Even as women continue to be underrepresented in the C-suite, some female executives are using gender as a way to differentiate their businesses and expand into new markets.
Anne Hed is among them. Her company, Hed Cycling, manufactures wheels, carbon rims and other components for competitive cycling. Last summer, it became a certified woman-run business enterprise, a designation she says could attract customers who appreciate what she’s doing.
“This is not easy. It’s pretty much a male-dominated industry,” says Hed, the company’s CEO.
Hed Cycling is based in Roseville, Minnesota, where it does most of its manufacturing and assembly. It was founded in 1984 by Anne and her husband, Steve Hed, whom she met after qualifying for the Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon. In need of $100 to cover the entrance fee, Anne approached Steve at his bicycle shop to ask for the money on the recommendation of a friend. He gave her the cash, and also tinkered with a new disc wheel design that Anne began using to compete.
“The next leap was me getting a phone call from a kid in Texas. He didn’t have any money, and I decided to send him a wheel, and he broke it. His name was Lance Armstrong.”
With Steve’s newly invented wheel, Anne won a competition on the East Coast that awarded her a car. The two used the title as collateral and secured a $14,000 bank loan to start a business selling wheels based on Steve’s design. For brand exposure, they gave away wheels to athletes.
“The next leap was me getting a phone call from a kid in Texas. He didn’t have any money, and I decided to send him a wheel, and he broke it,” Hed recalls. “His name was Lance Armstrong.”
The company’s wheels have since been used to win a number of Tour de France races, as well as Olympic titles, including a gold medal in Rio de Janeiro. It holds several patents and patents pending for its wheel design.
Bike-maker Cervelo eventually commissioned Hed Cycling to build an aerodynamic bicycle frame. In 2014 it developed a prototype for an advanced, one-piece molded frame made of composite materials—a complicated undertaking in the world of carbon fiber molding. Steve called Anne to tell her the first prototype was a success. But on the next call she received, she learned he’d collapsed and died unexpectedly.
For Anne, continuing the project was a way to honor her husband’s legacy and the frames have since won several composite awards, she says. The endeavor sparked ideas about other complex products the company can mold from carbon fiber, and how it might sell into industries such as aerospace and defense. For government or corporate contracts that mandate supplier diversity, the certification from the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council could benefit Hed Cycling and its nearly 50 employees.
“I’m still in the infancy of trying to figure that all out,” Hed says. “I’m pretty sure I’m the only female-owned fiber molding manufacturer in the U.S. So how do you get the word out?”
Kathryn Mulligan is the editor in chief of Middle Market Growth.