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Women in Agriculture: Fourth Edition


Welcome back to the Global BioAg Linkages "Women in Agriculture" Series.

Friends,

This is a special occasion when I am passing on our editor in chief function of "Women in Agriculture" to none other than Pam Marrone, Partner and Executive Board Chair of Primary BioAg Innovations and Global BioAg Linkages. There is no one better than Pam to host and steer our quarterly newsletter, "Women in Agriculture". Pam is not only an inspiration for all, but also a well recognized role model for all women leaders in agriculture across the globe.

In addition to the "Women in Agriculture" newsletter, Pam and I will also start a monthly blog together to engage a global audience into the "Adaptability of BioProducts as mainstream inputs in our agriculture" rather than just "good to have products". Our joint mission and passion are to make bioproducts a must in all Integrated Crop Management schedules. Watch the space!

Roger Tripathi, CEO & Founder Primary BioAg Innovations and Global BioAg Linkages

Message from Pam Marrone PhD, Partner and Executive Board Chair Primary BioAg Innovations (PBI) and Global BioAg Linkages (GBAL):


Colleagues,

Most of you have seen the media release and social media communication that I have “retired” from my CEO role at Marrone Bio Innovations and taken on Partner and Executive Chair of the Board roles with Primary BioAg Innovations and Global BioAg Linkages. I am also excited to take over the Editor in Chief function of Women in Agriculture” t"he GBAL’s quarterly newsletter.

We the women leaders in agriculture do not see ourselves as a separate group from men leaders, however we wish to reduce the distinction and classification. Our aim is to come to the point where we only recognize leaders as leaders not as women or men leaders. Good leaders are good leaders and bad leaders are bad leaders, they cannot be classified by gender. I was very impressed when GBAL at BioAg World Congress in New Delhi in 2019 started the recognition of strong women leaders and then came the “Women in Agriculture’ quarterly newsletter. I was featured in the first issue and I am pleased to be at the helm of this newsletter and steer this initiative.

During the last five months of my time as CEO of Marrone Bio Innovations, I was at the helm during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a long-time CEO, I have seen many catastrophic events. The first one I experienced was when I was running AgraQuest was 9-11 2001. I had a venture capital investor who said earlier, “Plan for disaster.” Never could I imagine anything like the terrorist attack. Since that time, there have been multiple other attacks around the globe, the 2008 Great Recession and now the global pandemic. In response to COVID-19, our Marrone Bio teams pivoted quickly to working at home, implementing health and safety protocols and social distancing in the labs and manufacturing facility, and stepping up educational webinars. We took a 10% reduction in our operating budget as a precaution. The lesson here is that resilience is a characteristic of all the entrepreneurs I know. We persist despite internal and external challenges. COVID-19 has laid bare many issues with the current food system, which means there are still many opportunities to solve big problems in food and ag. I asked some of my CEO and Founder friends, as to how agtech women entrepreneurs are weathering COVID-19 pandemic effects. This is what they shared:

“When COVID and “Shelter in Place” started it was a huge challenge for us. InnerPlant has a team of nine, working on biology innovations, we make plants that are living sensors. Losing access to our lab significantly slowed down our progress. The team came together quickly and by doing staggered shifts starting at 5am and ending at 8pm we were able to find a rhythm for the biology team. We actually became more efficient, focusing only on strategic projects and communicating over zoom. Lately, we all experience Zoom fatigue. With many months ahead of us, I'm focused on keeping the team productive and making sure to address mental wellbeing through openness and vulnerability. Next challenge for us is kicking off a virtual series A fundraise over Zoom!” Shely Aronov, Founder, CEO, InnerPlant

“Agriculture is the primary unit of economy which has been realized more so during the pandemic. When lockdown was enforced in India and across the world in varying degrees the stocks of Ag-companies increased in value in India. It was initially feared that due to shortage of raw material supply the companies and farmers would face some challenges. But largely the situation was corrected timely by the government stepping in to offer incentives and additional working capital. This helped the sector weather the challenges largely. The consumer focus on health has been deeply affected which should help the sustainable AG industry. Fear about residues in food, water and keeping the air/our lungs clean by stopping burning is in limelight.

Right now, the rural economy in India is growing faster as compared to the urban and India INC is starting slowly but surely. As a women entrepreneur the lockdown phase gave me a lot of time for deep introspection on re-channeling resources. While much of the manpower was retained during the distress, deep haircuts were taken on advertising, new area expansion, re-allocation of manpower thereby increasing the efficiency of working capital. Personally, I am involving myself in in-house corporate governance betterment activities that can prepare us for a longer leap for the future. This “Corona” year I would be glad if we show a decent growth of 25 to 30% over last year in the same area. One important thing that I have noticed is an undercurrent of co-operation to arrive at a win-win situation to face the uncertainties mutually with respect to all stakeholders. This understanding should go a long way as adversity is always an inflection point provided we harbor the mindset for citing the opportunities.” Sandeepa Kanitkar: Chairperson and Managing Director Kan Biosys, India

Let me now share with you the women entrepreneurs we are featuring in this issue of “Women in Agriculture” and their success stories and experience.

