By Mike Imlay
From left to right, the SEMA Show’s “Women Who Build” seminar included Rebeca Olavarrieta, Kathryn Reinhardt, Sherry Kollien, Sara Morosan and moderator Jennifer Petraitis.
Women vehicle builders are on the rise, and successive generations are now flexing their garage prowess in growing numbers. That fact was especially demonstrated in the recent SEMA Businesswomen’s Network (SBN) All-Female ’21 Ford Bronco Wildtrak Build, unveiled at the 2022 SEMA Show in Las Vegas.
The project proved transformational—not just for the Bronco but for the 157 female volunteers who made it happen. Built primarily at the Diamond Bar, California, and Detroit SEMA Garages, the venture encompassed modifications to all the Wildtrak’s elements, from suspension to body utility and appearance items. The volunteers hailed from every segment of the industry, and for many, the project opened new doors in teamwork, networking and skills training.
To highlight the build and what it meant for the women involved, the SEMA Education presented the “Women Who Build—Powered by SBN” panel discussion just prior to the Bronco’s unveiling at the Show. The panelists included moderator Jennifer Petraitis of Driven Lighting Group, and Bronco task-force leaders Sherry Kollien of Motorcity Solutions, Sara Morosan of LGE-CTS Motorsports, Rebeca Olavarrieta of Roco 4x4, and SEMA Board of Directors member Kathryn Reinhardt. The following are some educational highlights from the presentation, which is also available for on-demand viewing at www.sema.org/education.
As moderator, Petraitis kicked off the session by asking the panelists how the project had inspired them and other women on the build team.
“I think that it means a lot of things,” responded Olavarrieta. “It’s like the emancipation of all that it means to be a woman in the industry. We had women in marketing, in logistics, renting, painting, sanding…” Just being able to gather women from across the United States, and even Canada, representing these and many other disciplines, made a powerful statement about the skills and experience they bring to the industry, she said.
Reinhardt emphasized the tremendous growth in female industry participation that the project represented. “I remember the first [SBN] build 10 years ago, the Ford Mustang. I was still green at my company. I didn’t know a lot. I had heard of SEMA. I was participating and volunteering, but I didn’t have the ability to really be a part of that Mustang build, and I was really jealous because I thought, ‘Wow, look at all these badass women that are pulling together and creating this vehicle…”
Presented with the opportunity to join the Bronco build this time around, Reinhardt jumped at the chance—and was pleased by how many other women did likewise. “I’m so excited about it. To see the evolution over 10 years, [to] be able to do this again and with even more women—I know there were more than 150 volunteers this year.” (By comparison, the Mustang build had involved about 55 participants.)
Olivarrieta said she had a confession to make about the Mustang build. She had volunteered to work on the vehicle’s drivetrain, but back then only had experience with Jeeps and trucks. So she rented a Mustang and practiced on its drive components. “I was like, I can’t make a mistake,” she said, noting that she gained a lot from the experience. The thrill she felt from her success back then made such an impact that she decided to take on a more facilitative role for the Bronco. “This time around, I didn’t want to wrench because I wanted to give that opportunity to other volunteers,” she explained.
The end result of the SEMA SBN All-Female Build is this stunning ’21 Ford Bronco Wildtrak, which combines go-anywhere ruggedness with the utility features trailblazing women demand.
Developing New Skills
In fact, the SBN select committee carefully planned the Bronco build to offer volunteers a wide range of skills-development opportunities. This frequently meant pushing team members beyond their comfort zone, which in turn boosted their esteem.
“Every week it was a different set of challenges that we had. But you know what? They came together to persevere and jump the hurdles and make it happen,” said Kollien, adding that team leaders encouraged volunteers to overcome any anxieties that arose as they tested their skills.
“We made them face their fears!” she quipped. “And you know what? The look on their face when they faced their fear—it was just empowering… It was amazing seeing that empowerment of them getting to just wrench on a vehicle, and they’ve never done it before, or whatever it was. It was just amazing to see that [and] be there for them for that first time.”
Reinhardt agreed. “Some of these women never thought they could do driveshafts, right? They never knew that they could pull off a bumper. But now they have that skill set, and now they have that confidence, and they know that their company is supporting them as a result of that,” she said.
