and fuel—get to the people who need them.

Benny, who is an executive vice president and founding member of the slotting optimization software company Optricity, tries to spread this message wherever she goes, especially through her work in industry associations and in mentoring the next generation of supply chain leaders.

Benny's own first mentor was her father, an engineer with the space program. He encouraged her even as a small child to tinker with nuts and bolts, and engaged her in what he called "big picture talks." But side by side with her engineering genes was an intrinsic desire to help people and give back to the community.

Through her career in supply chain management—first with the consulting firm Tompkins Associates and later with software companies like Performance Analysis Group, Manhattan Associates, and now Optricity—Benny has found a way to engage this analytical "big-picture thinking" side for the greater good. That the supply chain can provide an avenue for both is an insight she tries to share with young people in general (and young women in particular) who are considering careers in the field.

DCV Editor at Large Susan Lacefield recently caught up with Benny by phone to talk about her career, the value of industry associations and mentoring programs, and the ongoing fight between her left brain and right brain.

Q: I understand you graduated with a degree in industrial engineering from North Carolina State. How did you first become involved in supply chain management, and what attracted you to the field?

A: Probably like many people, I just happened into the field. I had the good fortune of being steered into getting a degree in industrial engineering by my father, who was himself an engineer. But my heart as a young person was really in the nonprofit world. I really wanted to make my mark in helping people, and I was passionate about volunteer work. Once I got into engineering, I found I really liked the people and process work. I found out I had a little more of an engineer in me than I realized.

After undergrad, I went directly into the M.B.A. program at [the University of North] Carolina and did my summer work with Jim Tompkins [founder of the supply chain consulting company Tompkins International (Tompkins)]. Once on board with Tompkins, I had the good fortune to work in areas beyond the scope of traditional engineering work, like helping Jim publish his books and market his brand. Then, I had the chance to support Tompkins' expansion internationally. Because of that, I gained broad industry experience, and my career was born.

Jim used to say he loved watching my left brain fight with my right brain, and I guess that's me in a nutshell. I always was an engineer at heart, ever since I was a kid. My dad worked in the space program in Melbourne, Fla. He would come home from Cape Canaveral with these giant nuts and bolts, and I would play with them as a toddler. I guess I was an engineer from the start, but I had to find myself, and I found myself in supply chain.

Q: I love the idea of your left brain fighting with your right brain. Can you explain what that's about?

A: I think it's about really loving the people side of things but also having a very analytical approach to life and problem solving. Supply chain allows you to be very analytical while taking into account real-life challenges that people face every day. That's definitely where I function best, where the two intersect.

Q: What continues to attract you to the field today?

A: One of the things I love best about being in supply chain today is working as an entrepreneur [with the warehouse software company Optricity]. I have the opportunity to be a leader and be at the forefront of technology. Many people outside of supply chain don't understand that this is very much a technology field.

Upon returning to the industry 11 years ago [after a hiatus working in another field], my partners [Dan Basmajian and Chuck Grissom] and I recognized that slotting optimization had not kept up with the pace of change. Instead, other technologies had taken a front seat in terms of what was driving the market. Our software initiatives sparked the slotting market space to come alive again. That was exciting. It's a great industry if you want to be a market creator, a market maker, and a technology driver. If you want to make a difference in the world, you really can find that space in supply chain.

Q: Over the years, you have been heavily involved in the Warehousing Education and Research Council (WERC), including serving as the group's president. Why do you feel it is important to become involved in industry associations?

A: Industry associations provide a platform to serve our professional communities. Associations support our professional development and provide mentorship opportunities to people who are just starting out or making a career change. That's critical if we are going to develop the resources needed in the future. From an economic standpoint, we have to grow human capital resources or the industry will be shorthanded in the future. From a social standpoint, [mentoring and helping young professionals develop their careers] is a fundamental responsibility, in my opinion.

From my very earliest days, I have been a person who cares about community service. Industry associations offer the opportunity to give back, a place where I have a true passion. WERC offered a merger of all of those areas for me.

Q: You've mentioned your experiences with mentorship. Can you talk a little about mentoring and its benefits?

A: I think of mentors a little differently than other people do. I don't think of mentorship as being linear in nature, where the mentor is always a senior person. For example, I might receive mentoring from a younger person in my organization or provide mentoring to a colleague in a comparable position. To me, mentoring can be delivered over time or just in nourishing moments. Mentor moments are "aha moments" that provide a new piece of information or inspiration that requires you to look at things with fresh eyes; that insight can come from a younger person, someone outside the industry, or from someone like my daughter, who's one of the strongest and most influential people I know.

Q: How have things changed since you started out in logistics and supply chain management?

A: Certainly there are more women in the industry today. I am thrilled to have fantastic leaders who are women in my own organization as well as who serve on the board of directors with me at WERC. And I'm also delighted to have met influential women like Nancy Nix through the AWESOME [Achieving Women's Excellence in Supply Chain Operations, Management, and Education] network [where Nix serves as executive director]. These leaders have inspired me to be my best self and think about what kind of role model I want to be.

Equally, men in the industry today are inspiring change. Today, we have men and women who are collaborating and encouraging all of us to be our best selves and give more to the industry. I think we have more people looking out for each other.

Q: What do you think we can do to encourage more young people in general, but specifically young women, to pursue leadership roles in supply chain management?

A: One-on-one education is key. We must communicate, educate, and activate the next generation so they understand what opportunities are available in the supply chain field.

For example, we must be active in industry associations, reach out to our own networks, and better communicate professional opportunities. We have to make sure we don't get so busy in our careers that we lose sight of our role in educating the next generation. Among other things, this means creating awareness among talented young women that there are exciting technology opportunities in the supply chain field, like optimization software or data analytics, to name just a couple. Otherwise, we will be missing out on the best and brightest. Education, activation, and one-on-one support: That's where the rubber meets the road.

Q: How can a person find ways to provide this one-on-one support?

A: This type of dedicated support really comes down to one-on-one purpose-driven "mission work." For example, I make it a proactive goal of mine to engage with the next generation. I'm involved with the Global Supply Chain program advisory council for Wake Technical Community College, a local school that has a logistics and distribution-focused curriculum. I am actively connected with both the students and faculty, and provide input regarding industry needs. In addition, I proactively seek the best and brightest talent for my own organization, Optricity.

I am personally committed to reaching out and connecting with people who have both creative and analytical minds to encourage them to consider the distribution and supply chain field. Each one of us has to find our own niche, whether that's by taking a leadership position in a professional organization, developing a one-on-one relationship with a young person, or simply exchanging mentor moments whenever possible. Support is activated when each of us as individuals converts our own commitments into habits.

About the Author

Susan K. Lacefield
Senior Editor
Susan Lacefield has been working for supply chain publications since 1999. Before joining DC VELOCITY, she was an associate editor for Supply Chain Management Review and wrote for Logistics Management magazine. She holds a master's degree in English.

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