Sarah Drayna of LANXESS’ Leather business unit leads the American Leather Chemists Association – a historically male-dominated organisation. She advises young women not to be shy in the face of challenges.
LANXESS: Ms. Drayna, you are president of the American Leather Chemists Association (ALCA). What is the association?
Sarah Drayna: The ALCA is the sole technical leather organisation in the USA and is comprised of tanners, finishers, chemical and equipment suppliers, as well as R&D researchers and regulatory experts. It is our mission to encourage and to support progress in science as well as technical applications in the leather and leather product industry.
LANXESS: What are your responsibilities?
Sarah Drayna: One of my tasks is to stand at the head of our initiatives. We have started a project to set a guideline for RSL’s (restricted substance lists), after I had taken up this position. We currently have dozens of lists that individual tanners use and our goal is to get one complete list that all facets of the process can live by. This year we are also taking on the job to reposition our technical committees and make them more relevant to the industry today. Moreover, in addition to these development tasks, we hold convocations of the general advisory board as well as our annual technical meeting, which brings together speakers from around the world.
LANXESS: You are one of the few women with such a high position in the leather chemicals industry…
Sarah Drayna: Actually, I am only the third woman in this position – and there have already been 71 presidents in the ALCA. The leather industry has historically been a very male dominated industry. This is even more apparent in the technical and operational departments. This is due in large part to the fact that the manual labor can be very demanding especially in tanneries. Fortunately, I am not afraid of hard work.
To succeed in this industry you have to first prove to your customers that you have the technical expertise that you need to help them and then prove that you are not intimidated by the environment. After this hurdle is overcome, you have to withstand the personality test. Tanneries must “want to have” you on site, because you spend a large portion of the time carrying out bench tests. That requires your preparedness to allow business partners in the development process to experiment with new products, and to have comprehensive access to your facilities.
LANXESS: What is your secret?
Sarah Drayna: Above all, the tanner wants to know that you are one of them and wants the same things as you. And when a woman brings that about, it is even more interesting for the tanner. Fortunately, I have the appropriate personality, because I love talking about sports and value a good joke. On evenings I might also enjoy a cool beer with tanners. As a result, I have a very good bond with them.
LANXESS: What are your responsibilities at LANXESS?
Sarah Drayna: I am the head of business unit Leather for the US and Canada. We have a small, yet very efficient team here in the US and therefore we “wear many hats”. In addition to the business unit´s head role I also have direct sales responsibilities for several accounts in the region as well as global responsibility for one of our larger automotive accounts. Prior to this role I held various technical positions of increasing responsibility, starting as the lab manager on through to the technical manager for NAFTA. I also worked several years for Material Protection Products prior to joining the leather chemicals business unit in 2004.
LANXESS: How does your position at ALCA affect your work?
Sarah Drayna: There are many aspects of my work with the ALCA that benefit my position at LANXESS. First and foremost I am able to position LANXESS as a leader in innovation in the industry by ensuring we are taking part in all development and that the voice of LANXESS is present in all decisions. Additionally, my commitment to the ALCA exhibits LANXESS’ commitment as well. In a shrinking industry where competitors are consolidating, it is important to show LANXESS’ commitment to the leather industry and to developing technology that supports both the growth of the industry as well as sustainability.
LANXESS: Do you have free time with your two jobs? How do you spend it?
Sarah Drayna: While my work completely occupies me during the week, my family keeps me on the go on the weekends. I have a very athletic nine-year-old son who competes in ice and roller hockey competitions in various states. We therefore spend many weekends throughout the entire year on the road. When we are not on a rink, we enjoy all open-air activities, above all golf, camping, and everything that has to do with water.
LANXESS: Do you have a recommendation for young women?
Sarah Drayna: Nothing is off limits! Don’t be afraid to take new challenges and step outside your comfort zone. More importantly don’t let others tell you what you should do (with regards to job possibilities).
The world of science is opening up to more and more women. You see the changes in the US in regards to women studying the sciences and continuing on to graduate school in areas that were predominantly male dominated. I hope this trend continues throughout the world.
Once you have the education then so many other doors open for you. After that you simply need to find the right door to walk through with your head held high. If you are confident in what you do and how you approach things, then people respond positively to you and listen to what you have to say. Once you get the opportunity, then prove yourself and then more doors open.
LANXESS: How important were superiors in your professional career?
Sarah Drayna: I was very fortunate that I have worked for some great individuals that were willing to take a chance on me. Surround yourself with people that believe in you, support you and provide you with those tools that you need for advancement. Those elements make all the difference in achieving your career goals.
PERSONAL CAREER Sarah Drayna leads the Leather business unit of LANXESS in the USA and in Canada and she is president of the American Leather Chemists Association (ACLA). She has a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in biology with a focus on microbiology and molecular biology. Her first research work was in a medical research laboratory for the implementation of genetic mapping. After the switch to the chemical industry, she led a microbiology laboratory for the Nalco Chemical Company, which was later overtaken by Bayer and integrated into the Material Protection Products business unit. In 2004, she started at the Leather business unit. Drayna is married and has a nine-year-old son.