What Drives Her: The Unlikely Automotive Careers of Sara Morgan and Melanie Hellwig

Women were once an outlier, now they're leading and inspiring. Here's how two top leaders built automotive careers and leadership roles at SEMA

Annika Carter With Sara Morgan And The Female Build Bronco At The 2023 Sema Show
Annika Carter with Sara Morgan and the Female Build Bronco at the 2023 SEMA Show. Photo: Annika Carter

Different Paths Lead to Inspiring Automotive Careers 

There was a time when women in the automotive industry weren’t just rare – they were unwelcome. Over the years, though women have made a mark, some because they followed their passion, others because an automotive career made sense. When I recently attended the annual SEMA convention – the  Specialty Equipment Marketing Association – I met two women who truly exemplify the opportunities for women have in the automotive sphere, and maybe not in the ways you think.

Meet Sara Morgan, Bronco Builder and Business Leader

This year, SBN, or the SEMA Businesswomen’s Network, celebrated its 30th year. Currently leading SBN’s 700 members is Sara Morgan, SBN Chair and owner/founder of LGE-CTS Motorsports. 

Sara opened her first business at the age of 16, selling auto parts to the men who attended the car shows that she frequented. This small enterprise eventually became her first business, an online truck parts retailer, www.CustomTruckShop.com. By the age of 18, she opened her brick-and-mortar store, and the rest is history! Currently, LGE-CTS Motorsports specializes in off-road vehicles, doing custom builds and some in-house manufacturing under the name Baja Forged. She also joined forces with her sister, Theresa, who is a top-gun PPE Painter. 

Sara was involved in SEMA from early on. As a SEMA member business, she began by volunteering to assist with other company’s SEMA vehicle builds. This allowed her to begin building connections with large companies that, as she says, otherwise would never have known she existed! 

At one time, she was averaging around 40 cars each year for the SEMA show, plus 80 cars at home in the shop, some custom off-roading builds, and some for the body shop that she ran at the time. After COVID, Sara shut down the body shop portion of her business to reduce her workload to manageable levels. As a testament to the quality of vehicles Sara and her team built, the 2019 Jay Leno Bronco Sara built for Ford drew in the largest press conference in SEMA history. 

Related: Toyota Shows Off Vintage and Performance-Inspired Models at SEMA

All Female Built Bronco Women Of Sema

This all female built Bronco is an example of how far women in the automotive industry have come. Photo: Annika Carter

Leading SEMA’s First All-Female Build

Sara was introduced to SBN in 2011 when SBN built its first all-female build. When Rose Kawasaki, the then-chair of SBN, approached Ford with the idea, Ford said they would sponsor the build with one condition – Sara, who had been building vehicles for Ford for some time at that point, and her sister, Theresa, were part of the build team. SBA agreed, and an all-female-built 2011 Ford Mustang was displayed proudly at SEMA that year. 

Let’s pause on Sara’s story and discuss SBN for a minute. SBN is designed to help women enter and succeed in the automotive sphere in whatever facet is their passion. SBN hosts networking events across the country, as well as webinars and Zoom calls for their members. In addition, all SBN members have access to a closed Facebook group where they can ask questions without any judgment. The goal is to create a safe space where women can feel supported and welcome. Some men are involved in SBN at different levels, typically assisting in the conversation of how men and women coexist in the industry in more effective ways.

Sara spoke highly of SBN and its importance, not just in growing her business but also in her mental health as the owner of a business. She says the friends and connections that she has made through SBN are always there when things are hard. To all women interested in any career in a male-dominated industry, she encouraged you to “find your people in the space where you are passionate.” 

Related: Off-Road Accessories Complete the Outfit: Lexus Dresses Up its SUVs

Bringing More Women Together to Custom Build a Bronco

In celebration of the 10-year anniversary of the first all-female-built SBN car at SEMA, SBN decided to bring together over 120 women from different sectors of the automotive industry and do it again – this time with a 2023 Ford Bronco. 

