It's been a while since Eleanor Rogan has sold any electrical supplies, but she remembers those years fondly, thanks in large part to the IBEW.
|In Michigan, President Biden tours the Pfizer plant that rolled out the nation’s first COVID-19 vaccines. Describing the steps of the precision operation and praising the unionized workers who carry it out, he said, “We walked by a freezer farm that keeps those doses viable so they can be shipped.” The warehouse he referred to was retrofitted with hundreds of industrial, sub-zero freezers by Kalamazoo Local 131 members.
“Going to work was like going to family," said the New York Local 3 retiree. "That was a good deal."
Rogan worked for Kennedy Electric as a sales representative at a time when no other women were doing so. She had women coworkers in the office, but in the field, it was just her and all-male engineering departments and designers. Like a lot of women from her generation — she's now 91 — she didn't give much thought at the time to what her rarified role meant for future generations of her gender. She was too busy making sales. Still, she knew that she couldn't play by the same rules as her male counterparts.
"I couldn't be buddy-buddy with the clients like the men could," Rogan said. "I had to figure out a different way of how to get them comfortable with me. But eventually we'd get there."
She had help from Kennedy Electric, which gave her clients like Bloomingdale's, Lord and Taylor, and Marriot. Places where it wasn't quite so unusual to see a woman.
"They were very strategic about where they put me," Rogan said. "There were some clients who wouldn't go for it, complaining that they couldn't swear around me, so I went to a lot of department stores."
Regardless of the client, Rogan says she always did her homework. She knew her products inside and out, and her clients knew that too. When the Empire State Building first started using colored lights, it was Rogan who provided them. If somebody needed a special cable, she got on the phone and called around until she found it, sometimes even saving the customer money. If they needed a new design, she went out of her way to make sure they got what they wanted.
"It's a matter of personal repertoire," Rogan said. "You had to get their trust and get them comfortable with you, then you'd get the orders."
One thing she did was to bring plastic containers of hard candy with her when she'd visit her clients. The sweets were so popular, she said, that she had to bring separate batches for each department because they never shared them.
"It was a calling card," Rogan said. "A little personal touch."
Part of the job involved taking clients to lunch, and of course paying for the meal. But during Rogan's time, it was practically unheard of for a woman to take on that role.
"I doubt any of those men had ever allowed or even thought of allowing a woman to pick up a check, but there was no way my mother was going to let the client pay," said Rogan's daughter, Barbara.
Sometimes she'd work out a plan in advance with the maître d. Other times she'd use a little humor.
"Sometimes I'd joke with them and say, 'How else would I get all these handsome men around me if I didn't pay?'" Rogan said.
Once Rogan had established a relationship with her clients, and they no longer felt embarrassed about having a woman pick up the tab, she ended up making lasting friendships, and even got to know their families. On one occasion, she was able to help an old client who was out of work land a new job, as chief engineer at Lord & Taylor. He never forgot that, Rogan said. Even when they talked on the phone years later, he immediately recognized her voice.
"She's a nice person and relationships matter," Barbara Rogan said. "She brought what women often bring to the job, heart as well as brains."
There's little doubt that her mere presence was enough to make an impact, as evidenced at a GE conference she once attended.
"I remember a man telling me that he'd never even thought about having a woman as a sales rep until he saw me," Rogan said. "He said it really opened his eyes."
Of course, not all days were victories. During her more challenging moments, Rogan said she was usually able to shake it off and keep things in perspective.
"If I was having a hard day, I'd look at it like, 'OK, that is what it is. And it's just for the moment.'"
But there were also times when being a woman may have been an asset.
"Sometimes a guy would just start telling me his life story. I don't know if it was guilt for the gushing or just feeling better after, but a lot of times those calls would end with a sale too," Rogan said.
The New York native jokes that she started working for Kennedy Electric before the computers did, and remembers when the machines took up an entire air-conditioned room. A lot has changed since then, both for women and electronics, and she says she's glad that she got the chance to blaze a few trails.
"They just didn't know what to do with a woman back then. They had to learn how to get used to me. But I enjoyed breaking barriers," she said.
The example she set influenced her daughters too, said Barbara Rogan.
"My parents had three daughters and told all of them that they could be whatever they chose to be. We didn't need telling though, because we'd seen our mother walk the walk," said Barbara. "We learned early that there's no such thing as men's work or women's work. You use your capabilities and you don't let other people's assumptions stand in your way."
Rogan's advice to women going into sales comes down to the basics: know your product, enjoy the company and be aware of the competition. And don't be afraid to push for what you need.
"You have to be sure of yourself. And if you don't know the answer, just say, 'let me make a call,'" Rogan said. "It can be a little scary sometimes, but you don't let anybody see."
Rogan says she's fortunate to have had the IBEW in her corner, including now in her retirement.
"I've always dealt with lovely people at the IBEW," she said. "There's never been a time when they haven't been able to help me. I have nothing but kudos for the union."
Sometimes she misses her old job though, especially the camaraderie and talking to people.
"It was a lot of fun while it lasted," Rogan said. "I made a lot of friends. And if I opened a door or two for a few more women, that's a great thing."