Women in Agriculture: Eighth Edition
Dr. Angela de Manzanos Guinot
CEO and Co-Founder, FungiAlert Ltd.
Dr. Angela is a creative and curious entrepreneur focused on increasing agricultural productivity and sustainability, finding innovative ways to solve farmers’ challenges. She co-founded FungiAlert in 2015 while completing her Ph.D. studies at Imperial College London. She had been FungiAlert’s CTO since 2016 and in 2021 became the company’s CEO. As co-founder she has been involved in all aspects of creating the business and brand and defining the strategy, its execution, innovation pipeline, and growth. Before founding FungiAlert, Dr. Angela completed her M.Res and Ph.D. in Chemical Biology of Crop Protection and Sustainability at Imperial College London. Previously, she studied B.S. and M.S. in Biotechnology at the School of Agricultural Engineering at the Polytechnic University of Valencia, Spain.
Q1. You started your own business while doing your Ph.D. Did you always want to do something of your own?
A. I come from a family of entrepreneurs and have always had many entrepreneurial initiatives. So, I tested my luck participating in entrepreneurial competitions in my university in Spain. I was successful at it, and loved the experience. When I finished my degree in Spain, I came to London to study for an M. Res and Ph.D. in Crop Protection and Sustainability at Imperial College London. Initially, I was extremely driven by research and envisioned myself as an academic. However, as I progressed through my Ph.D. and encountered entrepreneurial opportunities on my path, my ambition shifted. Imperial College London offers many great opportunities to encourage students to become entrepreneurs. Being someone that takes advantage of opportunities, I successfully participated in three of them. FungiAlert’s vision was to use scientific expertise and knowledge to help farmers protect their crops from diseases more sustainably.
As a result of participating in entrepreneurial competitions at Imperial, we received mentorship, which led to an investment. Following the completion of my Ph.D. and receiving the first investment, FungiAlert was established in early 2016. I have never looked back. However, FungiAlert has been a shared project, co-founded by Kerry and me. Since the beginning, when FungiAlert was only an idea, we have had the great support of our Executive Chairman, Paul Atherton.
Q2. How did you get the idea for your business?
A. My Ph.D. supervisor, Dr. Laura Barter, was founder and director of Agri-net (https://www.imperial.ac.uk/agri-net/) a network that brings key agricultural industry stakeholders together (from industry players, farmers, suppliers, researchers, decision-makers, and government bodies). Therefore, during my studies at Imperial College, I attended many conferences and meetings with key agricultural industry stakeholders. We volunteered to hold the mic or welcome the guests in exchange for having the opportunity to attend, mingle, and network.
These meetings provided us with an insight into the main challenges that agriculture faces from different perspectives. One big challenge is the appearance of pathogens resistant to fungicides. Brainstorming with Kerry, FungiAlert’s other co-founder, we designed an idea to help farmers make more informed decisions when applying fungicides to their crops. This was the original idea that shaped FungiAlert into a business proposition.
With this idea, we took part in different accelerators and shaped the idea into a business model. Since FungiAlert was founded, we have evolved and adapted our offerings to meet the market needs and ensure that we have an impact on agriculture sustainability. Most importantly, we want to deliver our vision to protect natural ecosystems by developing game-changing products for agriculture that can replace chemical inputs.
Q3. What are some of the challenges you have faced as a female entrepreneur in agriculture and how have you overcome these challenges?
A. Arguably as a young female entrepreneur in agriculture, you can experience additional challenges than your male counterparts. For example, when trying to find partners, customers, or investors, you can sometimes feel the other party’s lack of trust or skepticism. This is likely because generally more middle-aged men than young women sell inputs and technology in the agricultural industry. Sometimes, you can even feel treated as a high school girl presenting a science project rather than a professional in the industry with years of experience. When this happens, I block the perception that I am sensing from my mind. I don’t let it get inside me, and I do my job. Farmers are great caring people, if you acknowledge their needs and are honest with them, you can find a partner for life.
Similarly, you can also sometimes feel some discomfort from the other party. A couple of years ago, we hired a senior male commercial manager. We attended meetings and trade shows together and it was shocking to experience how people preferred to address him and completely ignored me, even when someone was trying to sell us a partnership. The way forward is to acknowledge the other person’s needs, make sure you understand the advantage that your product can bring to them, and communicate it.
