Manufacturing was never the career path Cheslie Stehouwer planned to follow. She had the work ethic to succeed in any career but it wasn’t supposed to be in manufacturing.
“My degree was in criminal justice and I was going to work as a probation officer for kids,” Stehouwer recalled. “I realized very quickly that’s just not something I could do for the rest of my life. I took a job at Continental but I wasn’t thinking that I’d be here seven years later. Looking back, I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Like so many, once Cheslie saw what manufacturing was about, her focus changed.
“In manufacturing, you are creating something,” Stehouwer said. “In our case it’s a food product and being consumed by people all over the world. It’s made by you and bought by your family, friends and total strangers. I think you should take pride in being a part of that.”
Her original role was as an administrative assistant for Continental Dairy’s co-founder Steven Cooper. From day one, Cooper knew it would only be short-term — she had too much drive to stay there.
“Cheslie has such initiative and determination that keeping her in her original role would have been such a waste,” said Cooper. “Not that you could have kept her there. She wants more responsibility and she’s so motivated that her career arch could only ever go up. But the thing that has advanced her here so quickly is her willingness to come to me and say ‘Steven, we need this or that to continue growing and I’m the right person to do it’ and she runs with it.”
Described as the “cream of the crop,” Stehouwer’s rise in responsibility and leadership has been meteoric. From someone who began with zero industry experience, she is now on the verge of running the marketing for a $500+ million, multi-state operation as Continental continues expansion plans for a sister location in Texas.
“The thing I love is how you just never know what the day will bring,” Stehouwer explained. “Whether you’re putting out 50 fires or reimagining a marketing strategy from scratch or just have a great moment with a coworker, there’s always something here that drives me to want to come back better the next day.”
Initiative is something she’s always had. Never willing to settle for less, she has a confidence in her abilities that people with decades more experience would lack.
“We can be in a meeting with representatives of multi-billion dollar food manufacturers and she’ll own the room,” said Cooper. “She has that confidence.”
The confidence is only helped by being in a place where you know the leadership has your back and wants to see you achieve your potential.
“If you have someone like Steve who will work to give his people opportunities, then I think the only thing keeping you from growing is a willingness to ask for those chances,” Stehouwer said. “I think it’s important for people — especially young women — to vocalize when they want to do more. Never be afraid to express your opinion. Be respectful but don’t keep your opinion to yourself — they won’t know it unless you say it.”
Manufacturing may not have been the original plan for Cheslie Stehouwer but it’s an industry that would be less without her in it and will benefit greatly from what she brings to it in the future.
“The MFG Emerging Leader Award is really just recognition that my boss believed in me. When you get nominated for something, it’s a sign of trust,” Stehouwer said. “If I could say something to people just starting out and wanting to be in a leadership role, I’d say don’t stop, don’t be content. Keep pushing for more and do your best every day. Your persistence will show through.”
The MFG Emerging Leader is awarded for exceptional contributions to the industry and the potential for future accomplishments within Michigan manufacturing [less than 10 years in industry]. The award is presented at the annual MFG Excellence Awards in November.