Female Mentors, Textiles Education Inspire Jennifer Denton Stanigar to Establish Pioneer Program Endowment
By Wanda Urbanska
When Dr. Jennifer Denton Stanigar accepted a job in Jamaica right out of college, she knew challenges lay ahead. But she never could have imagined how quickly they would appear. Stanigar—who received her bachelor of science degree in textile and apparel management in May 1990 from North Carolina State University’s Wilson College of Textiles—had landed a remarkable, highly paid plum of a first job, as assistant manager for Jockey International’s 500-person Lucea, Hanover manufacturing plant. Jockey Chairman and CEO Donna Wolf Steigerwaldt—a trailblazing woman who had cracked the glass ceiling decades before it was common—had personally interviewed the 23-year-old go-getter. Steigerwaldt came away impressed with the young woman’s education, achievements and gumption. As their session concluded, Steigerwalt invited Stanigar to take a seat in her chair. “How does it feel?” she asked.
Trial by fire
As it turned out, Steigerwaldt’s faith in her new employee was well-placed. Less than a month into the job—with Stanigar’s boss back in the States on vacation—the plant caught fire, leaving the rookie in charge.
Though gut-wrenching at the time, the crisis turned out to be “transformational,” she recalls. Working through the night, she and her team fought the fire—which had been caused by an electrical malfunction–by hauling buckets of water and salvaging file cabinets, furniture, equipment: anything that could be saved. As her employees witnessed her steady, hands-on leadership, she earned their immediate respect, cementing bonds that in some cases would last a lifetime.
Indeed, the education and strength of character on which Stanigar drew to quite literally meet her trial by fire, was just the first step in a risk-taking, multidimensional career as a female entrepreneur in manufacturing, construction and mind-body ventures.
In 2009, after spending almost two decades in Jamaica, Stanigar’s path led her back to her beloved alma mater. At NC State, she earned a master’s and doctorate at the College of Education and ultimately accepted a position at the Office of Faculty Development where she conducts program evaluations and educational research.
The recognition that a passion for textiles threaded through her life prompted Stanigar to take another bold step. Recently, she established the Jennifer Denton Stanigar Pioneer Program Endowment at the Wilson College of Textiles—a philanthropic first for her.
“Realizing how much I’d been helped along the way—the women and men who gave me a chance and believed in me—I wanted to make educational access easier for students from under-resourced and underrepresented communities,” she says. The Pioneer Scholars program provides scholarships and wraparound support for students from the state’s economically challenged Tier 1 and Tier 2 counties.
What is more, says the benefactor, “clothing ourselves is a primary need. That will never go away. The Wilson College has the unique ability to transform the industry through education and innovation.”
The role of female mentors
Back in the late 1980s, when she was an undergraduate, the apparel industry was already on the brink of change. “It was the beginning of globalization,” she says, “the advent of the digital era.” As a sophomore—with the help of her professor, Dr. Peyton B. Hudson—Stanigar secured a summer internship at the French company Lectra when the innovative apparel industry leader was developing computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM). Continuing on this vein, for her senior project, she explored the use of geosynchronous satellites for global supply chain logistics.
While she studied with numerous top-notch professors including Drs. Peter Lord, Gary Smith, Trevor Little, George Hodge and Alan Donaldson, when reflecting on her journey, Stanigar always harkens back to the role of strong women, like Dr. Hudson and Dr. Anne Clapp, who taught and mentored her.
“As I was coming along, the manufacturing world was not yet a female-friendly place,” she says. “Most of the women in manufacturing were in sewing or supervision. And there weren’t many women teaching textiles or apparel. Peyton was one of a very few.”
Hudson taught Stanigar three apparel classes and remembers her former student as “conscientious, always outstanding in her classwork. She struck me as a substantial person—a deep thinker,” says the retired professor. And, unlike many of her peers, “she made a habit of seeking out my advice—and taking it!”
Turns out, the student’s passion for textiles predated college. Stanigar is quick to credit her mother, Donna Denton, as her first mentor. “Mom taught me how to use a sewing machine,” she says, while her maternal grandmother, Pearl Radcliffe, gave lessons in knitting, crocheting and French hand sewing. (To this day, Stanigar and her 90-year-old mother collaborate in designing one-of-a-kind quilts that Denton makes to welcome each new great grandchild.)
Hard work and early recognition
It was Stanigar’s college years—“I loved the whole undergraduate experience!” she exudes—which married her passion for fabric, sewing and apparel with her analytical side, setting the stage for success. While on campus, she took part in numerous activities, including the textile fraternity, Phi Psi, a French conversation club and intramural soccer all the while holding down off-campus jobs. Her exuberant spirit, outstanding performance and work ethic did not go unnoticed. In 1989, Stanigar was named Apparel Student of the Year by the American Apparel Manufacturers Association.
‘My most influential mentor’
Once her career was launched, her collegiate success provided the confidence to grow and seek new opportunities. After three and half years with Jockey, Stanigar left to join forces with Dorothy Over, a well-known Kingston designer and businesswoman. Over owned and operated La Moda where Stanigar worked on every aspect of the business including overseeing training and quality control for the company’s T-shirt subcontract with Hanesbrands.
“Dorothy was a very principled person and probably my most influential mentor,” she says. From Over, she learned how to run a profitable business, while juggling multiple needs and priorities. Most importantly, she learned “to lead from the heart. Dorothy took care of her employees, and they, in turn, were extremely loyal to her.”
As Stanigar immersed herself in local culture (marrying and later divorcing a successful Jamaican businessman), her inborn appetite for philanthropy took deep root. The other-oriented woman couldn’t help but juxtapose her own privilege against the gaping need surrounding her. She began digging into her own pocket to help her employees (often single mothers) pay for school fees, uniforms, bus fare, prescriptions and food. “I was a manager of so many women and could not turn a blind eye,” she says.
Back in North Carolina, Stanigar prioritizes supporting female entrepreneurship networks at NC State and externally, while promoting mind-body work through online yoga and mindfulness sessions.
Dr. Kate Annett-Hitchcock, associate professor of textile and apparel technology and management, calls Stanigar an “avid supporter” of the Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs (AWE) program since its inception, as a regular participant, speaker and moderator.
With three decades of experience now under her belt, how would Stanigar answer Donna Wolf Steigerwaldt’s question today: How does it feel to sit in the CEO’s chair?
“What I’ve learned,” Stanigar says, “is that the chair isn’t just for one person. Bring others with you! Nurture the talent of others! To make a difference, the chair has to be shared.”