There are over 11 occupations the U.S. Department of Labor defines as nontraditional for women, career fields in which 25 percent or less of employees are female. Women are increasingly pursuing more nontraditional careers, especially in business and finance, science and technology, military and law enforcement and advanced manufacturing.

The challenges women face when seeking nontraditional employment opportunities vary depending on the job, field and sector. These women share how they approached their career choices in order to excel in their chosen field.


Marsha Hendler
President and CEO of Terrafina Energy
Marsha Hendler has worked in not one, but three nontraditional careers. The Texas native, born and raised in Temple, moved to San Antonio in 1985 for her undergraduate degree in hotel hospitality and management, working after graduation in the hotel industry at places like La Mansion del Rio. For her second career, Hendler started Marketing Plus and consulted for the hospitality industry. As the Eagle Ford Shale boom hit Texas, Hendler’s marketing firm grew as she picked up many new clients, including ones in the exploding Texaa oil industry.

As she learned about the oil business by representing operators and service companies, Hendler was intrigued and soon found herself applying for her operator’s license. The energetic Texan launched her third career after she obtained her license in 2011 from the Texas Railroad Commission and became a bonded operator. Hendler now runs TerraFina Energy, the largest woman-owned independent oil company in Texas, with projects in Frio, DeWitt and Live Oak Counties. She also serves as managing partner for SMR Energy Partners.

As CEO of TerraFina Energy, Hendler is a licensed oil operator and producer of hydrocarbons in the state of Texas. TerraFina offers direct investment opportunities to investors and contracts operations for qualified groups.

“I learned that most of the guys had gotten money from leasing property to oil wells, but they didn’t know if they would be able to get returns long term,” Hendler said. “The advice I got was to become an operator and learn this business to understand the investment opportunities even better.”

For Hendler, there is no typical workday. She handles the complex paperwork required to operate oil fields in Texas, everything from oil leases to drilling permits. Once the oil well is producing, Hendler takes over writing and filing required monthly reports with the Railroad Commission and sending checks to the well royalty owners and investors.

“I do everything that leads up to the day we go into the field, and when that day comes, the fellas take over because they have the scientific background for that,” Hendler said. “Once the well is producing, I handle all the documentation and finances.”

Hendler is forming a new entity, TerraFina Energy Partners, to function as the financial backbone of TerraFina, enabling the company to take on more energy projects. Field engineer Ronnie Laird and geologist Scott Payn are on the board of directors for TerraFina Energy but are not partners. Hendler is the sole full-time employee of TerraFina Energy, as she subcontracts employees and expertise as needed for each project.

Of the three industries Hendler has worked in, she finds the oil industry the most challenging.

“It has so many moving parts that it is harder than managing a hotel and so different,” Hendler said. “The process of getting leases requires dealing with families and money, which can be tricky. Once you start working in a field, there’s the unpredictability of the weather and how a well is going to perform.”

Her advice for women contemplating a career as an oil operator is to start younger, given the changeable nature of the oil industry.

“This is high-stakes gambling, and while I don’t regret having done it, I wish I did it earlier in my life,” Hendler said. “It’s risky to do this so close to retirement, but I love it. My life has changed so much.”

Hendler enjoys her time in the oil fields and has gotten nothing but respect and support from the men.

“I went from wearing Manolo Blahnik shoes to a pair of work boots and jeans,” Hendler said. “Give a woman the right pair of shoes, and she can accomplished anything.”

Nancy Sanford
Chief Criminal Investigations Division, Bexar County Sheriff’s Office
Nancy Sanford excelled in track and field as a student — she was a four-year member of Purdue University’s track and cross-country program. Born in Abington, Pa., and raised in West Palm Beach, Fla., she developed a keen interest in law enforcement after a high school internship she took with the West Palm Beach Police Department.

Sanford tried her hand at retirement in 2015, volunteering as a track team coach. When Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar asked her to join the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, she did not hesitate to leave retirement behind and agreed. She has been their deputy chief of criminal investigations division since January 2017.

Sanford is no stranger to the Alamo City, as she worked with the San Antonio Police Department and Bexar County Sheriff’s Office on various drug cases over the years. The law enforcement career veteran spent over three decades with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) as a special agent, working in San Antonio during most of her career.

“I’ve learned it’s important to work well with others and be a team player — it’s a lesson learned that is applicable in any career field,” Sanford said. “Networking with others in my field is what got me this job opportunity.”