In my experience, and talking to other female entrepreneurs, not only from the agriculture industry, a shared feeling is that investors often see women as weak leaders and strategists, hence a risky investment. However, male entrepreneurs with less experience or track record than you are perceived as rough diamonds that need to be cut and mentored by the investors. There is still a lot of work to do to ensure that investors start shifting this misconception about women entrepreneurs being weak leaders, strategists, or visionaries. Investors have told us that neither I nor the other female cofounder were suitable leaders for our company, ignoring the fact that we have over 5 years of experience running our business, building a brand without huge marketing budgets, establishing a great network of customers and partners, and bringing products to market. Another ungrateful recurrent experience when dealing with investors is when instead of seeing you as an entrepreneur or a business leader who is pitching their business idea to them, they treat you as their daughter that just finished high school and needs to be taken care of. Being mentored is in no way offensive, but feeling that your achievement and trajectory are being undermined, if not ignored, can be hurtful.
We have navigated these challenges with investors by running away from those who treat you as an unfit leader and undermine your achievements. Unfortunately, this significantly reduces the investors’ catalog that you can approach. It is very important that your investors understand your strengths and weaknesses and encourage the former and help you improve the latter. We couldn’t be happier with our current investors, although we experienced many rejections and rejected investment opportunities, our current investors believed in us and backed our leadership.
Q4. As co-founder you have been involved in all aspects of creating the business and brand, defining the strategy, its execution, innovation pipeline, and growth. Which part do you find most challenging and most satisfying?
A. All are intertwined. The most satisfying is when things get done, the plans start bearing fruits and lead to new opportunities.
Q5. If you had to explain to a younger woman, how you succeeded in your career, what would you tell her?
A. In an entrepreneur’s journey, there are good moments and bad moments where you struggle to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It is essential that you understand your professional and personal mission, that you can see where you want to be in 5 and 10-years’ time. You need to believe in your mission and define an action plan that will take you there. Periodically, review your mission and action plan. Ask yourself if you are getting closer, or if your mission has changed. Our priorities are not static, and they change depending on our circumstances. If you are stuck, analyze the situation, what barriers are not letting you go forward, identify alternatives, and find an exit route. Also, you will need to convince people around you that there is an exit, do not let other people’s doubts and negative thoughts get in your mind and undermine your plans.
Having had the opportunity to listen to fantastic female leaders, a repeated message that I have received (and experienced myself) is that women can easily build glass ceilings that block our way up. We need to recognize our strengths and promote them. Also, we need to evaluate our opportunities for improvement and work on them. Put an action plan in place and demolish your glass ceilings.
Dr. Usha Barwale Zehr
Chairman and Executive Director, Grow Indigo Private Limited; Director and Chief Technology Officer in Mahyco Private Limited
Dr. Usha Barwale Zehr has received her Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in Agronomy. For the past 20 years, she has been utilizing new technologies and tools including biotechnology for improving the quality and productivity of seeds and agriculture. In addition, Dr. Zehr serves as Director of the Barwale Foundation, a non-profit research foundation. She also serves on the Board of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa. Dr. Zehr served as a geneticist at Purdue University, studying sorghum and millet and focusing on applying plant biotechnology for improving agricultural production. During her graduate and post-graduate studies, she worked in tissue culture and transformation. Her group at the University of Illinois was the first to develop a system for soybean regeneration. As a result of her work at Purdue University, the first transgenic sorghum plant was produced. Her plant biotechnology work aims to implement emerging technologies in the developing world.
Q1. Tell us about your career path. Your father was awarded the World Food Prize and is also known as the father of the Indian seed industry. Did he convince you to be an agriculturist or have you always wanted to be in agriculture?
A. I started my higher education in the microbiology field and subsequently finished up with a Ph.D. in Agronomy. I then worked at a couple of universities in the US, then returned to India and joined the research team at Mahyco. My father was very open-minded and wanted us to pursue what we wanted so there never was any expectation that I would study agriculture. But when I did decide to study agriculture, he was pleased.
Q2. Agriculture has been considered to be a male-dominated sector. Though in recent times women are taking senior management roles and leading organizations. Undoubtedly, there are challenges. What are some that you faced as a woman leader and how did you overcome those?
A. Different aspects of agriculture are male-dominated and some are reverse. For instance, field activity related works are typically male-dominated from a scientific/technical team standpoint, an example would be a breeding position with -90+% men. But then you take lab sciences and there the ratio is more skewed towards women. Culturally, families are not keen for women to be out in the field in sometimes remote areas. This to me, is the biggest constraint. Now we are seeing more women who are entering the field which is a great step forward.
Q3. Agriculture is a very dynamic industry and has been revolutionized by innovations. Though there is a lot of difference in agriculture in developing and developed countries, what role do you feel women can play in changing the face of agriculture in developing economies?
A. Research and innovation have been very important to me in my entire journey to date. Farm holding is something that is very different in developed and developing economies, but many of the challenges remain the same. Women I see in India are participating more and more in many of the agricultural areas, like I mentioned before, many of the lab innovations are coming from women. Women scientists and innovators can also be instrumental in designing women-friendly pieces, especially when it comes to mechanization.
