Two Women of Ashley Furniture Awarded STEP Ahead Awards for Excellence in Manufacturing

The Manufacturing Institute Will Honor Emerging Leader, Kenia Cruz and Honoree, Kobi Connor of Ashley Furniture Industries

ARCADIA, Wis. – The Manufacturing Institute (MI)—the workforce development and education partner of the National Association of Manufacturers—announced it will honor two women of Ashley Furniture Industries (Ashley) with 2022 Step Ahead Awards. Kenia Cruz, operations manager, was named a 2022 STEP Ahead Emerging Leader and Kobi Connor, operations director, was named a 2022 STEP Ahead Honoree.

STEP Ahead Award Honorees and Emerging Leaders have accomplished success within their companies and have proven to be leaders in the industry as a whole. The Institute has also chosen to recognize a select few for the Emerging Leaders category – representing young women who are the future of the industry and have demonstrated exceptional accomplishments at just the beginning of their careers. The STEP Ahead Awards honor women who have demonstrated excellence and leadership in their careers and represent all levels of the manufacturing industry, from the factory floor to the C-suite.

Kenia began her career at Ashley as a machine operator when she was just 18 years old. In the seven years since, she’s grown that job into a career as an operations manager, overseeing 14 assembly lines and 150 associates. As the first woman in her family to graduate from high school, Kenia is passionate about helping other women grow and succeed. She brings her kind nature and her heart for service into every role she has while giving back to others within her community the way she’s given back within Ashley.

“It is an honor to receive this award because it helps show other women that with hard work and dedication, we can achieve great things,” said Cruz. “At Ashley, I have not only learned about manufacturing, but also what teamwork and great leadership can do. My family immigrated from Honduras to the United States when I was a child, and receiving this award is my way of showing my parents that their sacrifices and hard work have paid off.”

Kobi is living proof of the opportunities within manufacturing as she began her career with Ashley as a young, single mother working an entry-level job on the assembly line and has since worked her way up to her current role as an operations director. While attending school through Ashely’s tuition reimbursement program, she joined the Western Women’s Initiative Network and the Multicultural Club to mentor women in technically oriented careers. She continues to promote the tuition reimbursement program at events like new employee orientation and during her travels to other Ashley facilities to mentor, train and share her experiences with new and upcoming leaders within the manufacturing community.

“It is a tremendous honor to receive this award. I feel very proud to be part of a company that’s helping to close the gender gap and encourages the growth of female leaders,” said Connor. “There are so many opportunities for women in manufacturing to succeed at Ashley. I’ve worked with great leaders that have always challenged me and it’s given me a strong desire to help others grow.”

“As the world’s largest manufacturer of home furnishings, Ashley is committed to empowering the next generation of diverse leaders and closing the gender gap in manufacturing,” said Todd Wanek, President and CEO, Ashley Furniture Industries. “Kenia and Kobi are both outstanding women who put forth extraordinary effort every day to be their best and help us achieve our vision of being the Best Home Furnishings Company. We are thankful to have them as leaders within our organization and we are proud to have them join the ranks of a decade of inspiring STEP Ahead alumni.”

“The STEP Ahead Awards are central to the industry’s efforts to recognize and empower women,” said Manufacturing Institute President, Carolyn Lee. “Our Honorees and Emerging Leaders serve as role models and have their own multiplier effect on the number of women in the workforce, paying it forward to help others find their way into a successful, rewarding career in modern manufacturing. After 10 years of STEP Ahead Awards, we’ve honored more than 1,100 women leaders in manufacturing, who in turn have impacted hundreds of thousands of individuals through mentoring and volunteer work. We’re so proud of all these women, and we can’t wait to see what STEP and its Honorees and Emerging Leaders will accomplish in the next 10 years.”

The STEP Ahead Awards honor exceptional women in manufacturing and motivate them to mentor the next generation through an annual awards gala and associated leadership training program. On April 28, the MI will recognize 130 recipients of the STEP Ahead Awards in Washington, D.C. The STEP Ahead Awards program will highlight each Honoree and Emerging Leader’s story, including their leadership and accomplishments in manufacturing. The stories of these women and the leadership they show will help inspire next-generation female leaders in manufacturing and support current female talent within the industry.


The Manufacturing Institute grows and supports the manufacturing industry’s skilled workers for the advancement of modern manufacturing. The MI’s diverse initiatives support all American workers, including women, veterans and students, through skills training programs, community building and the advancement of their career in manufacturing. As the workforce development and education partner of the National Association of Manufacturers, the MI is a trusted adviser to manufacturers, equipping them with resources necessary to solve the industry’s toughest challenges. For more information, please visit

Ashley Furniture Industries, LLC (Ashley) feels that every person deserves more value for their money. Established in 1945, Ashley is the largest manufacturer of home furnishings in the world, and was named one of America’s Best Employers by Forbes in 2021. From design through fulfillment, Ashley is committed to delivering the world’s best home furnishing values, selection and service, and earning the loyalty and trust of its customers every day. Visit Ashley online at and “like” Ashley Furniture Industries on Facebook.

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