Morosan observed that the build also involved more than wrenching. Many volunteers were needed to document the project’s progress and disseminate images and information to the media and wider industry. Plus, team members were called upon to source parts, handle logistics, supervise e-mail campaigns and much, much more.
“I thought it was kind of cool to see everybody step up and really be able to be involved and get to know other women in the industry,” she said. “I think that a lot of times we forget [that when] you see cars out here or companies out here, it takes a whole team for [those] things to happen.”
Much of that team labors behind the scenes to pull things together, she continued, and “seeing all the moving pieces is really pretty awesome.”
Olavarrieta said the skills that team members developed on the project went a long way toward battling negative self-perceptions that many women may have internalized in their careers.
“I think that there’s a lot of self doubt and imposter syndrome in women in general across different industries,” she explained. “I think it’s [about] understanding that shortcomings are temporary... You know, if you raise your hand and you volunteer and you accept the fact that you’re here to learn—that’s what life is all about.”
“The industry is always evolving,” she continued. “There’s always new applications, so there’s always something new to learn. So just embracing that—I think that seeing all the women learning something new and being excited about really transferring that knowledge again when they got back to their homes and offices [was] just really exciting.”
Members of SBN build team and their allies gathered to celebrate the Bronco’s unveiling at a 2022 SEMA Show media conference. All in all, nearly 160 industry women were involved in the project.
Grit and Resourcefulness
Regardless of background, every industry builder can relate to the sorts of speed bumps the SBN team encountered along the way. For the women of the Wildtrak build, the obstacle course began almost the minute they settled on the vehicle that would serve as their creative canvas. “When we started conversations with Ford about two years ago, there was no Bronco inventory, so it was it was a task to get a Bronco for free,” explained Olavarrieta. “[Even] if you wanted to pay for a Bronco, you couldn’t get one.”
When the platform was finally secured, the next hurdle was setting the criteria for participation in the build and assembling the team. “A lot of companies wanted to volunteer, and we really wanted to make sure that we gave an opportunity to companies that were women-owned or that had women leadership because we this was what the project was about—to promote the advancement of women in the industry,” said Olavarrieta.
Next, of course, followed the usual build conceptualization. The team opted for a tough, trail-ready Bronco designed specifically for women that avoided any “pink-
vehicle” stereotypes. The concept came to include power steps and removal of the back seat to make room for a gear platform and inflatable mattress for a secure car-camping environment. The vehicle also included a built-in kitchen for overlanding. The final design was chosen from approximately 15 entries by SBN membership at large.
With the concept dialed in, the build’s task force set about mobilizing a host of different mechanical and non-mechanical work groups to move the project forward. “You know, wrenching is fun, welding is sexy, but there’s a lot of work that happens in the background for all of the companies that are exhibiting in the SEMA Show. That is, you know, work that’s not so sexy,” Olavarrieta observed.
Of course, a lot of thinking on the fly took place when several product installations failed to go as planned. According to Kollien, that’s when the many examples of teamwork and determination really showed forth.
“The first one that comes to mind was in Detroit, [where] we had some fitment issues,” she said. “And the ladies, when we were trying to adjust things on the bumper, had to pivot and fabricate. It happens all the time. And I got called away to do something else. And I come back and these ladies are getting cardboard out, drawing things, doing all this stuff.”
“I’m like, ‘Dang! They know what they’re doing! I don’t need to help them. I don’t need to coach them.’ So I think everyone just got creative. It’s like, what’s the problem? Let’s look at it. How do we do it? How do we fix it? We would powwow and then figure out a game plan.”
The build apparently resonated deeply with the overall industry as well. Many SEMA-member companies stepped forward as sponsors, supplying product and other resources. And although the builders were all female, the group gained a lot of support and encouragement from male allies in the aftermarket. Moreover, the panelists all agreed that it was exactly the right kind of male support. Men may have assisted here and there in providing information and know-how to the group, but only in a mentoring capacity. From start to finish, the project belonged to the SBN team—as did the heavy lifting.
