Taken together, the three executives manage nearly 600 people who make chemicals used in everything from refrigerators to boats, toothpaste to detergents, water treatment to medical masks. They are a rare breed: all scientists, all working in manufacturing and all of them women.
Elba Lizardi, Deborah McKitten and Theresa Vaughn are site directors at four BASF plants sprinkled across the Upstate, with combined responsibility for payrolls and benefits nearing $50 million annually. BASF is a multinational chemical company and the largest chemical producer in the world.
“What we bring to the table,” McKitten says of women in manufacturing leadership, “is a diversity of thought, diversity of experiences. I think we tend to be a little bit more relationship-oriented.”
They have worked in manufacturing for more than 20 years each, continuing to recruit and mentor women — who, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2019, comprise only about 30% of the industry’s workforce.
Since 2015, BASF has focused on increasing the number of women in the field. Now they constitute 25% of the company’s employees and 23% in leadership roles. BASF’s goal: Boost the number of women executives to 30% by 2030 worldwide.
“At BASF, we are focused on gender diversity,” says McKitten, who holds a degree in chemical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University and has managed BASF’s Mauldin and White Stone sites since moving from DuPont four years ago.
All three mention BASF’s D&I — diversity and inclusion — initiatives, especially the new program, FLAME, or Female Leadership Advancing Manufacturing Excellence.
All three also credit the support they got growing up to pursue fields women generally don’t: science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
A Lego aficionado as a kid, McKitten credits her mechanical-engineer father for encouraging her — even when she veered off into chemistry in middle school.
“My dad really inspired me,” she says. “He always told me to do whatever I wanted to do, and he was always there to support me.”
Same with Lizardi, an MIT grad with a chemical-engineering degree. BASF’s Seneca facility manager since August, she says her mother didn’t let her blow up anything with a chemistry set, but she did continually encourage her daughter.
“She never really did those traditional gender roles of saying, ‘Hey, your brother could do this or that, and you’re staying home,’” she says. “For her, it was, ‘Both of you go to college, both of you can do whatever you want.’”
Lizardi, who was born in Puerto Rico, says she has faced a trifecta of workforce challenges: being a woman, a female scientist and a woman of color. She doesn’t see those challenges in BASF’s corporate culture, but she has experienced disparate cultures in a career that has taken her to Mexico and South Africa.
“I would say I haven’t changed my behavior depending on where I lived,” she says. “I have to understand who I’m dealing with, so maybe I need to modify my ask to get the result that I need.”
Vaughn, who has a chemical engineering degree from Georgia Tech, says BASF has adapted to her needs, too, namely work-life balance. Early in her career, she started a family, and when her child grew older, she says, “I wanted to focus more on my development, contributing more to the company.”
The company contributed back, with “incredibly generous benefits, a lot of resources to assist everybody, but particularly women,” says Vaughn, who has worked for BASF nearly half of her 25-year manufacturing career. “Throughout my career, I felt very fortunate to feel valued and respected.”
All three agreed that, gender issues aside, managing a chemical plant means creating strong working chemistry among employees.
“It’s about the people who really love manufacturing,” Lizardi says, “and I love manufacturing, and that’s why I’m here.”
Site Fact Sheets
Site Manager: Theresa Vaughn
Location: Central, South Carolina
Site History: BASF acquired the site in 1985
- Annual payroll approximately $2.6M
- Payment approximately $253K in local and state taxes
- Gross capital investment approximately $11 million
Site Director: Elba Lizardi
Location: Two miles south of Seneca in Oconee County
Site History: BASF started production in 1987
Number of Employees: 400 + contractors
- Annual payroll approximately $36.2million
- Payments approximately $1.2 million in local and state taxes
- Capital investment approximately $20 million
Site Director: Deborah McKitten
Site History: BASF acquired the site in 2010
Number of Employees: 75
- Annual payroll and benefits approximately $7.9 million
- Payments exceeding $619,000 in local property taxes
- Capital investment of $8.5 million
Site Director: Deborah McKitten
Site History: BASF acquired the site in 1973.
Number of Employees: 72
- Payments approximately $877,000 in local property taxes
- Capital investment of $6.5 million
- Payroll and benefits approximately $9.2 million
Source: BASF, all figures for year-end 2019