Pam Marrone PhD; Partner and Executive Board Chair Primary BioAg Innovations (PBI) and Global BioAg Linkages (GBAL)

Nancy Schellhorn

Dr. Nancy Schellhorn

CEO & Co-founder, RapidAIM

Formerly with CSIRO (Australia); Globally recognized Ag & Biosecurity research; PhD Entomology University of Minnesota, USA; MS Ecology & BS Agriculture University of Missouri, USA


Q: 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 difficult question to answer because there are challenges running a business almost every day. However, I’m never really sure if any of them are associated with my gender. I’m sure some are, but it’s unclear. The only observation that I’ve made is that women consistently undersell their achievement and capabilities, whereas my male colleagues are not as understated. The problem is that I find men assume that women aren’t as capable or more capable because they’re not as bolshie! It’s not the case, and the same is true for my quitter, understated male colleagues.

Q: 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?


Transitioning from research scientist to entrepreneur was challenging. I knew that the entrepreneur path would take my complete focus, so I divested all of my research and focused on building a company. To do this, I had to stop ‘being’ one thing before I could become something else. As an example, there are a lot of activities in the scientific profession that are symbolic of status and recognition by your peers; editorial positions for journals, keynote and plenary addresses, training students, participating on panels. I had to step back from these activities, which also meant, stepping back from my professional status, because none of these activities would help us grow the business. That was a bit challenging to my ego; I went from being a global expert in my discipline to being unrecognizable! I don’t mean to say that I stopped being a scientist, because I haven’t, and I bring my scientific training and knowledge into our company. I had to stop conducting the business of science. That was challenging, but necessary.

Secondly, I surrounded myself with some dedicated, exceptional mentors who are business savvy and are deeply committed to seeing us succeed. Great mentors are critically important. Find a couple of good ones and treat them like gold.

Q: How did you get the idea for your business?

I’ve worked in agro-ecology and pest management for many decades. My lab and collaborators and I did some fantastic research through the years. However, time and time again, one of the most persistent issues was that the biggest barrier to sustainable pest management was that for farmers managing pests is a guessing game.

We knew that if we could detect pests in real-time, and provide the information to farmers, this would give growers confidence about when to hold, when and where to control pests and know if control is working. We’ve created technology to do that. RapidAIM helps farmers protect crops by detecting and predicting pest threats across regions, farms, fields and orchards. With a mission to reduce chemical use, RapidAIM eliminates insurance, just-in-case, sprays, reduces crop loss and achieves 30% cost savings for pest surveillance.

Q: You’ve successfully raised 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?


Great mentors who advised us along the way is super important. They let us know what was up ahead, what to watch out for, how to prepare, and when to really lean in. We’re also super lucky to land with Main Sequence Ventures for our seed raise; a fantastic group of very experienced and knowledgeable men who roll up their sleeves and have helped us grow our company.

Miku Jha

Miku Jha, CEO and Founder

AgShift


Miku has moved from tech to agtech,

using her past experience at companies like Worklight, IBM and VMWare to help make ag more efficient.


Q: What are some of the challenges you have faced as a female entrepreneur in agriculture and how have you overcome these challenges?

Our vision with AgShift, was to close the gap between technology and food ecosystem. A lot of compelling and viable technical innovations in AI, Analytics and Big data doesn’t make it to food and Ag because young technology entrepreneurs are outsiders to this ecosystem and find it overwhelming to break the silos. As a minority, female entrepreneur it was even more difficult for me to establish early credibility in the agriculture ecosystem, to get the face time with key stake holders in food supply chain, to validate the product offering and to get their feedback and inputs on the early stages of the product. Overcoming this challenge was not easy.

However, the few approaches which did work for us was:

1) Identifying and reaching out to a few, selected experts in food and Ag ecosystem who were technology friendly and were open to being early adopters and collaborative partners.

2) Building a strong team of advisors who could provide a support network

3) Working with accelerator programs and other programs who already have the ecosystem of right stake holders in food and Ag to do product validation and provide strategic collaboration within their organization.

Q: How did you make the transition from Technologist to entrepreneur/businesswoman? It’s not an easy transition, any advice for other scientists who want to be entrepreneurs?

