Women in Agriculture: Fifth Edition
Updated: Jul 8, 2021
“We are pleased to feature three more outstanding women in this issue of Women in Ag. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, outstanding women across the globe are driving forward their businesses and organizations, creating or supporting new innovations. As an essential business category, most of us in ag carried on as usual, but we still were and are not able to conduct as much face to face business during this time. There is nothing better than face to face interactions, but it is clear that the pandemic changed everything, and business will not just go back to the way it was. Now, as we’ve seen how efficient it is to conduct online meetings, the question is, “do you really have to fly there?” Nonetheless more and more women are popping up as innovators and leaders in ag and we will continue to find them and feature them in the coming months, hopefully under less challenging times.”
Pam Marrone, Executive Chair and Partner at Global BioAg Linkages.
“On this special occasion of Thanksgiving, I wish to take the opportunity and express our heartfelt gratitude to women leaders, entrepreneurs and innovators, who have made real difference.”
Roger Tripathi, CEO and Founder of GBAL and PBI
Sarah Nolet is an internationally recognized food systems innovation expert, the CEO and Founder of AgThentic, a global food and agriculture strategy firm, and a General Partner at Tenacious Ventures, Australia’s first dedicated agrifood tech VC firm. Sarah has been instrumental in building the early stage agtech ecosystem - from advising dozens of startups, designing accelerator programs and consulting to established agribusinesses, to helping industry, universities and government develop and implement forward-looking initiatives in food system innovation. Sarah is also the host of the AgTech. So What? podcast, and co-founder of Farmers2Founders, a national innovation program that supports primary producers to commercialize inventions and new businesses, as well as gain early access to emerging technologies. Sarah holds a master’s in system design and management from MIT, and a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and Human Factors Engineering from Tufts University.
Can you tell us about your career path? Your degrees seem to be quite different from your industry of work. What drew you into Food and Agriculture industry?
I have degrees in computer science and human factors engineering and then a master’s in systems Engineering and Management with a certificate in Sustainability. So, I do use all of those somewhat regularly, or at least the foundations of them. But yeah, I would say food wasn’t something I set out to work in. Originally, we had a hobby farm growing up and I was a semi professional athlete and so I always cared about food. But it wasn’t until in my early 20s, I went to South America on a vacation that ended up turning into almost a year of the time spent there living on farms. I saw the kind of potential of technology and some of the technologies I’ve been using in the defense industry, like remote sensing and advanced analytics to add value to the food system and help farmers be more profitable and sustainable. That was really a moment of me realizing my passion was to work in agriculture and to spend more time with farmers and bringing technology into the industry in ways that could add value.
What gives you the confidence to go forward in your work and personal growth?
I don’t know about confidence, but I guess inspiration comes both from the team of people that I work with and my colleagues, the farmers, especially entrepreneurs that we work with who are incredibly innovative and just taking on massive challenges to change. Also, the industry and bring new innovations, I just find that so energizing and inspiring every day. I would say in terms of personal growth, you know starting your own business, running your own business and helping other people who are building companies is constantly a learning curve that’s very steep and I find that really rewarding and exciting and something that I want to get up every day and keep climbing that learning curve. Because at the end of the day, the challenges in the industry are so big in terms of climate and profitability of farms as well as sustainability of farms; Where and what are we going to produce in the future, and how are we going to feed their growing population with nutritious, affordable food without ruining the planet like there, I can’t imagine a bigger challenge for the future and continually inspired by the people I get to work with to help solve that.
You have already founded a food and agriculture strategy firm and co-founded agrifood tech VC firm. What is your next goal and how do you plan to achieve it?
I would say our next goal is finding and continuing to back amazing entrepreneurs and innovators that are building the food system of the future and having an impact. So, we’re looking for those companies and those founders and want to support them and back them with high conviction and high support capital through tenacious ventures and we’re really excited to be doing that.
World is changing at a fast pace, so is climate, technology, consumer awareness and preferences. How do you see global food and agriculture industry after a decade? What major changes do you expect?
