Suzanne Ford was at a packaging conference in June and took a look at the people around her.
"It was like I was in a place with 10,000 people in plastics. Maybe 9,000 of them were men, 999 were women and there was one trans woman," Ford said.
That one would be her.
Ford, 52, transitioned from male to female four years into her career as an account manager for thermoformer Plastic Package Inc. of Sacramento, Calif. It was a process that she undertook with the assistance of her mentor, Teresa Sparks, the transgender adviser to the mayor of San Francisco, who helped both Ford and her employers work through the process when it came to her business life.
Plastic Package owners Jim Kaye and Jennifer Kaye, and President Mike Miller, were quick to learn both what was required by law and what they could and should do beyond that.
"Like any family, it's something that you'd rather not have to deal with it, but they stepped up and we sent out a letter," Ford said. "I sat down with all of my accounts. Now granted, I'm on the West Coast. If I was in [another region], that might have been different, but everyone was supportive. It was a learning process for everyone involved.
"No one reacted unprofessionally. In fact, there are some accounts I'm closer to. I think they watched me go through something that took some courage, and I became someone different than just an order taker."
Not only did Ford's sales for Plastic Package not suffer during the transition, they continued to go up.
"If Plastic Package hadn't come out and strongly supported me and said, 'We're a family and we want to support her,' it might not have gone so well. Everybody was a little scared. It's a scary proposition."
Selling thermoformed plastic packaging wasn't the life that Ford had planned. At one point, she was in law school until her "life got rearranged."
A shot at running her own business, a coffee shop in Louisville, Ky., did not work out, but Ford said the experience made her more fully understand the plight of small-business owners, including the Kayes. Since finding her way into plastics packaging in 2009, Ford said she has come to appreciate just what goes into making all those items on store shelves.
"It was surprising to me just how brilliant the people I deal with every day at work are," she said. "From our designers to our production managers."
Recently, the team at Plastic Package has been laying the groundwork for business opportunities in the legal marijuana industry. While there is regulatory uncertainty now, there is the potential for new customers who need packaging that will meet the requirements of food-safe materials in addition to special needs.
"The regulation now they're worried about is developing child-resistant packaging and what that will mean," she said.
Currently, most legal marijuana businesses are small scale because they operate only on a state or regional level. But as they grow, Ford noted, thermoforming offers the right scale of mass production for small to midsized firms.
"It's a startup situation now, but they soon will be needing us in the plastics industry and we'll be there."