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Lessons from Silicon Kiwi: How Silicon Prairie can encourage women leadership in agtech

By Lindy Nelson, founder and executive director of the Agri Women’s Development Trust

For the first time in its 118 year history, a woman became the national president of industry group Federated Farmers of New Zealand. For New Zealand, this reflected the growing diversity of the country’s agricultural industry leaders. However, as pointed out by AgFunderNews, there is still much work to do in the U.S. where there remains a dearth of female leadership in the industry overall, and the agtech sector in particular.

Our experience in New Zealand has been that targeted programs and policies are the best way to identify and develop women leadership in the agricultural industry. To keep our position as a top global agricultural producer and innovator, it’s a necessity, not a ‘nice-to-have,’ to access the brightest minds and have an ongoing pipeline to find them.

The great news is that, like the Midwest, we already have an easily identifiable pipeline. Given that over half of New Zealand is farm land, we know that there are many women who grew up on farms. Our job is to demonstrate that agriculture can turn into a wonderful and rewarding career before they look to ‘greener pastures,’ so to speak.

The Agri Women’s Development Trust (AWDT) was formed in 2010 to address the low level of women in leadership in New Zealand’s primary industries. Seven years later, we’ve found that women bring a number of unique attributes to the agricultural industry; some may be surprising given the normal rhetoric around women leaders.

This is what we’ve discovered:

  • They are comfortable leading projects with long-term time frames and intergenerational challenges. A high percentage of our graduates are now leading billion-dollar investment strategies regarding water management (storage, irrigation, and distribution).
  • They apply leadership across a number of spheres––they are not restricted to one organization or position, but instead, they’re looking for roles that will give them influence with a number of stakeholders. (On the farm, in industry and governance roles, for example.)
  • They are comfortable in what has traditionally been viewed a “man’s world”––we see this in agtech mostly. Often they’ll couple their experience with being raised on a farm with a higher education degree in science and then go on to develop tech applications for the industry. For example, the general manager of AgriOptics, Jemma Mulvihill, founded the company with her farming parents after a stint as an undergrad at Colorado State University where she was introduced to precision agriculture. Anna Campbell Ph.D., managing director of Abacus Bio, leverages her science and technology background to pursue her passion of using commercially focused science to improve agricultural food products.

Creating a pathway for women and ‘normalizing’ that women can and do lead in agtech appears to be working. According to Sprout, one of New Zealand’s leading agritech accelerator programs, 62 percent of the companies they work with have had female co-founders and half of their management team is female.

From start-ups to industry organizations, here are five ways the Midwest agtech industry can develop their own pipeline of women leaders:

  1. A pipeline means exactly this: build a path for women, starting with young women in the workforce. Establish role models (if you don’t have them internally, find them externally) to set young women up for success. Understand motherhood might interrupt the pathway but help them work right up to their potential exit and provide entry strategies that work for families. On this same token, create a work environment that values families and fathers as well.
  2. Create a culture that values diversity and inclusiveness. Diversity can create challenges because it brings different thoughts and actions from the ‘way things have always been.’ My experience is that while there may be ‘pain points’ initially, the organization will truly benefit from input from a variety of people with different experiences and views. As the agtech industry becomes increasingly competitive – not just with your local counterparts, but globally as well, this may well be your ‘secret weapon’ to find the next great innovation.
  3. Hire Millennials––they get it! I adore working with Millennials because they create normality in your workforce for women leading.
  4. Invest in women leadership programs. At AWDT, we have seen women in our Escalator program achieve leadership positions beyond their initial aspirations, from CEO positions to Board roles.
  5. Create networks of women who meet frequently for support and to discuss leadership challenges. In addition to AWDT, there are a host of women groups in New Zealand’s agricultural industry, including the Dairy Women’s Network and Rural Women of NZ.

If you haven’t started, now is the time to invest in developing your pipeline of women leaders. It’s going to require a new way of thinking and doing business, but in my experience, it’s wholly worth the effort. A combination of leadership and networking programs at the industry level, as well as a more inclusive and diverse culture at the firm level, may be your secret weapon as the agtech industry matures and becomes increasingly competitive.

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Lindy Nelson is the founder and executive director of the Agri Women’s Development Trust, an organization that focuses on developing women’s leadership, business and governance skills in the agricultural sector.

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