There’s a bunch of changes coming in the future and I spend quite a lot of time thinking about this. Some of the big ones, autonomy and autonomous agriculture, knew technologies and business models that can help connect producers to consumers in ways that prove out how practices are doing what consumers want; we talk a lot about transparency and traceability. Right now, a lot of this is based on belief, we’ve got a label or a certification or a brand that we trust. Increasingly, technology will help us prove out that whether its carbon being sequestered or runoff not happening or health of staff or labor, etc. We will be able to prove those practices and connect that through to consumers and think the new business models and technologies in there, whether it’s carbon marketplaces or direct to consumer models, I think that’s an exciting space. We will see more farmers in different roles and running their businesses in different ways. As we’re already seeing diversification, vertical integration, direct to consumer value, I believe addition to those trends will continue. We’ll see more harnessing of biology at the microbial level in soil, plants and animals helping to improve productivity and profitability as well as align with consumer preferences. I think at the consumer end there will be both more pressure to have niche custom high end, high integrity products and the role of social media, influencers and distributed manufacturing in influencing that. At the other end we will also have, large scale commodity production, most efficient use of resources, and highest volume of production as we optimize for both of those ends of the spectrum.
Agriculture has been considered to be a male dominated sector. Though in recent times women have been observed taking senior management roles and leading organisations. Undoubtedly, there are challenges, what are some that you faced as a woman leader and how did you overcome those?
Yeah, I would say in some ways as a relatively young American female working in Australian agriculture and I would also say not as kind outward big issue. It is an intersection of multiple male dominated industries, technology and agriculture. What’s really exciting is seeing so many female founders and of our first four investments, three of them have females on the founding team. We see that through our farmers to founders program in the work we do at AgThentic that lots of women in the innovation areas of Agriculture and starting to challenge the status quo and think differently. When I get down or lose confidence in myself thinking of those other women who are also pushing the envelope and bringing new business models and innovations to life and agriculture, even taking inspiration and confidence from them is something that helps me.
Jennifer Lewis is IBMA Executive Director since June 2019. Jennifer is passionate about IPM, reducing the reliance on traditional pesticides through the uptake of these integrated programmes of pest and disease control in crop production throughout Europe. Prior to IBMA, Jennifer Lewis was Head of Innovation and Development for IBMA Member Certis Europe and part of their Management Board. Certis Europe is a company involved since many years in biocontrol with a large portfolio including products from all biocontrol four groups Microbials, Macroorganisms, Natural Substances and Semiochemicals. Jennifer was responsible for the development and previously the registration of Certis’ portfolio in Europe as well as already involved in IBMA as Vice Chairman of the UK branch of our association. Furthermore, Jennifer has worked on building the Certis Europe range of biocontrol products integrating them into IPM systems. She has advocated for the practicalities of reducing reliance on pesticides, while retaining agricultural yields. Between 2005 and 2009 Jennifer was former IBMA Member BCP General Manager, a beneficial insect production company selling beneficial insects for pest control throughout Europe. Jennifer has worked in crop protection since she graduated, including testing the environmental effects of pesticides in Brazil, the US and Australia and latterly in various marketing, regulatory and stewardship roles in the US and Europe. This broad background allows her bringing to the role the blend of experience, knowledge of the business and the technical elements as well as a shared passion for our industry.
You have been in Food and Agriculture industry for all your professional years. How would you describe your journey and what has been your favourite part?
I have been very fortunate to work with some excellent professionals over my 35 years in the industry. I would like to thank all of them for their advice, counsel and patience over the years. How would I describe the journey – enjoyable – I have loved all the roles I have done, but my favourite was general manager of small biological pest control business producing beneficial insects and mites and selling them worldwide. It was a wonderful team of dedicated people and the moment I learnt that in agriculture and horticulture it really was possible to control pests and diseases only using biology. It required good agronomy, skilled scouting and has recently been helped hugely by digital techniques and more understanding of soil microbiology.
You have had different roles in your career from testing to marketing, regulatory to stewardship and now leading organisations to fulfill their objectives. You have made an impact in BioAg industry. Do you still have goals that you want to accomplish? What is it and how do you plan to get there?
Important to me is to see a change in mindset in farming, particularly in crop protection and crop nutrition, from one of input and maximum yield based, to production quality and yield consistency over time. This requires what I call the “biology first” approach. Thinking how to grow a healthy crop by thinking about the crop and soil biology first and using biology to support biology and only where really necessary intervening with chemistry. It is rather similar to humans and trying to stay fit and healthy by eating well and taking the right exercise and only using medicines if really necessary. To make this mindset shift, requires us to extend our examples of successful biocontrol use in horticulture to arable and broad acre crops. The examples are there but they are not visible enough and they are limited because there are not enough products available for farmers who are already switching to a “biology first” agriculture. To do this I want to see regulation that is adapted to biological pest control and greater sharing of examples, with measurement of the yield and quality of the end produce as well as the profit to the farmer. Currently financial markets and agricultural subsidies are set up to support yield and these need to be adapted to support resilience. The metrics are not the same.