There are few things which ideally are applicable for women entrepreneurs who are transitioning from other roles:

Business idea validation and product market fit: Switching to an entrepreneur- The validity and applicability of the product/solution to solve a real problem is crucial. It might be a great idea, most sophisticated technology stack, most innovative approach – but if it doesn’t solve a real problem – then it has to be revisited, fine-tuned and optimized until it does. Especially, if someone is coming up with an Idea in a new ecosystem, in a new vertical, then the idea has to be validated upfront with as many customers as possible. Redoing anything is expensive in terms of time, effort and resources. It is better to spend as much time as needed to have the conviction that one is solving a real problem – before starting to aggressively work on the solution.

Fund raising: This always takes lot more time, effort, help and energy than originally anticipated. And it is the time taken away from running the company. So it has to be planned for. The best approach would be to have collaborate with someone who would do this actively or ramp up someone to run the critical tasks – while as a businesswoman you are trying to raise funds. And women entrepreneurs have to work harder on fund raising. This is a fact which should be factored in.

Advisors: Build the right set of advisors early on, industry experts, scientists, business development experts, champion customers. One cannot start on this when one needs the help. It has to be done early on and nurtured so that right people with right skills can step and help when needed.

Q: How did you get the idea for your business?

The business idea for AgShift was rather deep rooted. Originally, I am part of a small farm holder community in India and grew up understanding the difficulties of food and ag business from a grower perspective. In 2016, As a technologist, at IBM, I was leading internet-of-things initiative – where I was mentoring many startups on sensor, drone and data related technologies for large farms and Ag ecosystem.

The same year there was a massive drought in California and also back home in India. The lack of access to automation, data, insights in the food and Ag ecosystem was evident. However, more surprising was the fact that there were very few entrepreneurs who wanted to change this equation. Technology benefits from data, insights and automation of repetitive tasks, which was easily accessible and deployed in other verticals was not derived or realized by food and Ag ecosystem. It was a clear gap for something which is most crucial to all of us -food. The evolution of operational efficiencies in food ecosystem was possible with technology enabled automation. I was convinced that even a slight improvement in automation and data insights, could deliver massive benefits to the food supply chain. With this conviction, I left IBM and founded AgShift.

Q: You’ve successfully raised 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?

Raising Venture capital for women entrepreneurs is harder. The important thing is to establish as many proof points as possible early-on. If the key metrics which the investors look for are met or can be convincingly met then the process becomes easier since the risk appetite of VCs for women led businesses is lower. Thus more proof points have to be delivered.

The key things that worked for us:

Establishing strategic relationships with customers early on – the biggest ambassadors and champions for young startups are the potential customers who can speak to why they would use a given product. The customer relationships have to be nurtured and product should exceed their expectations, solving a real need. If this one goal is met, then investment becomes a non-issue. One customer can get you multiple investments, but it is not essentially the other way around.


Explore alternative options of fund-raising: Early on, delivering on the venture capital metrics and requirements are difficult. Exploring alternatives such as individual investors who believe in the vision of the company, accelerators who can invest and connect you to key customers, government grants which give you no dilutive capital, getting paid commercial trials with customers -all these options are viable and should be considered.

Q: You started with a different business idea and pivoted successfully into what you are doing now. What is the key to your successful pivot? What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs in order to pivot if their first ides is found not to be feasible?

Pivoting is essential to any start-up and in fact at any stage of the company. Entrepreneurs should always be open to it. This should not be considered as a failure but rather an essential trait for success. Many times, it is hard to listen to the market feedback, it is hard to walk away from the investment made into a certain business idea. However, if multiple customers are giving the same feedback then it is time to listen to the marker needs and adapt, as opposed to being headstrong and thinking that customers don’t know what they want. Customers always know what they want, what solves their problems and what they would pay for. The pivot should not be done with feedback of one or two customers though- there has to be a clear trend – when they all point out the gap in a certain product or are not convinced of its value -then it is time to reconsider. Also pivoting is not always about throwing away the current product and building a new one from scratch. Many times, it could be positioning of the product or adding few additional features to make the solution compelling or integrating with other products which are already being used in the market to make operations easier for the customers.

Kellye Eversole

Kellye Eversole, President

Eversole Associates


She has been the Executive Director of

the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium since its inception in 2005 and is Executive Director of the International Alliance for Phytobiomes Research. Kellye co-created the “Women in Genomics” platform a networking group for women scientists to connect, meet each other, exchange ideas and experiences and provide career advice.


Q: You have been in the agriculture industry for over five decades. How has been your journey? What's the most thrilling part of it?