“There were many male allies,” said Kollien. “And I’m going to start where I am currently at, Motor City Solutions. If it wasn’t for the owner and my boss, I wouldn’t be able to be here and be a part of this. So I’m very gracious [for] that.”
“They were, ironically, thinking about doing a female build and sponsoring that. And I said, ‘Well, guess what? I’ve got the right project for you.’ So they blessed me to be a part of it. And guys like that are the ones that you want to have in your corner. We’ve got the team at Ford because there’s men there that were part of that help [and] support from Ford on the Bronco and moving that through the system so that we could get that Bronco.”
In a particularly memorable example of allyship, Morosan recalled a “father-daughter moment” when a dad brought his daughter to the build site, explained the steps involved in an installation, and expressed total confidence in her taking it from there.
“The cool thing about that story is he said, ‘Okay, you got this, and I’m leaving, and this is what you do, and he left,” added Kollien.
“For us, like we said, male allies are huge,” Morosan underscored. “SBN is actually starting an ally program because of how many guys there are that do support us in this industry. I know my sister and I have a lot of male mentors that have helped guide us…so I think that’s really important that we have them.”
The SBN All-Female Bronco Build’s aim was to empower women builders while raising awareness of their many contributions to the aftermarket industry.
As a group, the “Women Who Build” panelists expressed the hope that the SBN Bronco project would inspire more women to deepen their industry involvement, whether through the SBN or SEMA at large. According to Reinhardt, it’s not as intimidating as one might think.
“I think the first step is just raising your hand and saying you want to volunteer,” she explained. “One of the things that I love about SEMA is it’s an association. It helps small businesses prosper. There’s more than 7,000 SEMA business members, a part of the association, and SEMA works hard to make sure that every single one of them has an opportunity to sell their products and then grow. And having all these people support the build as companies, as sponsors—[many] of these companies not only sent women representatives from their own company, but said, yes, we want our women to excel and learn new skills. And being a volunteer on this build gave them new skill sets that they never thought they
“This is where networking is very important in SBN,” added Kollien. “And I’m going to keep saying this if you talk to me: network, network, network!”
She explained that not only is networking crucial to personal and professional growth, it was often a key to the Bronco project’s success. Being able to reach out to others in the industry for resources, advice and solutions when sudden problems arose made a world of difference.
“This is what helps later on in life,” she noted. “We didn’t have some of the tools because the Detroit garage was new and upcoming and they’re still building some of their stuff and getting their tools. And the neighboring company behind in the parking lot, I knew. Actually, she was my boss when I was at Ford, and I’m like, “I know where we can go get this painted and powdercoated, and we can go grind this.”
Morosan said the Bronco project presented an ideal networking opportunity. “So to me, it’s finding those women that share that passion, or those men that are mentors as well, and they share those passions with you, and they get just as excited about it. Or when you’re going through something hard, they can be like, you know, ‘Girl, you got this. You totally got this.’ And just seeing that next generation of women coming together…to me is just amazing. And that’s why we do it, right?”
The panelists also hoped that the all-female Bronco build would continue to be a meaningful symbol for industry women. For Olavarrieta, the vehicle embodies “what women are good at, and that we are here to learn, and that we’re here to work hard, and that we are part of the force that’s really pushing this industry to the next level.”
“Knowing that this particular build was an impact on young women, [and] knowing that this is actually affecting an entire group of SEMA companies, whether you are a sponsor, whether you donate time or product, or even your people, what I love about this is there is a great opportunity for more people to get involved. All you have to do is raise your hand,” she emphasized.
Looking out at the presentation’s audience, many of whom were involved in the build, Kollien summed up her pride in what they had accomplished. “I get goosebumps every time I talk about it because the ladies came together and they surprised me—surprised me every single week—what they could do and get done,” she said. “I have a confession: I am always self-doubting like, ‘Oh, are we going to do this, are we going to do this?’ But you ladies just pulled it off. And I feel like I could just all hug you every week at the end of the week. We just got through it, and it was just so inspirational.”
View the Entire Seminar
Part of SEMA Education’s commitment to highlighting industry diversity, the full SEMA Show “Women Who Build—Powered by SBN” seminar is now available as an on-demand video. To view the session, go to https://learning.sema.org/products/women-who-build-powered-by-sbn.