A 40-Year Perspective of “A Woman’s Place” in the RSPA

By: Linda Sudderth, North America Sales Manager, Business Systems, EPSON America 

I entered Retail Technology in the early 90s, and at that time, there were very few women in the retail industry and even fewer that held executive or ownership positions in any capacity.  Being in sales and sales leadership roles, it was “the norm” to be the “only female” in the boardroom, speaking to a room full of men.   

Looking back, here’s one of my memories that made me believe women had a place in retail. In the mid-90s, I was working for a hardware manufacturer that had just won a tier-one retail contract to supply a full point of sale terminal solution and was about to meet with the company on the trade show floor. At the start of the meeting, the company’s female executive took out a pack of cigarettes, and before she could bring a cigarette to her lips, one of her male subordinates lit a match for her. And at that moment, I thought, that’s who I want to be. That demonstration of respect by a male subordinate has remained vivid in my mind for the last 30 years. It has brought conviction to the belief that women can and will have leadership positions in the industry.  And can you believe smoking cigarettes on a trade show floor was once the norm? 

Women that Helped Establish RSPA 
I had the pleasure of visiting with Alan Hayman, owner of Hayman Consulting Group, LLC, and the subject of his father, Stanley Hayman came up. Stanley was one of the founders in 1948 of the association now referred to as RSPA and served as the Secretary/Treasurer for 27 years.  At the start, there were 20 men – no women –  in the association. However, the wives were vitally important to the well-being of the organization.   

Alan’s mother, Shirley Hayman, was the bookkeeper for the organization for the entirety of his father’s participation in the association.  Shirley, and many of the other wives, were the event coordinators for the bi-annual meetings, handling schedules, planning, content management, packet creation, and distribution. They were integral, crucial, and incredibly important to the association’s success. 

New Generations, New Attitudes 
Lynn Skurla Perkins, President and CEO of Skurla’s POS Solutions. She remembers a male-dominated industry as well. She worked at Skurla’s for her parents in her teens before taking over the company years later. During industry event receptions and evening engagements, there was a tendency for resellers or vendors to engage in conversation with her husband first. Her husband, who wasn’t employed by Skurla’s, would quickly defer questions to Lynn. She quickly became a respected and recognized member of the retail community and the RSPA organization. 

Lynn has been extremely active in the RSPA, serving on the board including as Chairman and President and on the Endowment Fund committee.  She recalls that when she was elected to the board, she was the only female for several years. Most reseller owners (if not all) were men, with women in administrative or marketing roles.  She observed that when RSPA opened membership to vendors, more women joined the association and were visibly present at industry events.  

She and Nicole Taylor, previously with RSPA, were part of the group that started W2W (Women to Women Committee) to promote women’s participation at the RSPA.  Fast forward a few years, the W2W committee is active throughout the year, sponsoring an educational session at RetailNow, holding regular collaborative calls, and hosting an informal get-together at Inspire, all promoting the empowerment, education, and mentorship of women in our industry.   

In the 80s and 90s, it was (I wouldn’t say tolerated) common for personal behavior towards women to be somewhat inappropriate at times. Women then took the posture that we knew how to handle it, having grown up in the 60s and 70s well before the “me too” movement.  In my opinion, the industry has matured, and this issue seems to have greatly improved purely through education and awareness.  No more “booth babes” and more recognition, appreciation, and respect for a woman’s perspective.  As I would have said in the 70s, “we’ve come a long way, baby!” 

Leadership That Makes a Difference
Chelsey Paulson, Chief Strategy Officer, Keystone Group International, grew up working in the industry at her father’s dealership, North Country Business Products, a second-generation legacy similar to Lynn Skurla Perkins. Chelsey joined the RSPA at the urging of Lynn to add a young female perspective to the association.  In 2014, Chelsey reached out to a close male colleague and mentor about running for the board. At the time, Chelsey was a young mother and pregnant with her second child, and he suggested that “she had a lot going on and maybe didn’t have the time to devote to being on the board.”  Lucky for the association, Chelsey did not heed his advice, became a board member and subsequently the Chairman of the board.  

One of her missions was to make women more visible and welcome in the association and at RSPA gatherings.  Chelsey’s presence and leadership have made great strides in empowering women in retail.  She has encouraged more diversity in presenters during RSPA events and actively makes introductions between new women attendees and reseller principles. She wants new members to have confidence in the unique perspective and skillset they bring. Everyone has unique talents, and the association depends on these talents and new ideas to thrive. 

New Technologies, New Perspectives 
The mPOS era starting 10 or so years ago, has brought a plethora of new companies, new mPOS software, new hardware solutions, and new ways of thinking and managing retail operations.  Along with those solutions, mPOS brought new, young perspectives and people, women and men.  RSPA has recognized the evolution of our industry demonstrated by RSPA hiring a female President and CEO outside the industry to run the organization in 2014, Mrs. Kelly Funk – this was a first!   

Today, when attending conferences and any other industry events, there is noticeably an increased female presence, sitting on panels, leading discussions, presenting as subject matter experts, and attending as representatives of their respective companies, and I believe, thanks in part to Chelsey and Lynn’s leadership on behalf of women in our industry  

I’m proud to see how far RSPA has come in 75 years. We’ve come a long way since I entered the retail community, and I’m excited to see continued growth in diversity and inclusion in the years to come.