Written by Alyson Tuck

Early in her 22-year career with apparel giant VF Corporation, Ellen Rohde — now president of the North Carolina Textile Foundation — was offered a career-changing opportunity. An education major who discovered a passion for retail when she couldn’t find a teaching job, Rohde was identified as a high potential employee at VF and invited to join a two-year leadership training program at VF headquarters. Though she’d never thought of herself as a leader, Rohde was always ready to embrace a new adventure. In that training experience, she learned a range of invaluable soft skills and leadership skills that propelled her career to heights no woman in her company had ever reached.    

“They really started me down the leadership path and gave me the platform and opportunities to gain that confidence and experience that I could be a leader,” Rohde said. “I didn’t wake up one day and say ‘I’m going to be president of a company.’”

She did, however, become president. Just a few years after completing that leadership training program, Rohde was named president of HealthTex, one of VF’s operating divisions, making her the first female division president in VF’s history. She would go on to serve as president of two other VF divisions: Marithe & Francois Girbaud, US and VF Intimates. When Rohde retired in 2009, she was among the core group of the company’s corporate managers.

Building Leaders for Life

Rohde has dedicated her post-retirement life to equipping students at NC State with the workforce skills that will make them successful leaders and major contributors to society. With a $1.2 million gift to the North Carolina Textile Foundation, she recently established the Ellen Rohde Leadership Endowment in the Wilson College of Textiles’ Student Life Center. This endowment aims to provide students at the Wilson College of Textiles with the type of leadership training that had such an impact on her own career.

Since Rohde joined the Wilson College of Textiles family a decade ago as a member of the Textile and Apparel, Technology and Management Industry Advisory Board (TATM), she has served as a critical link between students and industry. In both TATM and in her advisory role with NC State’s Global Luxury Management program within Poole College of Management, Rohde mentored students one-on-one and noticed a gap between the leadership skills industry expected and those of graduating students. And unlike in her youth, many companies no longer offer management training programs to cover that gap. Companies today, Rohde said, expect young employees to hit the ground running.

“I felt there was an opportunity to supplement the wonderful activity that was going on [in the College] with improving soft skills and leadership capabilities,” Rohde said. “Because in today’s environment, when you stand out as a young person, both by your grade point average and your soft skills, it makes an impression. You’re more marketable. You’re more promotable.”     

The Ellen Rohde Leadership Endowment provides support to the Wilson College of Textiles’ Student Life Center (SLC), a new initiative focused on developing professional and personal skills that will help graduates turn applied learning into societal contributions. Through the Career Management component, students will have at their fingertips four years of networking and industry engagement opportunities. Through the Personal and Professional Excellence component, they will learn to develop a unique, personal brand. And through the Entrepreneurism component, students will become a part of the College’s active entrepreneurial community and learn business-building skills. The first phase of the SLC launched in fall 2016, in a pilot with TATM students, and will continue to unfold in the next three years.

Rohde is thrilled with the impact this program will have on the future of a new generation of Textiles students who care about more than landing a great job.

“It is critically important that they are able to provide economic value, but young people don’t just judge themselves by their job,” Rohde said. “They’re much more sophisticated than that. They care about societal issues. If you can come to this college and get the best curriculum, and have the best research and best technical and traditional education skills, along with an understanding of how to make a major contribution throughout your life, to me that’s an unbelievable experience.”

Supporting Women in Leadership

When Rohde started her apparel career in the 1980s, female mentors were hard to find. She likes to joke that she had so many female mentors that she can hardly remember all three of their names. Rohde is passionate about changing that for today’s young women. That’s why, as a part of the endowment, she has included the Ellen Rohde Women in Leadership Fellows Initiative. This initiative will develop a strong network for future female textile leaders. By pairing current industry leaders, who understand the challenges women face in the industry, with young women starting out, Rohde hopes to remove barriers for aspiring women leaders in textile professions.

“If you can give any young person, but particularly young women, the opportunity to find their passion and excel, they will make very valuable contributions to society,” Rohde said. “The textile industry needs leaders, and it could certainly use more women in leadership roles.”

Rohde has seen many glass-ceiling-shattering days in her career, and even in retirement as she became the first female board officer and president of the North Carolina Textile Foundation. But one day in 1991 stands out above the rest. On that day, in a board room in Greensboro, the VF chairman of the board named her president of HealthTex, and her life changed. Through her gift, Rohde hopes to prepare more Wilson College of Textiles students, both men and women, to have those life-changing days.