Meet the All Women-Led Advisory Board Leading Agri-Food Tech Development through BIV’s GFRP Fund
By: Shruti Azad
The many advancements within the agri-food tech industry is proving to be the solution to some of the most pressing challenges for the world right now – namely climate change and food security. However, like many industries within STEM, agri-food tech also tends to have a more masculine culture due to the representation split of employees within the companies in the industry.
For an industry like agriculture and food that is so linked with culture, heritage and tradition, it is becoming more and more evident that having diverse leaders and teams with different thoughts, opinions and voices leads to better innovation and development. And it is heartening to see women within the industry carve a space for their voices to be heard.
At Big Idea Ventures, we support these voices. Our new Generation Food Rural Partners (GFRP) Fund is led by one of the only all-female advisory boards in the industry.
The GFRP Fund is built to bring university-held intellectual property in the food, protein, and agriculture sectors to the market, while catalyzing economic growth in rural communities.
The women leading the advisory board for this fund all have significant experience within the agri-food tech industry and have extensive knowledge of what it takes to convert an idea into a scalable business.
We interviewed our female advisors and asked them about their journey and what it was like to work in this sector. Here’s what they had to say.
Why did you join the agri-food tech industry?
“I was first attracted out of consulting and moved towards the Agri-food sector, specifically PepsiCo because I wanted to work with world class marketers, and they had a good program for slotting former consultants into line jobs relatively swiftly. I stayed the rest of my career in this space because it is so relevant to the day to day lives of people all over the world,” says Mikel Durham, Senior Advisor, Generation Food Rural Partners Fund and Former CEO/Board member of agribusinesses.
Wanting to have a role to play in changing the lives of consumers and achieving this through food is a common theme among our advisors.
“My personal interest in breakthrough food and agriculture technologies lies in promoting a broader understanding of how the food we eat is the first line of defense against disease. I believe that improving access to higher-quality, more nutritious food is critical for creating a healthier world. By playing a small part in increasing awareness and improving food quality, I hope to contribute to this important goal,” says Mary Kay James, Senior Advisor, Generation Food Rural Partners Fund and Owner, Upside Financial Solutions
But apart from that, what is very evident is a strong connection to building a sustainable ecosystem that can feed our planet in the years to come.
“I grew up on a farm and was always deeply aware of where our food comes from. After a degree in agriculture and working in the industry, my perspective broadened. Not everyone had access to the many healthy options that I was used to. I also learned that there are many reasons for a person to choose the food they eat. Cultural preferences, health restrictions and environmental concerns are among the many considerations when choosing what you eat. Many times, producing food is not the limiting factor, rather it is the distribution so that more people benefit. Being a part of the infrastructure to feed people is exciting, challenging and I feel is a way for me to give back.” says Bette Brand, Founder/CEO, Strategic Consulting LLC and Senior Advisor, Generation Food Rural Partners Fund
What are some challenges you faced in the industry?
Historically, agriculture has been a male dominated industry. Men worked the fields and women tended the homes. This perception continued into the organizations and companies who supported the industry.
“For me, I thrived in this white male-oriented environment, because I had the passion, curiosity, and work-ethic to differentiate myself from many others. Perceptions change as life experiences change. As the agri-food industry becomes more innovative and diverse, it has become stronger because of the influences from people from so many different backgrounds and perspectives,” says Bette Brand.
Women constitute 50% of the population and trends seem to indicate that when it comes to family units, women have more say in what type of food gets consumed. Yet, leading decisions at a corporate level was sometimes a challenge.
“Women all over the world make daily decisions about how to feed their families. I sat in so many meetings earlier in my career where predominantly men were making assumptions and interpreting data about shopper behavior, when those shoppers were largely women. I wanted a seat and a voice at that table!” says Mikel Durham.
Is change coming?
According to our advisors, change is coming and it is of vital importance!
“The agri-food industry is undergoing a significant transformation and women can bring a unique perspective particularly when it comes to the needs of families. While in most of the world progress has been made in women’s societal mobility, they are still disproportionately expected to perform the role of primary caregiver, which results in women having a deeper understanding of the impact of food and nutrition on children, adult dependents, and themselves. As consumers women continue to demand better food quality which should cue companies as to the importance of their representation in leadership positions.” says Mary Kay James.
The industry can only gain from the various perspectives that women can bring to the table.
“During my career, I had demanding responsibilities with my job just as I had demanding responsibilities raising three active sons with my husband. I was the “Chief Logistics Officer” in our home among other roles and brought those fine-tuned skills to my job. As most female leaders will tell you, it isn’t easy for any parent, male or female, to juggle both, but you learn to multitask, be efficient, operate in a sustainable manner, delegate, teach, develop people and care about your roles with all your heart,” says Bette Brand.
Mikel Durham backed up this point by saying that when women are able to self finance their family through local jobs and can supplement their income, the family is more stable, incomes rise, and birth rates tend to slow.
“This industry needs the smartest and brightest and at least 50% of that talent is female. We need to get women involved and reward them for their involvement in the food production systems, and technology and leapfrogging the old way of doing things will make them more welcome.”
BIV’s Generation Food Rural Partners Fund (GFRP) is currently evaluating several university-led IPs in the field of packaging innovation with the goal to commercialize the most relevant technologies. If you are interested in joining one of our NewCo, apply here or in partnering with us, reach out here. Find out more about the GFRP Fund here.