The head of the Philadelphia oil refiner and marketer was being honored by the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce with its Paradigm Award, given to a businesswoman whose accomplishments are seen as a model of success.
It’s rare for protesters to crash usually staid chamber of commerce events. But then, few Paradigm Award winners have enacted such sweeping changes through their organizations as Elsenhans has since becoming CEO in August 2008. She sold its chemicals business, closed or sold three of its five refineries, laid off hundreds of workers, and announced plans to spin off its SunCoke Energy business.
As Elsenhans, 54, began her speech, several protesters who had been seated in the ballroom stood and walked toward the lectern, carrying a sign that read “Real Leaders Don’t Destroy Families.” Another addressed the audience of about 750 people by asking, “Does anyone see a leader here?”
Elsenhans remained silent as the protesters, who later identified themselves as being from Philadelphia Jobs With Justice, a group that advocates on behalf of workers’ rights, were escorted from the ballroom.
When she resumed, her remarks centered on the need for women in the workplace to identify mentors, embrace change, take risks, persevere, and give back to others. Her speech was interrupted several more times as individual protesters, usually women, stood and talked to the crowd about layoffs and the loss of health benefits at Sunoco.
Gwen Snyder, executive director of Philadelphia Jobs With Justice, said at least 13 activists with her organization as well as Student Labor Action Project members from Temple University and Swarthmore College paid $125 per ticket to attend the chamber lunch. “We respect female leadership,” she said. “She may be a leader, but not the right kind.”
Members of the unions representing Sunoco refinery workers in South Philadelphia and Marcus Hook demonstrated for an hour outside the Marriott. Jim Savage, president of United Steelworkers Local 10-1, said he found it outrageous that anybody would honor Elsenhans for actions that have led to longer unemployment lines and a diminished tax base.
Judging by her speech, Elsenhans is used to hearing criticism. She told the audience that once, at a party on the night before she was to drive to Boston to attend Harvard Business School, a professor whom she’d taken four courses from asked why she would waste her time and money doing so.
“You’re not smart enough, you are not tough enough, and besides, you are a woman,” Elsenhans quoted him as telling her. It was demoralizing, she said.
“Believe it or not, this guy did me a big favor,” she said. “He helped strengthen my resolve to prove him wrong and succeed. I was more determined than ever to push ahead and give it my best efforts.”
After Elsenhans concluded her remarks, the largely female crowd stood and applauded.
After the event, Elsenhans declined to comment about the protest through a company spokesman, Thomas P. Golembeski. One of only 15 women to run a Fortune 500 company, Elsenhans rarely gives speeches. Golembeski said Elsenhans was honored to be chosen by the chamber to receive its 19th annual Paradigm Award, noting that she was a role model for others.
Elsenhans also received a $25,000 charitable gift provided by Ernst & Young L.L.P., which was matched by Sunoco. She donated the $50,000 to three nonprofit organizations, including $25,000 to the chamber’s Paradigm Scholarship for Working Women program, through which recipients seeking to complete an undergraduate degree receive up to $5,000 to be used for tuition and books.
Immediately after the speech, chamber president Rob Wonderling told the audience: “We believe in free enterprise. We believe in free speech when exercised with civility. In our 2011 Paradigm Award winner, you saw civility in action.”