PLASTICS VP brings industry together

March 12, 2024
Ashley Hood-Morley, VP of industry engagement for the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS), credits her mentors as she looks forward to the first NPE in six years.

Think back to the random moments that have defined your life. Maybe it was a conversation with a neighbor that led to a job, or a meet-cute at the grocery store that eventually led to marriage and children.

For Ashley Hood-Morley, VP of industry engagement for the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS), one of those pivotal moments came as a new University of Kentucky (UK) student, when she received a grid contrasting the possibilities for students pursuing careers in a variety of engineering fields. Chemical engineers’ salary stood out; so did three words: “Food.” “Flavors.” “Cosmetics.”

She was sold.

For a first-generation college student who’d breezed through high school, that guide was one of many that helped unlock a future she couldn’t have imagined. Recently, she talked with Karen Hanna, senior staff reporter for Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing, about how mentoring has changed her life — and how the first NPE in six years will make a mark on yours.

It has been three years since COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the last NPE. How are you feeling as the industry readies for NPE 2024? 

Hood-Morley: I’m super excited about this NPE, there’s no doubt about it. This will be my third NPE [including the 2015 and 2018 shows]. There’s just nothing like it.  

I was super excited for 2021. We wish we never had to cancel the show. But there were a lot of good learnings that came from that. I think we all learned about how to make our lives more convenient ... the scan-and-go registration desk that gets people in and out of places super fast; there’s going to be so much more available electronically. 

Compared to 2018, I think there’s so much learning, there’s so much innovation. I think that’s the benefit of having the six years between the show, if we had to do that. 

There’s just a ton that I’m excited about. We’ve got a new sustainability hub that’s going to be a destination people are going to want to get to. 2015 was the first time we recycled material off the show floor. We applied that in 2018, and we’re doing the same thing [this year]. That space is going to be incredible. We have the goal of recovering and recycling 100 percent of recyclable waste generated during the show. Attendees will be able to see a lot of that in operation. We don’t just get the benefit of running a sustainable show, but we get the benefit of showing people how we’re doing it. That was one of my favorite parts of 2018. So I’m really looking forward to that. We’ve really expanded the education sessions, over 100 both on and outside of the show floor area. There’s going to be so many different education tracks and speakers and different people that people have an opportunity to one-stop-shop hear from. 

In the wake of the cancellation of NPE 2021, how are relationships between PLASTICS and its members? 

Hood-Morley: Nobody wanted the situation that we found ourselves in; it was very tough. When you talk about the situation now and you think about last year at Space Draw, we sold out our exhibitor space in record time. That is a testament to the strength of the relationships we have with members and exhibitors. 

It’s not just NPE, but what we’ve been able to do to rebuild the association, to rebuild the team. I think we’ve just put our best foot forward the past couple of years with members, the industry, our partners. I feel like we’re in a good place. 

Members in 2021 expressed frustration that the association had put too much emphasis on NPE and wasn’t focused enough on other efforts. How do you feel about the mix now? 

Hood-Morley: I think 100 percent: We do need to be more than just NPE. I think that’s what you’ve seen over the past couple years. We have reinforced the other aspects of the association. When you think about our mission statement, we are to protect, promote and grow the industry. And NPE is where we want to bring everybody together to grow their businesses, to make sure their businesses are thriving, but we can’t grow [the industry] if we’re not protecting and promoting. So, we have a whole other host of things that we have focused on in the last couple years, in terms of advocating, communicating, making sure people understand that plastics is the sustainable material of choice. 

We have such a robust sustainability portfolio of initiatives. We’re not just an NPE trade show association. We have really built out what we’re doing. 

You’ve recently returned to PLASTICS after your second stint working for Eastman Chemical Co. What compelled you to come back? 

Hood-Morley: I had an opportunity to kind of rebuild the association. Coming out of the pandemic, coming back out of the challenging time the association had been through was appealing to me. I’m big fan of a challenge; you can ask any of my friends. 

