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Celebrating Female Leaders in the Cotton Industry on International Women's Day

Celebrating Female Leaders in the Cotton Industry on International Women's Day

March 8th, International Women’s Day, is a globally recognized day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. In the typically male-dominated world of farming the cotton farming industry today is made better by the women working hard, leading the industry and making significant advancements in Agriculture, Business and Sustainability initiatives. According to the UN’s FAO Director-General, QU Dongyu¹, “100 million families in almost 80 countries supported by cotton” and he furthers that, “nearly half of the world’s 32 million cotton farmers are women.”

This year on International Women’s Day, we are delighted to highlight just some of the incredible women on The Cotton Board, who are trailblazers in the cotton industry. Read their inspiring stories below.

Sonja Chapman, Cotton Board Chairwoman

Sonja Chapman

"Technology, political conditions and regulations are always changing. It forces you to rethink processes and keeps work from becoming boring."

Sonja is the Cotton Board Chairwoman and has been involved in the industry for forty years. She wears many hats, such as being a cotton importer, an Associate Professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, a consultant in Global Supply Chain Management, and a Licensed Customhouse Broker. She got her start by working for a blouse manufacturer as an administrative assistant to the CFO. Sonja remarks, “I had not quite figured out my career path at that point.” The chance to expand into an import managers position opened up, and she was offered the opportunity to learn the role. She remembers, “I took the opening, loved the work, and continued to pursue professional education and mentorship.” Later in her career, a mentor recommended her to the Department of International Trade and Marketing in the Baker School of Business at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and the rest is history. When asked what her favorite part of her job is, she said “Technology, political conditions and regulations are always changing. It forces you to rethink processes and keeps work from becoming boring. Transportation, Customs Regulations and Compliance seem like very dry subjects but there is a great deal of creativity that can be exercised in analyzing and solving problems for businesses struggling in these areas.” The cotton industry is everchanging, just like nature. A fun fact she shared is that being an educator significantly improved her presentation skills. She furthers, “This has helped me a great deal in my role as Cotton Board Chair and in my professional engagements.”

Rebecca Thom, Fourth Generation Cotton Farmer

Rebecca Thom

“There’s nothing more beautiful than a defoliated cotton field! It’s like Christmas in September!"

Rebecca is a Cotton Farmer from Lake Providence, Louisiana and serves as a Cotton Board Alternate Member who has been in the industry for ten years. However, her experience in farming far exceeds that! Rebecca is a 4th generation farmer, born into the industry. Her grandfather, Harvey Howington, was the initial founder of their farm, which expanded upon by her father, James A. Thom IV. Her brother was then trained and appointed to take over the farm next, but he decided it wasn’t for him. Fast forward ten years later, Rebecca was living in Baton Rouge and working at a plant nursery as a manager and doing landscape design when her father asked if she’d like to come back home to the farm. She said yes and reflects that, “It was the best decision I ever made.”

Today, she couldn’t be happier with where she ended up. She says, “farming isn’t for everybody but, when you love it, you LOVE it!” When she came back home to manage the farm, she learned everything from scratch. She recalls how she, “pulled trailers, hauled seed, hoed weeds, walked poly pipe [a pipe used to irrigate fields], learned the back hoe, the track hoe, the disc, hipper, sprayer, planter, fertilizer rig, irrigation, grain carts, boll buggy, 18-wheelers, module builder, combine and the list goes on.” She furthers, “I’m part of a perfect circle in which I get to see the fruits of our labor. Throughout the season, I get to ride around and see what WE did, our crew as a whole! We fertilize it, water it, get rid of the weeds and insects. And I watch it grow!” Rebecca shows us how farming can be an incredible amount of mental and physical hard work, but how it is so rewarding in the end. She also remarks, “There’s nothing more beautiful than a defoliated cotton field! It’s like Christmas in September! And then we harvest the fruits of all of our labor, what we worked for tirelessly the whole year just to do it all over again. And every year is different. Next year could be even better!” Hard work sure pays off. A fun fact about farming that Rebecca shared is that you’ll rarely ever hear a farmer say is that they like to change water, but that she enjoys it. She explains, “Changing water (when irrigating with poly pipe) can be a bit of a chore. It either means opening/closing gates or plugging/popping holes down a poly-pipe line that’s often muddy. Yes, running into the occasional snake used to scare me but, now that I have knee high mud boots and my ear buds, it’s my country version of going to the gym!” Rebecca sounds braver than most!

