With 120+ women from 30 states in attendance, the Women in HVACR (WHVACR) conference did it up Texas-style with big energy, big voices and big enthusiasm.
WHVACR is the first international organization for women in the Heating, Ventilation, Air-conditioning and Refrigeration industry, made up of dynamic women who are making strides in what has typically been a male-driven industry. Members consist of engineers, sales associates, business owners, trainers, support professionals, technicians and students, representing manufacturers, suppliers, contractors and trade organizations in the industry.
This year, for its 14th year, WHVACR had its first stand-alone conference, appropriately themed, “Discover Your Legacy.” A quote from Jamie Munson was displayed high on the projection screen: “Life is full of opportunity. Leadership is about taking those opportunities. Legacy is what you leave behind when you do.”
The legacy of two women, Ruth King and Gwen Hoskins, was called to attention on the first day of the conference. In 2002, during the AHR Expo held in Chicago, King and Hoskins were discussing the increased number of women joining the HVACR industry. They recognized the need for a way to share knowledge and experience through networking while encouraging and supporting one another. Their conversation was the catalyst for the WHVACR organization, still strong and thriving today.
“Every day we build our legacy, we build the road ahead,” said Julie Decker, president of HVACR and national sales manager at Atco, during her opening remarks. “Our future is bold, and it’s bright, ladies. Regardless of the career path, you’re building your legacy every day.”
The welcome reception was held on Wednesday, Sept. 27 where the members of WHVACR had the opportunity to meet each other in a casual, comfortable meet and greet environment at the Reata — a legendary Texas restaurant full of museum quality artifacts from the Old West.
The next morning was opened to registration and a quick networking breakfast leading up to a full day of exploring our legacy at the Tarrant County College for Excellence (TCC), where the WHVACR conference was officially held.
A full day of speakers included Julie Decker, president of WHVACR; Mary Jo Gentry, vice president of WHVACR and marketing communications manager at Yellow Jacket; Kelly Gray, councilwoman of Council District 8 in Fort Worth, Texas; Jessica Mckinny, HARDI ambassador; Rhonda Wiggins, instructor at Hennepin Technical College; Melissa Santillan, inside sales at A/C Supply; Matt Michel, president at Service Roundtable; and Elizabeth McCormick, former U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter pilot, as the keynote speaker.
After the president’s welcome, Mary Jo Gentry took the stage to congratulate the recipients of three $2,000 scholarships available through WHVACR: Monica Urquides from Antioch, California; Karin Dahlin from Minneapolis, Minnesota; and in attendance at the conference, Samantha Hacker of Baltimore, Maryland.
Gentry reminded us all the importance of talking about the scholarships available, and to encourage women to not only consider a career in the industry, but to also take advantage of the scholarship funds and networking opportunities through WHVACR. If you are or know a female currently enrolled in a trade or technical school, or if you are or know a female high-school senior or older preparing to enter the HVACR industry either through a technical college, trade school, or related degree in a four-year college, with an accumulative GPA of 2.0 or greater, you or they may apply at www.womeninhvacr.org.
Next at the podium was Councilwoman Kelly Gray. Gray echoed the previous call for spreading awareness. “As you are here in my city that I love, take one thing with you,” she said. “Find a young girl to mentor. Talk about what you do and who you are. Tell her that what you do leaves an impact in hers and others’ lives. As an organization, you have an obligation to go to high schools, colleges and other institutions, to talk to young girls and women about what you do and how great it is.”
The next speaker, Rhonda Williams, talked about how great it is to work in the HVACR industry, but also to teach young minds how to do it.
She began her career as a welder/boiler mechanic on the East Coast more than 30 years ago, and has since worked in both residential and commercial HVACR service. She holds several professional licenses including Master Refrigeration, Master Gas Fitter, 1st Class B Boilers and MN Power Limited Electrical.
“I am barely young enough at 53 to be allowed to take a high school workshop,” she tells the crowd. “Women who are one year older than me were told, ‘No, you can’t.’”
Wiggins shared her story with the group hoping to discover her legacy at the end of it. She stressed the importance of taking pride in your work and passing that happiness on to others. She said, “My work is teaching, and my students are my customers, and so to be blessed to share my knowledge with them is my legacy.”
The next speaker was a student who benefited from this similar understanding. Melissa Santillan graduated from TCC with an associates of applied science degree as a residential installation technician last year.
“I’m one of those theoretical women you’ve all brought up throughout this conference,” she said. “And I’m here to tell you that we need more!” With confidence and enthusiasm, Santillan invited the women to stand up and play a game of “rock, paper, scissors.” Every one of the 120+ women stood up to listen to her instructions. “Start by playing with the person next to you,” she said. “If you win that game, move on to the next person. If you lose that game, you must now become the cheerleader for the woman who won. Keep going until we have only two women left.” And just like that, it was a room full of women cheering each other on.
The room was energized and ready for the final speaker, Elizabeth McCormick.
She advocated for being one’s own cheerleader, but also agreed with Santillan. “If you don’t set yourself up for success, then who will? But don’t just be your own cheerleader, do it for other women around you. When we help other women succeed, we all succeed.”
As a former U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter pilot, McCormick flew command and control, air assault, rappelling, top-secret intelligence missions, and also transported high-level government VIPs including the Secretary of Defense. Her resume was quite impressive, but she started off by telling the crowd, “I almost didn’t become a pilot because I was told, ‘You can’t’”
“If you’re told no,” she said, “ask ‘why not?’ Your future is your responsibility.”
What started as a conversation some 15 years ago, today is an international organization meant to inspire, encourage and support women in the HVACR industry.
WHVACR offer its members online and in-person networking opportunities, education and training resources, a mentoring program, newsletters and an annual conference. To find out more about the organization and to get involved, visit www.womeninhvacr.org.