Not the Only Woman in the Room Anymore

by Michelle Jobst, CPMR, Jobst Incorporated

Last year’s Agency Sales articles about MANA’s 75th anniversary allowed me to mull over how MANA, the rep industry, and I have been reinvented over and over during my 29 years as a manufacturers’ rep. I am excited to share my perspective with you on these changes.

When I became a manufacturers’ rep, this was already a great industry, and MANA was its acknowledged gold standard. Today our industry has become even better, and I am proud to say that MANA remains its most important supporter and resource. I know I am not alone in this thinking.

My rep journey began in 1994 at Walter Jobst Associates, a MANA member since 1984 that became Jobst, Incorporated in 1999. I bought the company in 2008 and still serve as its president.

My early memories as a rep include networking meetings with other reps at Minneapolis’ Jax Café, friendly encounters with my counterparts and competitors in the lobbies of our mutual customers, and getting together with other reps at our principals’ sales meetings. Almost without fail, I was the only woman in the room at these gatherings.

Being the only woman in the room came with some challenges, and in 2009 I discovered and joined a Minneapolis organization of women across a wide range of industries who met to discuss running our own businesses. The Business Women’s Circle ( allowed me to connect with other small business owners who often found themselves the only woman in the room.

That same year, I started to earn my Certified Professional Manufacturers’ Representative (CPMR) certification. My CPMR 101 course included approximately 10 women in a class of about 150. In 2010 I was invited to a CPMR Women’s Dinner. It was billed as a fun evening of friendship and networking. Our host was Karen Jefferson, who now owns the rep firm Rocky Mountain TSG. Connecting with my peers at that dinner gave me a new perspective on our industry, and joining a CPMR study group introduced me to several reps who remain my friends and informal advisors to this day.

I earned my CPMR designation in 2011, the same year Charles Cohon became MANA’s CEO and president. A memorable moment of his early term was the launch project to build MANA’s professional development resources. He gave MANA VP and GM Jerry Leth the responsibility to spearhead the project and get feedback from a committee of MANA members that I was invited to join.

Serving on that committee got me noticed, and in 2016 Cohon called me to ask me if I would consider running for a seat on MANA’s Board of Directors. He was eager to have me run. “When women consider joining the rep industry or consider joining MANA, seeing women serving in MANA’s governance sends a message that both our industry and our industry’s trade association will welcome them.”

The irony that, for very good reason, Cohon was inviting me to be the only woman in the room once again was not completely lost on me. But I knew that being the first woman in the room made it easier for other women to join me. Since then, three more women have joined MANA’s Board of Directors:

  • Keynae Agnew, Agnew Pacific Enterprises, LLC, Aliso Viejo, CA
  • Marnee Palladino, MARN, Inc., Middlebury, CT
  • Lisa Wilson, L.S. Wilson & Associates, Bristol, WI

It is empowering and motivating to see other women in the same room.

On May 1, 2017, in MANA’s 70th anniversary year, I joined MANA’s Board of Directors as its first woman member, along with Charlie Ingram of Eriez Manufacturing, the Board’s first manufacturer member. Rockstar!

I later learned that Cohon was looking to make MANA welcoming to anyone involved in the rep industry. He is very supportive of women in leadership roles and saw an opportunity to make the Board reflect the association’s membership. Cohon’s foresight led to the growth of more visibility of women in the organization.

I know how many of you cannot wait to get your Agency Sales magazine. Am I right? It is a very sought-after membership benefit. In 2016, Cohon launched another initiative to reinforce that the rep industry and MANA welcomed women. The number of magazine cover stories that featured women members had been abysmal. So, Cohon worked to have women members appear more frequently in cover stories, starting with Marnee Paladino.

A few months after joining the Board of Directors, I proposed and launched a Special Interest Group (SIG) to encourage women MANA members to connect and network. That group chose its name, A League of Their Own (ALOTO), and continues to meet. Contact Charles Cohon or Jerry Leth for details of recordings of its most recent meetings that are available to MANA rep members.

In 2021, I again did some game-changing: I was elected as chairperson of MANA’s Board of Directors.

From “the Only Woman in the Room” to “Only Women in the Room”

Over the years, I have benefited from women-focused groups like The Business Women’s Circle and rep-focused organizations like MANA and CPMR. However, my colleagues in the women-focused organization had no background in the rep industry. My colleagues in the rep-focused industries were overwhelmingly men. I couldn’t find a resource that focused on both reps and women. So, with the knowledge gained from networking with my connections, I built that group myself.

I planned the first in-person meeting of WomenReps in 2018. This provided woman rep firm business owners an organic place to network and talk shop with a group where we all spoke the same language.

I planned our agenda and conversations around key items related to the independent sales representative firm. We discussed both rep firm and general business topics. Today the organization is called WomenReps, LLC. Our April 2023 meeting will be our fifth event. Now The Business Women’s Circle has built enough interest with female reps to include a Rep Circle.

During these amazing, productive, positive changes in the rep industry and MANA, I had a front-row seat. The things we have accomplished already prove that the future for our industry and our association is bright. I can’t wait to see what the future holds and am proud to be a part of it.

Michelle Jobst, CPMR, is a graduate of the College of St. Catherine, St Paul, Minnesota with degrees in speech communications and international business economics. Jobst has over 20 years’ experience in technical sales; her work history includes experience in customer service and export. She is a member of the Rubber Division, ACS (American Chemical Society) and SPE (Society of Plastic Engineers). While she started working at Jobst Incorporated in 1994, she grew up with the business in her home when her father started out in 1978.

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