Emily Gigot, Senior Manager of Sustainability at Sanmar

Emily Gigot1

"It truly is a team sport, and as we work to meet our sustainability goals, I am grateful for the chance to learn about different departments of our business and work with such a diversity of people and teams.”

Emily Gigot has been active in the cotton industry for over ten years, with many roles such as a Cotton Importer, Cotton Board Member, and current Senior Manager of Sustainability at Sanmar. From the beginning, Emily was initially drawn to the apparel side of the industry because she loved the creativity and admires how, “Clothing serves as a form of self-expression for so many.” After several years of working in apparel, she began focusing on sustainability because she, “Saw the opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of people around the world, especially women, when we stop focusing solely on profit and integrate our social and environmental impacts with core business functions.” She found a deeper meaning in the power and impact of materiality, and how choosing to work with natural fibers like cotton can be more eco-conscious. Her favorite part of her work is the opportunity to make impact across an organization. She explains, “It truly is a team sport, and as we work to meet our sustainability goals, I am grateful for the chance to learn about different departments of our business and work with such a diversity of people and teams.” With a positive mission and a willingness to work together with a team, Emily leads sustainability initiatives forward and makes a real difference.

Barbara Buhr, SVP Global Sourcing, Destination XL

Final BARBARA BUHR 121420 049 B T

“I have been very lucky to have had the opportunity to travel to places around the globe, understand different cultures, and continue to grow and learn new things every day. No day is ever the same, our industry is quickly changing and ever evolving.”

Barbara Buhr has worked in the cotton industry for thirty years, as a Cotton Importer, Cotton Board Member, and as the SVP of Global Sourcing for the clothing brand Destination XL (DXL). She got her start in the industry by studying textiles and design at NC State University. Her first job out of college was her dream job in NYC with Burlington Industries. Throughout her career, she has worked in many roles at different organizations and remarks, “I have been very lucky to have had the opportunity to travel to places around the globe, understand different cultures, and continue to grow and learn new things every day. No day is ever the same, our industry is quickly changing and ever evolving.” Her current role is at Destination XL (DXL), which is the leading retailer of Men’s Big + Tall apparel. Barbara leads DXL Global Sourcing, Technical Design, and Compliance teams to ensure that product is procured with the best materials, the best quality and are ethically sourced. That’s a big job! She explains, “I work with a very creative and talented group of subject matter experts that are focused on serving our guest.” When asked more about her experience at DXL, she remarks, “What I love most about my role at DXL is having the ability to affect change. Changing people’s lives for the better whether it be supporting workers’ rights in our factories and mills, to spending time in stores with our guests and outfitting them with clothes that allow him to wear what he wants.” Barbara has infused sustainability into her approach to deliver the best apparel experience to DXL customers, and drives positive change in her leadership role within the industry.

Kathy Fowler, Fourth Generation Cotton Farmer

Kathy Fowler

"My goal has always been to leave whatever I do better than I found it – and to pass it on to the next generation."

Kathy Fowler is a Cotton Board Alternate Member and fourth-generation cotton producer who has had a passion for farming cotton since 1980. Kathy works in Memphis, TX and got her start as an expert module [cotton bale] relocation technician (a module truck driver). This endeavor helped her save enough money to buy her crop insurance agency in 1988, and the rest is history. Today, Kathy says that she enjoys the agribusiness side of the industry the most. She expresses that serving on The Cotton Board as an alternate has provided her with additional insight into the importance of other segments in the industry, beyond farming. She enjoys collaborating and learning from other cotton producers and cotton industry professionals. She says, “It is exciting to look to the future for the next generation and understand the importance of setting the stage with technology, data, and innovation.” Being forward- thinking and well informed are key leadership qualities that Kathy brings to the Board. When asked more about her experience in the industry, she reflects, “cotton farming is a risky business, but the win is always gratifying. My goal has always been to leave whatever I do better than I found it – and to pass it on to the next generation.” What an inspiring mission!

Sonja, Rebecca, Emily, Barbara, and Kathy are exemplary examples of women who have carved their own paths in the industry to lead with purpose to advance the cotton industry. We are so grateful for their hard work and the immense impact. We’d like to celebrate their achievements and the profound difference they have today on International Women’s Day and every day!

¹Dongyu, QU, director. Celebration of World Cotton Day 2022 “Weaving a Better Future for Cotton.” Celebration of World Cotton Day 2022, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 7 Oct. 2022, https://www.fao.org/webcast/ho.... Accessed 28 Feb. 2023.