When Sanford started her career in the 1980s, it was a different time for women in law enforcement. She estimates that at that time DEA probably had only 5 percent female agents, but emphasizes the overall composition is much better now. Her advice for women considering a career in law enforcement is to “stay strong and stick with it.”

“You still need to prove yourself, put in the time and be engaged by taking ownership. A strong work
ethic will make all the difference in your career.”

Sanford also stresses the need to surround yourself with capable people who share your same level of passion, which can make a big difference in the challenging yet rewarding field of law enforcement.

“I delegate to the lieutenants and sergeants I have chosen carefully over the past year,” Sanford said. “These people possess high standards and are dedicated to service to our community, reflected in how we approach each case and take care of the victims.”

Sanford points to the multidisciplinary team approach the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office uses in partnering with numerous nonprofit organizations to better help victims and prevent crime. The Sheriff’s Office has joined different task forces working with federal and state law enforcement to leverage its efforts.

The deputy chief could have followed her dad into athletics, and for years she did, exceling in track and cross-country events. When it comes to choosing a career, she gives her own daughter the same advice Sanford’s father gave her: “Find something that you love to do and you’ll make a living at it.”

“If you’re considering a career in law enforcement, research the opportunities to find that something that fits your skills and gives you the opportunity to be passionate about your life’s work,” Sanford said. “Whether you’re 20 or 50, you have to find your passion in life.”

Mona Helmy
President and Ceo of Helmy Plastics
When she was 14, Mona Helmy’s father moved the family from Syria to the U.S. Her father had three brothers, with one each living in New York City, Detroit and San Antonio. “My father visited all three cities and chose San Antonio,” Helmy said. “I love it here; it’s our home, and I would never dream of going anywhere else.”

Helmy got into the business of advanced plastics manufacturing 30 years ago. She and her husband, Ibrahim Helmy, met when they were architecture students attending UTSA. He had developed a patent for a novel landscape system made from plastic, but they could not find a manufacturer to produce the forms needed. The couple bought one thermoforming machine, leased a 6,000-square-foot building and hired two part-time employees to start their business.

“We decided to start a plastics manufacturing company knowing the challenges from observing our parents with their businesses but also aware of the potential rewards,” Helmy said. “Our business had everything we loved —design, challenge and leadership, which fulfilled us both.”

The Helmys started making their own line of landscaping plastics, then added a line of home improvement plastic items. By 1992, the company branched into manufacturing for the medical industry after a local medical company commissioned them to design housing for a blood pressure machine. They started making thinner plastics, such as blister clamshell containers and disposable medical trays for the medical, retail and food industries.

“We started in the custom manufacturing of heavy-gauge plastics,” Helmy said. “We added thin-gauge plastics after we discovered there is no one in San Antonio doing this.”

Working with their team of talented designers, precision toolmakers and meticulous operators, the couple transformed Helmy into a plastic-forming industry leader. The plastic parts are designed and tooled in-house, giving the company unlimited creativity. Mona served as the company’s vice president until her husband died in 2009. Since then, she has been leading Helmy as its CEO. The company now operates with 12 full-time employees out of a 45,000-square-foot facility located in northwest San Antonio.

“Thermal forming companies either do thin-gauge or heavy-gauge plastic, but we are unique because we do both, as well as all our design and tooling in-house,” Helmy said. “Our production facility is centrally located. which makes us a strategic shipping point to anywhere in the U.S.”

Her advice for women considering a career in advanced manufacturing? Make connections with others and maintain a work-life balance.

“I should have started networking for my business sooner because it would have helped me become a better leader for my company earlier,” Helmy said. “You have to build your business, but you also need to build your life as well — your family, your place in the community as a contributing member, and your health and well-being. Young people often put their lives on hold because they are building their business, but you need to strike a balance.”

Helmy is actively involved in promoting the manufacturing industry in the San Antonio area as well as the U.S. producers organization, Made in the USA. She is an active member in the San Antonio Manufacturing Association, the National Association for Women Business Owners (NAWBO) San Antonio chapter, and others. Helmy won the San Antonio Business Journal 2014 Business Women’s Leadership Award and recently won the 2018 NAWBO Business Woman Owner of the Year award.

“I believe integrity and innovation are essential to a business owner’s success. Both these characteristics help set your business apart from your competitors. It’s helped differentiate Helmy as a leading plastic forming company.”

By Iris Gonzalez

Photography by David Teran