The first goal was to feature parts from women-owned businesses when possible. The first priority was businesses owned or co-owned by a woman, followed by brands with women in a major leadership role, and then brands with a strong female influence. While it wasn’t possible to stick to only woman-owned businesses for all aftermarket parts, the vast majority of the parts fall into one of these categories, including Baja Forged, Oracle Lighting and Goose Gear

Once all parts were acquired, it was time for building. The Bronco was built at both SEMA garages (one in Diamond Bar and one in Detroit) to make it easy for women from both coasts to assist. While men were allowed to assist and keep the builders company, the car was only touched by women. The ladies lovingly called these men their “mantors.” 

How Women Work – Collaborative, Curious – Is The Secret Sauce

Some of these mantors commented on the dynamic of women working together, as opposed to the men who comprise their shops back home. According to the mantors, the women tended to have a more celebratory work style (celebrating small accomplishments) and were much more cooperative and not afraid to ask each other questions or for help. The whole process took around a year to complete before being shipped to the Las Vegas Convention Center, where it was proudly displayed just inside the main doors of West Hall. 

Along with celebrating women in all spheres of the automotive industry, Sara said the project was intended to showcase just how many different job types there are in the automotive industry outside of the skilled trades. 

The Bronco was auctioned off with all proceeds benefitting SEMA Cares, of which Sara is also the chair. The auction, which ended in early November, raised $59,600 for the three nonprofits SEMA Cares supports: Child Help, Victory Junction, and Austin Hatcher. 

Related: What Drives Her: Welcome to Our Podcast!

 

Annika Carter With Melanie Hellwig

Annika Carter with Melanie Hellwig. Photo: Annika Carter

Meet Melanie Hellwig, a Fourth Generation CEO 

Melanie Hellwig was not always planning on taking over the family business. Hellwig Industries was created in 1946 by Melanie’s great-grandfather and grandfather, producing products painted army green using surplus paint left over from the war. 

Despite the family business, Melanie did not have trucks on her mind when she went to college where she fell in love with business and sales. At the same time she realized sales was her calling, her father’s sales manager needed help and asked if Melanie would be interested in joining the sales force. It was “magical timing,” as Melanie says. 

Being a Family Member Didn’t Make Things Easier

As a 20-year-old, Melanie said, sales were hard. And she did not get any help from her father, who expected her to work just as hard (if not harder) than the rest of his employees. The cold calling, especially, Melanie says, was intimidating. As a 20-year-old female entering male-owned and male-run automotive shops trying to sell truck parts, Melanie had to work even harder to be “the most prepared in the room” and to prove her knowledge and worth. 

While being a woman had its challenges, Melanie is ultimately grateful for the struggles because they made her work that much harder, learn that much more, and become that much better of a CEO. She learned to use her differentness in the industry to her advantage. 

From sales, Melanie graduated to the marketing side of the business before taking on her current role. Like Sara, she also volunteered with SEMA for her whole career, primarily in the Light Truck Accessory Alliance, where she was the only woman for quite some time. Through this Alliance, she and the other members worked to address real-world issues that affected their industries, and Melanie was opened up to another side of the industry outside of Hellwig. 

Helping Other Women Build an Automotive Career Through SEMA

Melanie doesn’t just stand out in her business, though. She is a chair-elect for the SEMA Board. In two years, Melanie will be only the second woman to serve on the SEMA Board. The first woman served in the 80s, a markedly different time for women in the automotive industry. As opposed to the first SEMA chairwoman, Melanie is thankful that the world of automotive has become inviting enough for women that she does not have to overcompensate for respect anymore. In anticipation of Melanie’s joining the Board, the bylaws are in the process of being amended, changing the word “Chairman,” to “Chairperson.”

On the SEMA Board, Melanie is very passionate about protecting truck owners’ right to modify their vehicles. One aspect of this is lobbying lawmakers for laws in favor of enthusiasts to prevent laws from being passed that would ban anyone from working on their car in their driveway. Their other goal is to teach vehicle owners responsibility – owners can continue to modify so long as they do so in a responsible manner. 

When I asked Melanie what advice she has for any women who are looking to get into the automotive sphere, no matter what facet, she encouraged anyone entering the industry to remember that women want to help. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice (asking for advice is how Melanie ended up with a mentor early on in her career!), and be willing to be vulnerable. But most importantly, do it.

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Annika Carter has over four years of performance driving experience, both with and without professional instruction. She has driven... More about Annika Carter

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