Karmala Sutton honestly admits that working in the family dealership “was not a dream of mine.”
Nathaniel Sutton’s younger daughter, Karen, wanted to be involved in the business her dad started in 1989, but older sister Karmala had plotted a career and earned a degree in hospitality management. “Dad always told us to follow our dreams—and if it didn’t work out, there was always the family business,” Karmala says.
But after graduation, Karmala fell back into automotive, first with Enterprise and then as a buyer at Carmax. “Automotive found me again,” she says.
Now she is dealer in training at Honda of Kenosha, in Bristol, Wis., one of the Sutton Auto Team’s three Chicagoland dealerships. This summer she was honored with the first-ever Ally Sees Her Award during the 2018 annual meeting of the National Association of Minority Automotive Dealers; Sutton has served two years as president of NAMAD’s NextGen group of second-generation dealership leaders.
“I was honored to receive the award, but really I’m just trying to work hard, make my dad happy and support our family business,” Sutton says.
Looking back, she says, “I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s getting easier to be a woman in this industry, but I am seeing more of a presence of women, compared to five or six years ago. But it’s not at the level it needs to be. I’m still often the only woman when I go offsite to an auction.”
She recalls being at auctions during her stint at Carmax; “I remember there being a guy who felt like he was stalking me. I remember how uncomfortable it made me feel, and how I’d seek out coworkers to stand near me so he’d leave me alone,” she says. “But now, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, and with increased awareness of how women feel—that certain actions and certain conversations are not ok—we are moving to a better place. I think it will help women feel more comfortable infiltrating the men’s club.”
Sutton relies on her mentor, food industry executive and family friend Dennis Banks, to discuss issues and ideas. “I think it’s important especially as a woman in this business to have a mentor,” she says. “My mentor’s perspective is open and broad, and he helps me work out ideas and work through situations. Working with a mentor, especially as a woman in a male-dominated world, has opened my eyes to see how to communicate better, and to see situations from another point of view. It’s been a great learning opportunity for me.”
Her advice for young women interested in the auto industry: “You have to have thick skin, and be willing to let things roll off your back when comments are made. But at the same time, you have to learn that it’s ok to speak up for yourself. No matter what industry you’re in, you have to be able to stand your ground and believe in yourself, and know you can do anything a man can do,” she says. “In automotive, you can make a lot of money, and support your family.”
She also hopes young women are not dissuaded by the dealership industry’s sometimes intimidating nighttime and weekend hours. “We have mothers at our dealerships, who need a more flexible schedule, and we really work with them to make it work for their families. The industry is progressing in that regard,” she says