Everything I had done leading up to this, I’ve built my career path to get to. I’m kind of the unicorn for this job. I was the only person who has been literally in both departments, unless there’s somebody from a long time ago that I don’t know about. I’ve got our membership group who does all the things that membership groups do — recruiting, onboarding, engaging our members, retention, all those things. Then, I have our industry engagement team, and they’re the member liaison; they’re relationship managers. They serve as primary points of contact for our members and steer them into all the groups and committees we have here. I sold memberships for almost three years. I’ve been to all our plastics events and [worked] on the sustainability team.  

All the things lined up to come back to PLASTICS in this specific role. We [at PLASTICS] have an incredible team having Matt [Seaholm] at the helm. When it came about, it’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. I was in a good role, and it was a tough decision. But it’s one of those things that you just [can’t] say no to. The stars had to align. I'm pretty grateful for it. 

In what specific ways are you able to help PLASTICS members? 

Hood‑Morley: Our job is to understand what’s happening at a big picture [level]. Whether it’s a special project or initiative one company can’t do, as the association, we can pull three or four companies together, pull the resources ... or maybe it’s bringing the opinions together, getting the input from everybody, and advocating for a position on Capitol Hill. I think having the ability to step back, hear and see from people where those pressure points are coming from and try to work the puzzle, “How can we be helpful?” I think that’s where we have a unique role. 

While at Eastman, you held the title of product stewardship manager, among other positions. How important is sustainability to you and the plastics industry? 

Hood‑Morley: I think the plastics industry is committed to making plastics more circular. Over the past several years, we have seen an incredible investment in innovations and technologies that are going to hopefully see this come to fruition. We have sustainability priorities here at PLASTICS, and one of those is to develop a more circular plastics economy. We promote not just the innovations, but the people working behind their creation. One of the coolest things we’ve done recently is our “Recycling Is Real” initiative. We’ve put together some pretty incredible videos to show people what’s really happening and how we’re taking it a step further, not really focusing on the items going into the blue bin, but where our members really come into the picture and where we show that material as it’s being processed, sorted, separated, ground and made back into pellets. It’s exciting that we can be part of telling that story. Every time we get to tell that story, and every time we get to release one of those videos, it’s just a very positive feeling. 

Your background is in engineering. How did you wind up working for an industry association, rather than doing science? 

Hood-Morley: All my time outside of the plastics industry at Eastman, I had so many great opportunities. I worked in technology [and] manufacturing. I ran part of a plant for a couple years. I worked on the corporate sustainability team. Not only [did] I work outside of the industry, but I worked in a bunch of different functions within the industry.  

You get a different perspective when you work in manufacturing. You have a different perspective when you’re doing research and development. It’s not just being outside the industry, but being outside the industry and in all those different roles. I get how the industry operates; I’ve done it. These companies are under a lot of pressure, and it’s hard to understand that until you sit at that table. I think that’s played a big part in driving me to do what I do, that I truly understand [at] PLASTICS, we have a critical and unique role in bringing the industry together and representing the supply chain. We can bring people together in a noncompetitive way, to do things none of these companies can do themselves or, frankly, none of them probably want to do themselves. 

How did you transition from engineering to working at a trade association?  

Hood‑Morley: I did not know trade associations existed until — let me think about this — it probably was in 2012 ... at Eastman, I was exposed to the world of trade associations. I had no idea this could be a career path. 

[My] industry experience [has] played a huge role. I served at the association as a member volunteer, working on projects. We were looking at food packaging regulation. I saw how this association can play a role in bringing together different pieces of the supply chain. I had access to processor members, fellow materials suppliers, people further down the supply chain than I would have had access to as a young engineer inside a single entity, and I realized the value of collaboration.  

The tie back to engineering ... we’re all about team building, strategic thinking and problem-solving. At the end of the day, that’s what the whole world is all about, and that’s what this job is all about. It’s about being able to communicate, being able to step back, see the bigger picture, problem-solve.  

So, I’m not doing any formulas. I’m not doing calculus, anything crazy like that. But those skills throughout engineering apply in a very different way. We’re not building distillation columns, but we’re still building relationships, building teams. It comes back to problem-solving in a systematic way. 

How did you choose chemical engineering? 