As Executive Director of IBMA I am implementing the strategy of adapting regulations to suit biologicals and building more examples of successful biological pest control in the field. As part of the discussion with policy makers the farmers income and incentives are always key. I am also keen to bring more young people into the industry as the understanding of the biology first message and the wish to implement this today and the understanding of the urgency, is strongest in the younger generation.
Agriculture is very dynamic industry and has been revolutionised by innovations. What is going to be the next big leap in agriculture industry?
Many leaps are available today, microbial ecology understanding, digital, artificial intelligence, CRISPR, biodiversity and basic ecological understanding in soil and on plants and the use of synthetic biology in production. What we can now see is much of this understanding and many of these technologies coming together to make real advances. For example, to optimise the effectiveness of a microbial biocontrol agent it is necessary to understand its ecology and to create the environment to help it; digital techniques to monitor the environment can help optimise this. Overall thinking across technologies to understand how they can improve the effectiveness of each other while protecting plant health, the environment and workers is bringing advances. This requires a new mindset, one of thinking “biology first” and looking at how we can use our technology and understanding to make plants and agriculture more resilient rather than relying on inputs in programmes designed for a historical climate and historical outlook.
Based on your experience and journey, what advice would you give to a young woman trying to establish herself in the industry?
Go with your beliefs. Do not accept someone telling you that will not work, explore why that is being said, listen to their reasons and if it so, then work out a way around it. Collaborate all the way and remember to be firm but kind. People want to work with people who are true to what they say.
What is your belief for next generation?
The next generation will be working in a “biology first” agriculture. Biology will be at the heart of thinking about soil and crop health. Biocontrol is a key part of that.
What are some ways you feel that more opportunities could be opened for woman in this field?
As we move forward to create a resilient agriculture for the future, we will need to consider all aspects of crop management together. This, as with all sustainability issues, requires intense collaboration and understanding of each other and of the environment. Women tend to operate particularly well in collaborative environments and so are crucial to a successful agriculture of the future.
Virginia Emery, CEO and Founder of BetaHatch
Virginia Emery is an entrepreneur with a passion for insects. At Beta Hatch she is pioneering the industrial production of insects for animal feed. Her current mission is to save the world by breeding a bug that tastes like bacon. Virginia founded BetaHatch in 2015. Before that she was Entrepreneur in Residence at WELL. The WELL project is a hybrid incubator/accelerator program that pushes the boundaries of business education and development. As an Entrepreneur in Residence she helped to build 4 new enterprises from the ground up. Before WELL, she was a research scientist at Springstar, a consumer retail pest management company. She has a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley in Biology.
What are the effects of COVID-19 on your business?
Beta Hatch is a pioneering biotechnology company developing insects as a sustainable protein for animal feed. As an essential business, we have stayed open and active throughout the pandemic- we have live animals to grow after all! We already had an extremely clean operation with PPE use for allergen protection, so there were minimal adaptations to make operationally. We did cut back our population due to labor and supply chain uncertainty but have now ramped back up to full scale capacity and have even increased our yields in just the past few months. Overall, the major disruption has been a delay in construction and financing of our flagship facility in Cashmere, WA.
What are some of the challenges you have faced as a female entrepreneur in agriculture and how have you overcome these challenges?
This is a question I both love and loathe to answer. I love to be able to encourage other women in business, to bring awareness to structural sexism in entrepreneurship, and to be proud of the representation my success brings. I loathe the fact I keep having to answer this question, because being a woman (and recently a new mother) really has nothing to do with my business. [Anyone can grow bugs, ‘even girls!’].
Fortunately, the instances of outrageous ‘did-he-just-say-that?’ sexism that have impacted my business are few and far between. What’s harder is to pinpoint are the ways that subtle sexism and structural biases have an impact. Most of the challenges have been in working with some investors, who continue to limit venture capital in women led ventures to less than 3%. I’d like to see more men be asked about how they are supporting diversity in their work. The great examples of firms (like S2G) that support diverse and female founders, as well as hire female partners, need to be better highlighted and rewarded. Ultimately I would say the customer side of the equation has not given us any problems at all- it’s been largely in the financing and ecosystem side of startups.