Q4. What do you want to see for the future of younger women in their career path in the BioAg Industry?
A. The ag industry is changing rapidly, and I see that more diversity in terms of disciplines will come to bear on agricultural productivity. Be it digitization in ag, information dissemination via social media, or fintech solutions which traditionally have not been the realm of agriculture but now are, and many more areas playing a significant role in Ag and how we look at the future of farming. The new scientific pool of women who are getting ready need to be given wider exposure to choose the opportunities they like.
Q5. What are your future goals for Mahyco and sustainable agriculture? How do you want to get there?
A. Mahyco group as a whole is developing products that create sustainability and, at the same time, increase farmer profitability. Climate is, of course, something everyone is talking about. From basic research in terms of developing more water-efficient hybrids to better nutrient uptake to drought tolerance, Mahyco’s focus is to develop these products with the deployment of molecular tools and conventional and new breeding technologies. We are also looking at how we connect the agri value chain, end to end, to meet the needs of the smallholder farmer. Digital tools which address the challenges of the marketplace are being focused on. In recent years we have also launched a portfolio of biological products which enable the farmer to use these natural products in place of synthetic compounds. Connecting farmers to tools and enablers is a driver at Mahyco group and with our sister companies, connection to markets, fruits and vegetable exports, machinery that may be needed are ways in which Mahyco is working to address the needs of the smallholder farmer.
Dr. Victoria Fernandez
Systems and Natural Resources Department School of Forest Engineering, Technical University of Madrid, MADRID, SPAIN
Victoria was born in Madrid, Spain. She holds a Bachelor´s degree (BSc) in Horticulture from University College Dublin (Ireland) and a Ph.D. from Humboldt University of Berlin (Germany). Since the beginning of her Ph.D. studies, she has been working on plant nutrition and physiology with a focus on the absorption of foliar fertilizers. She enjoys developing multidisciplinary studies for characterizing the physio-chemical properties of plant surfaces and foliar fertilizer formulations. Victoria has authored more than 70 scientific texts including two books, 59 Journal Citation Report articles, and five book chapters. Victoria regularly develops R & D projects with agrochemical companies and counts on a solid network of collaborators from various scientific disciplines and nationalities.
Q1. You have been in the Food and Agriculture industry for all your professional years. How would you describe your journey and what has been your favorite part?
A. I got engaged with science and plants as a kid because my Dad is a physics enthusiast who taught us how to look at natural phenomena and my Mom has a green thumb and always grew beautiful plants. I hence studied agriculture with the inner hope of becoming a researcher. I enjoyed doing my final year project at University College Dublin (Ireland) on the red core disease of strawberries. Still, my Ph.D. studies in Germany on foliar iron absorption proved more challenging because sometimes I felt I did not know how to proceed with my investigations. Working as a scientist is also quite uncertain in terms of finding contracts and sometimes, I could not see a clear future for my career. However, something has always happened that helped me find the way and proceed with my research challenges.
Q2. What are some ways you feel that more opportunities can be opened for women in the field? Does it require concrete changes in the sector or changes in the women’s perception of the field?
A. The opportunities for women are manifold, but the agricultural sector is very much dominated by males, also considering the research scenario. I am glad to see that more female professionals are joining the agricultural research, development, and production sector. I came across very competent female professionals, and some of them also have a family to look after.
Q3. What are some of the challenges you have faced as a female in agriculture and how have you overcome these challenges?
A. I must say that I have always been treated with kindness and respect, especially with regards to the agrochemical and plant production companies I dealt with so far. As a scientist who is sometimes the only female invited speaker at technical or research venues, I sometimes have the feeling that I am not taken seriously or that I have to repeat my message several times before it is taken into account. Similarly, I feel that sometimes male researchers specialized in a similar research topic, are preferentially considered in various regards.
Q4. What do you want to see for the future of younger women in their career path in the BioAg Industry?
A. For students and younger women joining the bio and agricultural industry, I would wish to see that they are simply treated as professionals and have the same opportunities as men have. I would like to see more ladies in responsibility positions and have the certainty that no female will be exposed to any sort of intimidatory situations simply because of their gender.
Q5. What are your future goals in sustainable agriculture? How do you want to get there?
A. My goal is to contribute to development of foliar fertilizers that are more efficient and sustainable. For this purpose, we will need to gain insight into many topics, such as the structure and composition of plant surfaces and how they vary during plant ontogeny, variable environmental conditions, or among species/ varieties. We also need to understand better which foliar formulation factors are more critical for foliar nutrient absorption and characterize the potential mechanisms of foliar uptake, again concerning, for example, developmental stage, different species, or diverse environmental conditions. New means for evaluating these aspects have been introduced in recent years and some promising researchers, including female scientists, are also contributing to developing this topic.
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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