Hood-Morley: In high school, my physics teacher was a civil engineer. He stopped being an engineer because he wanted to coach basketball. I’m like — what, a junior? — taking physics, dead-set on going to UK, didn’t even apply anywhere else. Don’t have the stomach for the medical field. Didn’t want to teach. And I was like, “I don’t know what to do.” And he’s like, “Have you thought about engineering?” I was like, “What in the heck is engineering?” I didn't really know what it was. But he’s like, “You’re good at math and science. That’s how your brain works.” 

This is the part of the interview where I have to be brutally honest. I did not choose the type of engineering until I went to orientation at UK. I didn’t really know what any of them meant, but they gave us a piece of paper [with] columns. Each column [had] bullet points about what kind of industry or what kind of things each one of the engineers worked on, and the salary at the bottom. I looked at the paper and evaluated my options. Chemical engineering had things in the columns like flavors and cosmetics and food. I looked at the rank of salaries, and I was like, “Well, this seems like the one I’m going to do.” 

You’ve been involved in PLASTICS’ Future Leaders in Plastics (FliP) program and UK’s Young Alumni Philanthropy Council (YAPC). Why are those programs important to you? 

Hood‑Morley: I was in FLiP for a number of years, most recently as a mentor. That has officially ended for right now, but I can see doing that again. There comes a time in your life [when] you realize what you’ve been able to do in your career and finally get to that point where you feel compelled to give back. I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve had mentors throughout my career and life. I know what they mean to you. They can tell you things your boss can’t tell you, say things to you your boss can’t say. There’s soft skills mentors have the ability to coach, and they have the ability to open doors. I saw a quote ... “Surround yourself with people who fight for you in the rooms you’re not in.” It resonated with me because I think that’s what mentors do. It’s just those people who say your name in the room you’re not in. I’ve always felt that was important. It certainly was important for me. Being an engineer, getting to the association, that doesn’t happen without mentors, without people who have helped me make these crazy leaps.  

Young Alumni Philanthropy Council is specifically for the College of Engineering. It’s fairly new. I think I’ve been part of it for two years. I started as chair in August 2023, running through the summer of 2024.  

I’m the first person in my immediate and fairly extended family to have a four-year degree, from a really small town in eastern Kentucky. Graduating as a valedictorian wasn’t very difficult, and then I went to college, and it punched me in the face. It was harder than I ever imagined. I used all the resources; I showed up in my professors’ office hours, was part of the Society of Women Engineers, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers — I served in leadership positions in those things, within the department, I co-oped. I did all the extracurricular things I could. 

I just don’t think, without all that support, I graduate with that degree.  

I feel like engineering, even though I’m not doing it anymore, I feel like that degree is what unlocked doors for me, what allowed me to do things I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be doing.  

I felt compelled to join [YAPC] and be part of it, and honored actually. I can give back and do what other people did for me for the next generation.  

What kind of projects does YAPC do? 

Hood‑Morley: We are kind of an introduction to philanthropy for the next generation. At some point, in the mail, you start getting estate planning, but there’s this gap from the time you graduate from college to when where you’re a young, thriving adult [with] time, energy and resources to give back. It’s making sure there’s an outlet for that, that people understand how to reconnect with the college. You don’t have to wait until you’re writing your will to start giving back. That’s what we’re all about. We raise money, and then we give back [to] different student orgs. 

We have funded everything from [taking students to a] competition [to] the Society of Women Engineers. Basically, they bring in high school female students who have indicated an interest in engineering and they get to have lunch with the females in college. They get to talk about what it’s like. [We] promote the betterment of the kids who are in college and then getting people who are thinking about being an engineer. 

As a woman, did you feel your path was a little harder? 

Hood-Morley: I think everybody, of course, has a unique experience. From my vantage point, first of all, the engineering disciplines are all very different. Chemical engineering is actually, at least at UK, about 50/50. You get into those more male-dominated fields when you get into more like mechanical, electrical [engineering] ... people who grew up taking things apart, working on cars, tend to go more into mechanical [engineering]. I had a little bit of a benefit choosing chemical [engineering]. I wasn’t the only female in my room. I also grew up in a neighborhood with all boys.  

In working in corporate America, I have been the only female in the room a number of times. It’s challenging. It’s hard to prepare people for that, but I talk about my experiences, I talk to my team about my experiences. The only thing you can do to prepare someone is tell them how the experience felt for you, and how you managed it and learned from it.  

