Reflections on the Inaugural Women in Agribusiness Summit

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Thunder pounded and torrential rains poured outside the Hyatt Regency New Orleans yesterday morning. But it went largely unnoticed by the group of 220 women inside the hotel who had come together from more than 100 companies across the agricultural industry to participate in the first ever Women in Agribusiness Summit.

As the group filed into a large conference room we faced a stage with big cushy leather chairs, bright green plants, a single screen to the left and a draped backdrop accented with soft purple lighting…to match the primary color in the event logo, no doubt. It definitely had a feminine air to it. And I must admit I LOVED the black and white synthetic leather tote bags they gave us with the program guide and event materials. (Imagine it, a conference bag I may actually use again; somebody call Ripley.) Ambiance and perks aside, it quickly became obvious that we were there to talk business, and talk business we did.

The event was kicked off by the Director of the Agribusiness Program at Harvard Business School, Mary Shelman, who shared some of the changing demographics of Women in Agriculture. (Side note: Turns out Harvard coined the term “AgriBusiness.”) Women make up 30 percent of farm operators. Women receive approximately 50 percent of the degrees awarded in ag science. And women make up 35 percent of the workforce in pesticide companies and other ag industries. While women currently only account for a small percentage of senior level manager roles in the industry, the numbers are slowly going up. These are just a few of the stats she shared as she, and other speakers who followed, emphasized the need to attract, retain and develop women in the agricultural industry.

Mary Shelman, Director of the Agribusiness Program at Harvard Business School

The day-long event was slam packed with presentations, panel discussions, town halls and breakouts. Conversations not only touched on initiatives companies are starting to develop women through leadership and coaching programs, but also featured 22 accomplished female guest speakers from across various areas of the ag supply chain talking about some of the big issues impacting the agricultural industry today, including the need for a new Farm Bill, how an aging U.S. ag transportation infrastructure may hinder future growth, and how to manage volatility in a high-priced commodity market, to name a few.

As someone who is still relatively new to the agricultural arena (I proudly joined Bayer about two and a half years ago and still have much to learn) I found it quite beneficial and couldn’t take notes fast enough. But perhaps what struck the biggest chord with me were comments made by the keynote speaker, Michele Payn-Knoper, a born and bred dairy farmer and Principal with Cause Matters Corporation. She talked about the misconceptions that are out there about various aspects of the agricultural industry and how we have traditionally handled it. She spoke about how, as an industry, because we are so passionate about what we do and we know the good that it brings to society, we tend to get defensive when people make assumptions based on misinformation and emotional hear-say and we often either shut down or we respond by throwing a bunch of scientific facts at them. While that response may be accurate, it doesn’t always connect with the audience, particularly when you’re speaking to the “non-farm public.”

Instead, she said, we need to humanize our story and tell it in a way that our audience can relate to it. One of many great quotes she shared was “People won’t remember what you say; people won’t remember what you do; people will remember how you made them feel.”

The “I’m Farming and I Grow It” video by the Peterson Farm Brothers that was recently burning up YouTube was a great example given of how we can connect on a human level. There’s no way you can watch that video and not feel good afterward.

Michele challenged us all to stand up together for the industry and be advocates for agriculture, asking us to consider using some “new moves’ when it comes to talking about our industry and noting that our “future relies on finding a voice that enables us to connect with people on a human level.” Another great quote she shared… “Why not go out on a limb; isn’t that where the fruit is?”

After a long, productive program, Mary Shelman came back onstage to close out the day. She talked about the “integrity that we have in the agricultural industry and how we are particularly passionate about what we do.” She talked about how talent is extremely important and we need people to solve the issues facing the “fragile food industry.” She emphasized that women have an important role in that, and this event and future ones like it can serve as a tool toward the “development of human capital” and providing information and resources to help women continue to be sustainable contributors to the industry.

Panel discussion regarding aging infrastructure

All in all, I’d say the inaugural Women in AgriBusiness Summit was a success. Aside from the distracting gremlins in the microphones that plagued the first panel discussion (As a communications professional who has experienced a few AV nightmares, I felt their pain) it was an educational and engaging event. If I had to offer one humble piece of advice, I might suggest shortening up the speaker intros just a little to allow time for more Q&A. Other than that, top notch. Congratulations to everyone involved and thank you for offering this great forum to the industry. I look forward to future events and I bet bullions to beignets (sorry, had to get another New Orleans reference in there) that my other industry colleagues do too!

- Jennifer M. Poore, Internal Communications Manager, Bayer CropScience

About Jennifer Poore:

Jennifer is responsible for managing internal communications and promotional strategies for Bayer CropScience in the U.S. to educate and engage employees, promote a high performance culture and foster employee pride in the company.

Hired in 2010, she works with senior leaders and various functional areas to provide guidance and communication elements for special internal communication initiatives while also managing and coordinating on-going internal communication programs and events. She also supervises internal and contracted communications support staff and serves as the communications lead for the Bayer CropScience’s high performance culture initiative in the U.S.

Jennifer holds a BS in Marketing from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. She has more than 17 years of professional communications experience spanning roles in both marketing and corporate communications and has worked in both the chemical and life sciences industries.


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