Female empowerment, “(s)heros” and learning to trust your instinct were topics of discussion following last night’s virtual awards presentation, which honored Mary Jo Tomasini, MAS+, as this year’s recipient of PPAI’s 2021 Woman of Achievement award. It was the perfect closing to the first day of PPAI’s Women’s Leadership Conference Direct-2-You as 70 attendees tuned-in to congratulate Tomasini—founder and CEO of distributor CE Competitive Edge, LLC, in Stevensville, Michigan, and a longtime industry and community volunteer and leader—and also to hear more of her story. Kelli Denes, MAS, director of business development for The Vernon Co., and co-chair of the WLC Workgroup, emceed the evening event and presented the award.

“You might say that the first love of my life as an adult was the promotional products business. I knew that I was in love with it,” said Tomasini, as she accepted the custom trophy. “The business has changed a lot over the past 37 years, and so have I, but just like fine wine or a strong marriage, our industry has gotten better with age. We are more creative, consultative, tech-savvy, and the list goes on and on.”

Tomasini, a 37-year industry veteran, shared that she didn’t know immediately whether she wanted to be in promotional products, but the industry seemed to have found its way to her, and it was a perfect match. As a college student struggling to pay her bills, Tomasini left school and took a job as a proofreader at an engraving shop. Eventually, she learned that a longtime employee working in promotional products sales was leaving, and after approaching her then-employer, Tomasini became the youngest person to hold the position; a role she remained in for nine years. Armed with the knowledge of nearly a decade of experience, Tomasini decided to leave that position to start her own distributorship. With support from her family, and with a $5,000 loan from her father and uncle, she purchased a computer and used office equipment, and set aside the rest for deposits, and in 1993, CE Competitive Edge got its start. “The rest is history,” she says, “because we grew very fast, and I was able to pay that money back to my dad and uncle faster than they anticipated.”

Among those in attendance was Paula Wygonik, MAS, president of CE Competitive Edge and Tomasini’s sister, who’s been in the industry for 18 years. “I could not be more excited about what the future holds with you at the helm, both in our business and as the leader of our family,” Wygonik said, leading a toast to Tomasini. “You live your life serving others and looking for ways to serve others, and if each of us could take just a little bit of that, wouldn’t the world be a less lonely place?”

Tomasini thanked her family, friends, peers and tribe of (s)heros for their ongoing support, and offered encouraging words to those in attendance, highlighting the accomplishments of the promotional products industry to remain resilient throughout the pandemic. In closing, she said, “I am deeply grateful for you naming me PPAI’s 2021 Woman of Achievement. I am humbled and honored. You have my commitment that I will continue to lead and serve with integrity and humility. After all, the promo world was the first love of my life, and our relationship is stronger than ever. Thankfully, my husband doesn’t mind,” she added, with a chuckle.

WLC Direct-2-You, which opened Monday, is being held virtually through Wednesday, June 23. For more, visit www.ppai.org/events/womens-leadership-conference-direct-2-you/.