As the opening beats of “I’ve Got a Feeling” pumped into the Benson Hotel’s dining room in Portland, OR, on Sunday evening, June 4th, 45 women put down their dessert forks and turned expectant smiles to the front of the room for the opening of the 8th Women in Carwash conference. 

            “Woohoo! Welcome ladies,” said keynote speaker and psychologist Connie-Lee Bennett of Meraki Training Academy. “So glad you’re here! Get up! Yes! Get up out of your chairs! Clap your hands and let’s move!”

            And so, it began. Within seconds, industry executives, managers, owners, distributors, and vendors had temporarily abandoned their more reserved professional personas to dance off their steak dinners. Anyone could see that this biannual event is a different work experience.

            Now in its fifth year, Women in Carwash is a designated space for women working in the industry across North America to learn, grow, connect, and support one another while striving to achieve their personal and professional goals. It offers informative presentations, expert-led workshops, networking opportunities, and relaxed entertainment in a positive environment that imparts life-changing skills, fosters relationships, and builds community.

            To create each Women in Carwash event, founder Brenda Jane Johnstone takes suggestions from the previous conference’s participants. She welcomes ideas for speakers, topics, and workshops. Over time, the variety of speakers has reflected industry leadership’s growing interests and development.

            Bennett kicked off the Portland event by encouraging the women to consider their influence in the world and to question self-limiting beliefs. She pushed the attendees to be conscious of their choices at every moment, setting the stage for a theme of decision-making that carried throughout the presentations over the next two days.

            Bennett led a workshop on reading body language, and Amy Boudreau, aka the Yoga Cop, taught attendees how to manage difficult conversations, particularly in high-stress situations. These workshops dovetailed nicely with two taught by Diane Stafford, president of UpTalent Solutions. She explained and modeled predictive and emotional intelligence using special insights from the Predictive Index.

            In another workshop, Megan Scheid, VP of human resources strategy at Tommy’s Express Car Wash, taught participants to evaluate their roles in company success using key performance indicators (KPIs). In her sessions on “Shift,” Chandra Harbaruk of Designing Destiny Enterprises Inc. explained the deep inner need to align and live out core values and that organizations function best when teams support one another in realizing the stated goals. Two workshops featured practical tips attendees could implement right away: Julie Graff of DRB demystified social media and I simplified the tedium of writing an e-mail.

            Between the workshops and networking time, the women took in the sights of the city – Portland’s Japanese Garden, Powell’s Books, and bars and restaurants in the Pearl District. They also appreciated the hotel’s beauty; the stately Benson was built in 1912 and features Russian walnut pillars in its grand lobby, Italian marble stairwells, coffered ceilings, and Austrian crystal chandeliers.

            Yet even the brilliance of the old hotel could not outshine the women and their disco ball on Monday night. Fun is a hallmark of Women in Carwash, so everyone at the conference turned out in her 70s/80s finery to join the dance party and take her chances at the free-to-play craps and roulette tables.

            By Tuesday morning, no one was quite ready to go home. After one more round of workshops, the group came together to hear from an executive panel. Katie Balash, president and CEO of Vaughan Industries, moderated the discussion between MaryAnn Irvine, president of London Mat Industries, Danka Dubak, director of marketing and events for AVW, and Mayra Chimienti, COO of Mister Car Wash.

            Balash asked the women to define executive leadership, share stories of how they started in the industry, explain their biggest challenges and how they create visions for their companies, and describe what it means to be a mentor. Irvine said that executive leadership involves consistent learning, being curious, and opening oneself to new ideas. Dubak got her degree in business and communications and was persuaded by her grandfather, who started AVW, to continue working in the family business. She helped move the company forward by designing a children’s coloring book now sold in car washes. Chimienti said, “You are your own biggest challenge.” She encouraged the attendees to recognize this fact to gain control over whatever is holding them back. Balash offered her own wisdom throughout the discussion, noting that women have been in the car wash industry for many decades, even when their contributions were not acknowledged. She also highlighted a shift in thinking that has moved away from considering women industry leaders as unusual.

            The conference’s closing lunch speaker sent everyone off on a high note. Krista Anderson is the founder and CEO of ESSTAR, an international organic food brokerage and distribution company with offices in the US and France. Once given just three months to live, she is a cancer survivor on a mission to provide healthy food choices in convenience stores with her Healthy on the Go brand. After working for several years to find the right partners, she recently signed a contract to place healthy snacks on college campuses across the United States. The audience was inspired by her determination, proving once again that the Women in Carwash conference is an enticing mix of enthusiasm and professional development. 

            “The Women in Carwash conference was a wonderful experience,” said Tricia Fear of Mister Car Wash. “I was filled with knowledge on becoming a great leader, how to work on myself, and tons of wonderful real-life experiences from all of the women there. Small, intimate, and fun!”

            Others recognize that it’s a great place to start when they are just beginning a career. Alaina Franks, a branding specialist with SLAM, said, “I have been a leader in the car wash industry for the past three years, which coincidently has also been my first three years out of college. Having graduated and started work abruptly during the pandemic, I never had a moment to sit and reflect on what I was doing with my career, and this conference helped me to give myself that needed recognition of success and pride while also teaching me to deal with female-focused hurdles that they don’t quite teach you in college. I feel refreshed returning to work this week and inspired to keep working through what was beginning to feel like a burn-out phase, knowing that I have a group of women behind me. The connections and support system are invaluable!”

            Five years in, eight conferences down, Women in Carwash is meeting its goals to inform, inspire, and support the women in the industry. It’s a lively success story that’s still being written.

Gretchen Matthews founded Chesapeake Quill to help businesspeople become better writers. She is a regular presenter at the biannual Women in Carwash conference and the copy editor for its newsletter, L.E.A.R.N. Contact her at

Left to right: Brenda Jane Johnstone, Connie-Lee Bennett,
and Gretchen Matthews.
Left to right: Gretchen Matthews, Connie-Lee Bennett,
Brenda Jane Johnstone, Chandra Harbaruk, Lori Donnell,
and Amy Boudreau.
Left to right: Krista Anderson, Diane Stafford, Christine Kelly,
and Connie-Lee Bennett.
Left to right: MaryAnn Irvine and Danka Dubak.