As the old saying goes, “Everything is bigger in Texas.” This was certainly the case during Women in HVACR’s (WHVACR’s) 14th annual — and first stand-alone — conference, which was held in Fort Worth, Texas, at Tarrant County College Center of Excellence in Energy Technology (TCC).

“This is a milestone event for us,” said Mary Jo Gentry, vice president of WHVACR and marketing communications manager, Yellow Jacket Products, Ritchie Engineering Co. Inc. “This is our 14th annual conference, and, typically, we average 40 to 50 women in attendance. At this first stand-alone conference, we have 120 attendees. Now, 60 of them are from the Dallas/Fort Worth area, so we attribute some of it to the locality. But, we are very proud of the fact we have more than doubled the size of our attendance.”

Not only is WHVACR growing in event attendance, membership is also growing with more than 500 members, Gentry noted. Even the organization’s scholarship program, which started with one annual scholarship, expanded to award three $2,000 scholarships this past year. The winners were Monica Urquides, Antioch, California; Samantha Hacker, Middle River, Maryland; and Karin Dahlin, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

“We hope to continue to grow in terms of the amount we offer and the number of scholarships we offer,” Gentry added.

Tarrant County College partnered with WHVACR to host the conference.

“As a campus, we’re celebrating our 50th birthday,” said Peter Grant Jordan, president, South Campus, Tarrant County College District. “We’ve added career and technical programs that include HVACR, construction management, architectural technologies, and other mechanical industrial technology programs.”

According to Chris Noonan, department chair, building technologies, South Campus, Tarrant County College District, there are about 250 students currently enrolled in the HVACR program.

The state-of-the-art HVAC facility at TCC was the backdrop for a day full of inspiration, mentorship, memoirs, and education. The day also included a tour of the campus facilities.


This year’s conference theme was “Discover Your Legacy.”

“We decided that ‘Legacy’ was a good theme this year when we sat down in January to talk about it,” Gentry said. “Being that it’s our 14th year, we talked about who made this happen for us — the women who came before us. We want to also get the legacy in place for after we leave. All of us are in this to do some good, mentor and teach some gals, and then move out to let them continue what we’ve been doing. So we wanted to look at who started this 14 years ago, and make sure we’re giving them some credit.”

Lauren Roberts, board member, WHVACR and executive vice president, cfm Distributors Inc., Kansas City, Missouri, agreed.

“Legacy is the perfect theme for our organization because we have a number of people on our board who have been in the industry for 20-plus years, and then we have some who are newer to the industry,” she said. “The main purpose of our organization is about networking, mentorship, and education, and there’s no better theme for that than legacy, which encompasses all three of those really well. It’s all about passing down the knowledge of the industry, but also each and every woman’s story of how they’ve come up through the industry to the next generation so that we don’t have to fight the same battles as our predecessors have had to in the last 20 years.”


Rhonda Wiggins, HVACR instructor at Hennipin Technical College in Minneapolis, and The NEWS’ 2016 Best Instructor Runner-up, gave a technical presentation about the sequence of operation for a gas furnace that was interwoven with personal anecdotes of being a female HVAC technician. Wiggins talked about her trials, such as being barred from entering homes because she was a woman, to nearly being blown off a roof during Hurricane Hugo.

“As a tech in Minnesota, winters get real cold,” she said. “I’ve been out on no heat calls when ambient temperatures were minus 20-30°F, and I’ve been refused entry to the house,” she said. “The first time it happened, it was like a slap in the face. Then it happened a second time and a third time, and I noticed a pattern. It was all women who were refusing me entry. A man has never refused me entry into a home. They were typically older, white women. They believe this is a man’s job. As women, we need to build each other up.”

Wiggins went on to describe how she’s been in the trade for over 30 years, and, during that time, she’s only met one other female technician.

“Now, there's bound to be more ... I just don't know them,” she said. “And the trade, you know, it has changed in that we're a little bit more well-known than we used to be. I see it with my current students in my classroom, and I see it elsewhere in our college. It is a little easier, but we have a lot of work to do. It isn't fixed, but it is better. I became aware of Women in HVACR through Mary Jo Gentry from Yellow Jacket. I think it's a fine organization, and it's raising awareness. Because the story isn't complete. Our legacies are evolving. This year's topic or theme is ‘Discover Your Legacy;’ and that's changing, and the story's changing.

“[I really liked] seeing so many women,” Wiggins continued. “Like I said, I saw a slide on Facebook, and it said, ‘Sit with the winners. The conversation is different.’ Well, I'm going to make a new one: ‘Join Women in HVACR because the view is different.’”

Keynote presenter Elizabeth McCormick, a former U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter pilot and motivational speaker, also left a lasting impression. McCormick shared the story of what led her to become a helicopter pilot and the hardships she faced in training. She had the audience laughing as she joked about starter husbands, Army recruiters, flight instructors, and more. She used her life experiences as a pilot to share lessons and offer methods to overcome challenges and accomplish goals through the power of positive thinking and banishing negativity.

Other speakers included Elva LeBlanc, executive vice chancellor and provost for TCC; Julie Decker, president of WHVACR; Gentry; Kelly Ann Grey, councilwoman, city of Fort Worth; Jessica McKinney, manager of sales and membership engagement, Heating, Air-conditioning & Refrigeration Distributors International (HARDI); Melissa Santillan, inside sales, AC Supply Co., Fort Worth, Texas, accompanied by a recent graduate from the TCC HVACR program; and Matt Michel, president, Service Roundtable.

“Our main hope for the attendees of this conference is they find a good network of women to share ideas with, get mentoring from, and just have a lasting relationship with as they grow through the industry over the years,” Roberts said.

For more information about WHVACR, visit

Publication date: 12/6/2017

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