I focus my time and energy in conversations and relationships that empower my success, instead of focusing on the interactions that deflate and discourage. Having a support network of other female entrepreneurs is also useful, and mentors (like Pam Marrone) have been very helpful in providing helpful connections and advice for growth.
How did you make the transition from scientist/entomologist to entrepreneur / businesswoman? It’s not an easy transition, any advice for other scientists who want to be entrepreneurs?
I have a PhD in entomology and started thinking about entrepreneurship in my third year of grad school. I have always wanted the work I was doing to have a positive impact in the world, and I felt that entrepreneurship was going to be more productive for that goal than academia.
I’d recommend using on-campus resources as much as possible to learn and connect with entrepreneurs who have been successful in translating from science to entrepreneurship. Accelerators and incubators can be helpful as well in getting the first networking connections in place for your success, but ultimately it will depend on your industry, your town, your technology focus. I did a lot of networking in the startup community in Seattle, and made a lot of early mistakes, so finding a group of mentors that are in your field, familiar with your business model, and understand a science/deeptech type of company can help is valuable. There is also a lot of bad advice and feedback out there, especially since a software business (the dominant sphere of startup advice) is very different from an agricultural or ‘hardware’ business.
My advice: learn to talk the talk. Science and business often use very different ways of communicating. As a scientist you are trained to put qualifications (maybe, probably, could be) on everything, because the truth is always evolving. In the scientific community these modifiers build credibility because they signal the sequential way we develop and build upon knowledge. By contrast, in the business world, there is an expectation of certainty, confidence and clarity. The modifiers we use everyday as scientists can actually decrease credibility in a business setting. A lot of the communication style of science can be interpreted as a lack of conviction. No one wants to buy from a salesperson who doesn’t seem convinced the product will work 100% of the time.
I personally feel this one simple difference in communication is at the route of society’s growing distrust in science.
How did you get the idea for your business?
I’m trained as an entomologist, and 90% of entomology asks ‘how do we kill bugs?’. Even the core insect rearing companies have a focus on beneficial insects as pest management. I started thinking about the incredible ecosystem services of insects, such as organic recycling, and what kind of huge missed opportunities there were because we think of insects mostly as pests.
The food system does best when it emulates nature, and insects have been a huge missing part of that equation. As the main biorecyclers and the foundations of most food chains, insects are a natural part of most animal diets. It makes sense to feed bugs to birds and fish. Beta Hatch has born from a desire to see insects reach their full potential in the food system and contribute to a circular economy.
[Some of the earliest ideas for Beta Hatch were generated by edible insects- snacking on bugs and realizing what an incredible protein insects can be!]
You’ve successfully raised venture money. How did you do this having not raised venture capital before? What tips do you have for other women entrepreneurs about the money raising process?
The process of raising capital is very much like dating- it is all about finding the right fit between what your company needs, and what the investors are looking for. Finding an investor with a fit for stage of company, focus area or market, return profile, future growth needs and liquidity can take an incredible amount of time for someone new raising money who isn’t familiar with the ecosystem. In food and agriculture in particular, strategic corporate investors and family offices are really important when the business model isn’t software oriented. Pay attention to existing portfolio - if you don’t see a company that looks like yours, it is probably not a good fit.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking to the wrong investors, and I have gotten a ton of nos. You need to stay resilient and not take the rejection personally, but you also need to be strategic in listening to feedback. The reasons for rejection are rarely outlined, and when they are detailed, it’s not always a reason to modify your business or plan. If your business is sound, and customers are paying for what you are making, it’s probably more about how you tell the story than anything else. Fundraising is about inspiring a vision, telling a great story, and being able to show you can execute on that vision.
I’m still raising capital, so I’m no expert by any means, but I will say it takes a major time commitment to be successful, and this needs to be weighed against building the business. Building a good team is really essential and should be one of the first priorities.
Finding and interacting with these leaders is very exciting. Their enthusiasm, dedication and determination to move forward and create a better world is contagious. We hope that we are able to do justice with it in bringing this to you. We appreciate time and support of all our readers to keep us going. Also, we are very grateful to these women leaders for taking time out and making this edition possible.
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