Being the first can be lonely. It’s uncharted and exciting, but it can also be daunting. Three Wilmington women, all the first women in notable positions, believe there are a few keys to success: Know your area of expertise and, just as important, know what you don’t know.
Don’t be afraid to take a chance. And be open to taking on new responsibilities.
Beth Pancoe is New Hanover County’s first female licensed construction contractor. Linda Pearce Thomas was the first African-American woman to chair the University of North Carolina Wilmington Board of Trustees. And Kathy Cochran was the Wilmington Police Department’s uniformed drug squad’s first female member. She was recently promoted to captain, making her now the highest-raking woman in the department – the force’s first female captain in more than a decade.
As part of the Greater Wilmington Business Journal’s annual Women in Business issue, here are the stories of their trailblazing careers.
“Do you know anything, honey?” was a common question Pancoe received from potential clients after she became a licensed contractor in the late 1980s at nearly 50 years old. The question came when they learned she was the owner of the company. They’d assumed she was the secretary when she’d called them to set up appointments to see job sites.
She’d explain the state of North Carolina thought she did, in fact, know “some stuff” since they gave her a license after she’d passed her exam.
“You had to just ignore it and carry on,” she recalls of the slights, which she believes weren’t intentionally to hurt her but rather the way some people thought about women’s professional roles during those days.
As a matter of fact, Pancoe named her company SDI Construction because it stood for another corporation, Southern Diversified Investments, she and her brother had. She used SDI as a DBA, or ‘doing business as’, rather than putting her own name on the company, believing a woman’s name for a licensed contractor might limit business opportunities.
Now, however, those she’s done business with who once had qualms, respect her and refer her for work. Naysayers have become supporters.
Her company performs new home construction (not for speculation) and historical restoration and renovation.
Prior to starting her own business, she worked for a small home repair business. She parted ways with her boss after he reprimanded her for being five minutes late for work. She explained she was late because she’d picked up his coffee, as he’d instructed her to do every day, and the line at the coffee shop was long. Words were exchanged, and they parted ways.
“So I said, ‘OK, genius, what are you going to do now?’” she recalls. She realized that she’d been doing most of the work at the company while her boss was bankrolling the business. She started her business.
Pancoe used to think she’d retire because people would stop using her services. But she’s rethought this, now saying she’ll retire if they stop. She keeps good company: Her 93-yearold husband is still a working real estate developer.
Pearce Thomas served as a UNCW trustee from 2005 to 2013 and was its chair for the 2012-13 academic year.
When asked if all the hoopla about being a first female is tiresome, Pearce said, “It will be a better place when these things are not a very big deal.”
Pearce Thomas was 5 when she was orphaned, and she was raised by her grandmother, a fact that put her in a caretaker role later in her life. Even though she didn’t realize it at the time, this had a huge impact on her life.
After Pearce Thomas completed her education in the 1970s, she worked “as a glorified proofreader” for the Library of Congress before coming home to Wilmington to care for an aging aunt. She has a master’s degree in adult education with a concentration in gerontology. She later went on to found Elderhaus, an adult day care facility in Wilmington, in 1980. She said she wanted to provide a place where the caretaker could get a respite.
She retired as CEO of Elderhaus at the end of 2013.
As the university’s trustees chair, Pearce Thomas says she was fairly vocal about issues she believes are important. Lack of diversity is one of those issues. She may have left the chair position, but she’s certainly not done working for a better community.
She’s an involved donor to the UNCW women’s basketball team. She’s interested in more diverse K-12 schools and fears neighborhood schools threaten that ideal. She attended a historically black college university, or HBCU, and is interested in their solvency.
In September, the City of Wilmington’s Commission on African American History recognized Pearce Thomas along with four others in this year’s Living Legends honors.
Line Of Duty
This year Cochran fulfilled a hope as she nears completing three decades of police work: She was promoted to captain.
She started with the police department in 1989 when her UNCW roommate’s boyfriend, a police recruiter, asked if she’d ever considered a job in law enforcement. Originally from Maryland, she’d fallen in love with Wilmington and wanted to stay. She applied for positions in two police departments. Wilmington won.
Shortly afterward, she joined the new uniformed drug squad as its first female member. Throughout her career, Cochran said she has been fortunate (and grateful) to have been provided opportunities to learn and try new initiatives in service to improving the department. She’s worked in many areas in the department.
Her new role is that of division commander. Some of the areas she oversees are the real-time crime center, which provide real-time information to officers in the field to help them do their job better; training; recruiting; professional standards; and police accreditation and research.
With retirement on the horizon, Cochran says she continues to look for ways to prepare those who may be stepping up to increased responsibilities in the department by encouraging them and giving them opportunities to learn things that were important to her growth and ascension within the ranks.
And she continues to try to recruit female officers.
“You meet people often on the worst day of their lives,” she said, “and to be able to help or bring closure [in the case of a death] is draining but rewarding.”