I’m definitely not the kind of person who likes to sit in a room by themselves and figure something out. I’ve always been the person who wants to build a team, wants to build a network, wants to build a support system. I’m definitely the kind of person to talk [with people] through ideas. Sometimes, they’re mentors; sometimes, they’re colleagues, peers, but I think building a network and support system is absolutely critical. 

Sometimes people just don’t know about opportunities, making connections with people and understanding what kind of opportunities are out there. There’s definitely a pitch to be made for mentoring and making a connection with people you haven’t always thought of for roles that may be a good fit. 

Mentorship has been a very big part of my life, sometimes more formally than others. It has definitely helped me create this very nontraditional career path. 

Any suggestions on attending NPE? 

Hood-Morley: Wear comfortable shoes, that’s No. 1. Wear comfortable shoes and don’t stay out too late on the first night. Carve out time to really be able to walk around. There’s so much machinery running on the show floor. There’s people in this industry who have never been to a facility. It’s not a 100 percent drop-in replacement for going on a plant tour, but it’s darn close. I would encourage people to take the time to walk around, to see, to ask questions. Take the time to look at the map and go [to] as many places as you can. To be able to go to one place and see the different kinds of molding technologies, usually when you go to one plant, you’re going to see injection or you’re going to see extrusion. To be able to go to one place and see all of those things, there’s nothing comparable. 

What do you like to do outside work? 

Hood-Morley: We like to travel. I have a miniature schnauzer named Walter; we hang out a lot. I’m kind of a workout nerd. I like to spend time in the gym and running outside.  

What would you like to be your legacy? 

Hood-Morley: I just had a big milestone birthday. I think those big milestones force you to think about where are you now, where do you want to be. Who are you? I don’t think I’ve settled on a specific initiative or project or said, “I know exactly what I want to accomplish.” I would like for the people I’ve worked with to say I’ve been able to make them better, that I’ve been able to make the association better and that I’ve helped open doors for people. It comes back to [being] an engineer at heart. Even though I’m not doing engineering anymore, it’s part of who I am. I look at everything with the perspective of: how do we make it better, how do we improve it? How can we make it more efficient? How do we step back and see the bigger picture? Looking at the strategy of the process, the work we do, I’m constantly trying to think, how do we refine not just how we operate as an organization, but there’s the human side of it. ... For better or for worse, I’m an oversharer and open book. I’ve taken a lot of the corporate America process, and I’ve brought a lot of those things I’ve learned into the association. 

I bring the stories about being the only female in the room, bring the random stories that nobody asked for, about my personal journeys on learning how to cook and what I’ve been doing over the past few months. I think the only way to learn and be better is to talk about things. It’s my hope all these little things may have added up for somebody, that it can serve as inspiration, that the people I’ve been around walk away and say, “She may have high expectations, she may have pushed me to do things I wasn’t comfortable with, but I am better because of it.” People did that for me, and I hope I’m doing that for other people. 

By Karen Hanna 

Think back to the random moments that have defined your life. Maybe it was a conversation with a neighbor that led to a job, or a meet-cute at the grocery store that eventually led to marriage and children. 

For Ashley Hood-Morley, VP of industry engagement for the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS), one of those pivotal moments came as a new University of Kentucky (UK) student, when she received a grid contrasting a variety of engineering fields. Chemical engineers’ salary stood out; so did three seemingly unrelated words: “Food.” “Flavors.” “Cosmetics.”  

She was sold. 

For a first-generation college student who’d breezed through high school, that guide was one of many that helped unlock a future she couldn’t have imagined. Recently, she talked with Karen Hanna, senior staff reporter for Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing, about how mentoring has changed her life — and how the first NPE in six years will make a mark on yours. 

About the Author

Karen Hanna | Senior Staff Reporter

Senior Staff Reporter Karen Hanna covers injection molding, molds and tooling, processors, workforce and other topics, and writes features including In Other Words and Problem Solved for Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing, Plastics Recycling and The Journal of Blow Molding. She has more than 15 years of experience in daily and magazine journalism.