Chicago — Kathy Bolhous knew from a young age that she wanted to lead.
Growing up in a blue-collar family, the ninth of 10 children, she saw how hard her parents worked to provide. And she knew she wanted to take a different road.
"It's not a traditional path" for a woman, the CEO of Charter NEX Films Inc. said. "You don't wake up one day and say, 'I want to be in manufacturing.'
"Somebody has to educate you on what it is and why it can be a career for you and why, as a woman, you can be successful in the field," she said.
Bolhous remembers as a teen seeing her mother return from work with stained, arthritic hands.
"My mom used to come home dead tired. She worked in a clock factory putting varnish on wood," she said.
At this place, only men worked in the office and women worked on the factory floor.
"That's when the vision was created for me that I was going to be in manufacturing, that I'm going to be a boss. All I knew of a boss was the boss was CEO," she remembered.
But, Bolhous eventually learned, climbing the corporate ladder is challenging.
"You have to have something inside of you that is fueling that passion. I would say that for men or women," she said. "This industry can beat you up if you let it. You have to take control of it and be the cheerleader for yourself regardless of being male or female.
"You have to believe in yourself because you will have people who don't believe. People will criticize you," she said. "At the same time, you have to have the personality type to win people over. I always thought I'm going to let my actions and my performance speak for myself as opposed to coming in and being very aggressive. I just tried to fit in, but then mold it to the way I wanted it to be.
"It's a fine line between balancing a desire to fit in and be a part of the team vs. you're not just going to get trampled on. You have to figure out your own voice and your ability to do that, which can be difficult," Bolhous said.
"It took lots of trial and error. It took having lots of good mentors. It took resiliency," she said. "You are going to take some falls, you are going to take some tumbles. You are going to have people shoot arrows at you."
Bolhous' journey to the corner office has not been without its hurdles, she said, but it's been worth it.
"It's been a really fun career for me. I love what I do, love Charter NEX. [It's a] really great company. It's been really exciting to see the growth and the success that we've had," she said.
As one of 10 children, Bolhous learned from an early age the value of competition, and that has helped her in her career.
"You wake up every day ready to compete," she said, whether it be for money, food or even parental attention. "You have to make your own way."
And while Bolhous sees the value of having more women in leadership roles and in manufacturing, she believes her gender should not matter.
"I don't want to be known as a woman. I want to be known as a successful CEO. I have never led with 'I'm a woman.' I lead with 'I'm Kathy, and I'm here to do a job,'" she said. "I speak with my results.
"I've never thought about being a woman as an advantage or a weakness. I just think about what do I need to do to succeed in this job," she said.
Part of that success is currently overseeing the opening of Charter NEX's seventh manufacturing facility, a new $85 million location in Blythewood, S.C., that eventually could house 14 film lines.
Even though Bolhous calls the shots at Charter NEX these days, women are still vastly underrepresented in manufacturing.
They were unrepresented when Bolhous first started her career, and they still are, she said.
"That was a rare breed. It's [still] too rare even in today's world to have women in manufacturing," she said.
Apurva Shah is market manager for Charter NEX Films, and he sees firsthand how Bolhous' management style cuts through problems and finds solutions.
"I think the one thing that Kathy does in terms of exerting her leadership is at the beginning of a meeting with a customer or a supplier is setting the tone. Maybe we come in and we know there is a problem at hand, but she sets the tone that the output is going to be positive and changes the direction of the meeting," Shah said.
This kind of positive attitude gets things done, the CEO said.
"If I could tell you how many times people have told me: 'You are too Pollyanna,' 'That won't work,' 'You are too optimistic,' 'You don't know what you are doing,'" she said. "I don't try to argue with people. I speak with my results."