Dare to dream – and be sure to let others know
Sharon Hoffman-Manning ’79 did well at Procter and Gamble.
Within four years of joining the company with a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Rochester, she had earned a master’s degree in finance from Loyola University, taking classes at night while steadily expanding her responsibilities as a project manager and shift supervisor.
One day, her boss asked her what she wanted from her career.
“I want to manage a plant,” she replied, knowing full well that only one or two women had ever held that position in the company.
Her boss went down the hall to talk to his manager, then came back and said, “You know, there’s no reason why you can’t,” Hoffman-Manning recalls. “So just hang on,” he told her, “and something will happen.”
Did it ever. Hoffman not only managed one plant, and then another with Procter and Gamble. She then joined Johnson & Johnson, eventually directing a sprawling global supply chain for the company’s entire portfolio of over-the-counter medicines.
This included well-known brand names such as Tylenol and Motrin. Imodium. Nicorette. Sudafed. Zyrtec. Visine.
“I was responsible for the whole process of taking the commercial innovation ideas and translating them into actual products,” she says. “I had to listen very carefully to the strategic plan, be sure we had supply, and work with everybody across the supply chain to make sure everything was reliable and of the best quality.”
Now, Hoffman-Manning looks back at that conversation with her boss at Procter and Gamble as a pivotal moment.
“I feel like if I hadn’t spoken up—hadn’t gotten those words out of my mouth and said this is my dream—I don’t know if it all would have happened.”
So Hoffman-Manning shares this advice for women in STEM-related fields: Dare to dream. But also be sure to “tell people about your dream, and it can come true.”
This is exactly what Hoffman-Manning has done since an early age.
Learning how to get at the ‘root cause’
While attending high school in Pittsburgh, for example, she became interested in math and biology. She learned about a two-week oceanography camp in the Florida Keys where students could learn about the effects of pollution on the coral reefs.
“I convinced my parents that I should go to this,” Hoffmann-Manning says. “I learned to scuba dive. I could go under water and see how the development that was taking place on land was affecting what people couldn’t see in the coral reefs under water. I was really interested in how we can do what’s right for economic growth but also protect the environment.”
She began thinking about a career in what was then a newly emerging field in environmental engineering.
Her father, a civil engineer, was initially skeptical. “At first he said, ‘do you really think this is a good career for a woman, do you really think you should do engineering?’ But once he saw the opportunities, and saw that I was really interested, he became a million percent supportive, and was a huge guide and mentor to me,” Hoffman-Manning says.
Her AP biology teacher, a woman, nominated her for a science scholarship at the University of Rochester. Hoffman enrolled in 1975 and was advised that a major in chemical engineering would be more recognizable to employers and open up more career opportunities.
The cohort of women engineering students she joined at the University was one of the first of any size in its history.
“It was great,” she says. “It was extremely challenging.” She bonded closely with the handful of women undergraduates in chemical engineering (7 of the 25 CHE majors in the Class of ’79 were female), making lifelong friends in the process. She was a founding member and treasurer, then president of Delta Zeta sorority, the first national sorority to organize at the University.
Mostly important, she says, were the problem-solving skills she acquired – skills that would serve her well in her career, as it has the other University of Rochester engineering graduates she has talked to.
“We knew there was always a tangible reason, down to the molecular level, of why something was happening. It made us persistent in wanting to get at the root cause of a problem. And if you had to look at something under an electron microscope to see what the molecules were doing, that’s where you had to go.”
There have been many instances since, she says, when that training has guided her in the tough decisions she has had to make. For example, ordering a plant to shut down temporarily to pinpoint and remedy a flaw in a manufacturing process rather than risk an accident. “I think that ability came from the engineering program we had at the University of Rochester. We were held accountable to solve problems that way,” Hoffman-Manning says.
Something else important happened to her at the University of Rochester. During her junior year she dropped by the Career Center and saw a Procter and Gamble pamphlet describing a program in manufacturing management. Hoffman-Manning took the initiative, wrote a letter saying she would be in Baltimore visiting a friend, and requested an interview.
She spent that summer interning at the company’s Baltimore plant, “working on all kinds of interesting projects,” she says. “I really loved it and at the end of the summer they offered me a permanent position to come back to at the end of my senior year.
“It was amazing. And it all came from going to career services and seeing that pamphlet.
In other words, not only having a dream, but telling it to the people who can help make it happen.
After 18 years with Johnson & Johnson, Hoffman-Manning’s career evolved in a different direction. She became an operations consultant with IZBA, which specializes in providing supply chain and operations consulting services to startups between their seed and Series B rounds of funding.
In effect, she worked as the COO (chief operating officer) for three startups at once – “all kinds of companies, with extremely interesting products,” she says. The idea was to help companies that have a promising commercial idea—but cannot yet afford a COO of their own – to establish suppliers, distribution systems and other components of a supply chain infrastructure.
“I was so thankful to have had that opportunity,” Hoffman-Manning says. “It got me out of the big corporate mindset. It showed me how you can take a really creative idea with not a lot of resources, and yet get a lot of momentum going.”
She is now applying some of those lessons in a new opportunity. This past July, Santa Cruz Nutritionals --a national producer of vitamins and diet supplements in a gummie format, based near San Francisco --reached out to Hoffman-Manning and hired her as senior director of its supply chain.
Though Santa Cruz Nutritionals has been in business for many years, “it’s ‘start-up like’ in terms of the velocity of the products,” Hoffman-Manning says. “It’s really similar to the start-up way of working. So, I think I can really make a difference here with all my past experiences.
“And it’s nice to know that every bottle that goes out is helping people’s health. I really enjoyed making pharmaceutical products with J&J, but those were products people need after they already have a condition. This is really preventative.”
As she looks back, it is clear to her that each stop along her educational and career path has provided an opportunity to learn skills that helped her prepare for the next one.
Helping others is a priority
Though her new position required her to move from New Jersey to California, Hoffman-Manning hopes to maintain her ties with CASA – the nationwide Court Appointed Special Advocate program. CASA’s trained volunteers help judges develop a fuller picture of a neglected or abused child’s home life, schooling, and health care needs, so the judges can make well-informed decisions in providing the children with a safe and healthy environment.
“This program changes the lives of these children,” Hoffman-Manning says. “The children say their advocate is the only consistent person in their lives, they only person they can trust.”
She initially joined the CASA board in Middlesex County, NJ, helping it organize its strategic plan. “Before I knew it, I was the vice chair and now I’m the chair,” Hoffman-Manning says. The statewide CASA board took notice, and she became a trustee on that board as well.
Both boards have urged her remain in those posts, even if it means adjusting meeting times to accommodate her new time zone.
She also agreed to serve on the board of Hillel at the University Rochester, which is developing plans for a new Greenbaum Center for Jewish Life.
As a member of the Visiting Committee of the Hajim School for Engineering and Applied Sciences at her alma mater, she helps advise the dean on such issues as how to keep the curriculum current and relevant. She says she especially appreciates the opportunity this has given her to meet and mentor students.
One of her proudest accomplishments, she says, has been helping her daughter “find her passion” as an attorney. Her daughter is now serving in a judicial clerkship “that she just loves.”
She is also proud that she’s been in positions where she can “open up opportunities for others, whether it be in the community or workplace,” she says. “I really try to understand what it is that people want to succeed at, and then try to help make that possible for them.”
“People did that for me along the way. They cleared barriers for me, they stood up for me at key moments, and the best way I can pay that back is to do it for others.”