I have been in agriculture my entire life. I grew up in a farming and ranching family in Southwest Oklahoma and I was active in all aspects of the farming operation. In high school, I was one of the first women in Oklahoma to be a member of the Future Farmers of America after the passage of Title IX which guaranteed equal opportunity in education to women. While I was in school at Oklahoma State University, I did part-time work with a grain elevator and then I went to Washington to work in the US Senate where I spent ten years working on all kinds of legislation that affected agriculture. Subsequently, I headed up a two-year study commission related to agriculture and then, in 1991, I started my agricultural science and technology consulting business. It has been an amazing time to be involved in agriculture over the past forty-plus years as I watched the collapse in the 1980s of international markets and the farm crisis that bankrupted so many farmers and ranchers but it was also the start of the biotechnology industry that could lead to income growth and increased profitability on the farm. I started my company just as biotechnology was taking off at the commercial scale and was lucky enough to be tapped in 1994 to lead the effort to bring genomic technologies to agricultural crops long before the human genome was sequenced. The timing for a science and technology-based consulting business in agriculture could not have been better.


Frankly, I have had such a rich career working with various aspects of the agricultural industry that it is difficult to say what I have enjoyed most. However, if pressed, I would say that leading and coordinating the international project to sequence the bread wheat genome, one of the most complex and large genomes sequenced to date, was perhaps the most thrilling as I was able to meet amazing scientists, growers, and industry personnel from all over the world and, once we released the high-quality sequence, I have been able to watch how the sequence is making a huge difference in breeding programs. It was one of those projects where we were opposed every step of the way, we were told it was impossible, we were encouraged to do a quick, cheaper draft sequence that supported comparative genomics instead of a high-quality one that would be more useful for breeders. Yet, in the end, we did it and that is really a highlight of my career.

Q: What has been your main motivation to start your own business and leading the industry-support nonprofits?

As I mentioned above, I was working in the US Senate when the 1980s farm crisis hit. My nature is to learn and so I dug into the history of policies in the US and Europe since the 1700s to see if the past offered any lessons on effective policies that could help US agriculture out of its financial crisis. The more I learned the more I became convinced that the only constant improvement in farm profitability was derived from advancements in science and technology. I knew that I wanted to accelerate the use of science and technology in agriculture to help farmer profitability. Also, the topic of sustainability is close to my heart and I believe biotechnology has immense potential to make agriculture progress on the path of sustainability. I wanted to start my own business to focus on these areas as there really was not any other type of organization that was a natural fit for my goals and vision. And, besides, I wanted to have the freedom and flexibility to work on projects that were intellectually stimulating and not have to worry about work in which I did not have an interest. As my business progressed, I became more and more interested in visionary projects that would lead to paradigm shifts in agricultural science as well as agricultural production. These are usually very challenging from an intellectual and an organizational perspective as it requires thinking outside of one’s comfort zone (e.g., outside of a particular discipline) and it requires industry, academia, and government to work together, even if loosely affiliated, to achieve ultimate success in the field. I have always known that I can work across boundaries and with groups from competing interests and the development of international research consortia comprised of industry, governmental, and academic institutes was a natural progression for my business.

Q: Agriculture has always been considered to be a male-dominated field. It would not have been easy to build a business in this industry. What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?

Throughout my life and especially my early career, I often found that I was the only woman in the room. I had some really tough first years in my consulting business as I saw the good-old boy network working extremely well and lost contracts to less qualified candidates simply because of a perception that only a man would be able to have discussions with industry or with international governmental officials. Over time, though, things have become a little better although women are still not well represented in leadership positions in industry, government, or academia. One of the first things that I did was to try to network with other women in agriculture and eventually other women involved in agricultural science or in genomics. More than 22 years ago, along with three other women, I launched the Women in Genomics (WIG) network to try to increase opportunities for collaboration and funding for women scientists from around the world and to mentor young women scientists so that they would stay in agricultural science. We organize a lot of workshops, conferences, and seminars and one of the things that we do is require that we have women speakers in all events. I get a lot of invitations to participate in conferences as well and if I see a conference with only male speakers, I refuse to attend and will inform the organizers why. I like to think that it occasionally has had an impact. It takes a little more work to find women speakers and that is one of the reasons why women need organizations like the WIG network. Generally, I think that we must do a much better job of ensuring that organizations (public and private) and events are more reflective of the breadth of diversity that we have in our world.

Q: You also mentor entrepreneurs as well as are on the advisory board of Zaidi-STEM, an NPO working for Sub-Saharan African girls. What do you want to see for the future of younger women in their career path?

I think that the future is bright for women in science, women in agriculture, and women entrepreneurs. While women have always been in the majority of farmers in the world, they have not been recognized for the role that they play in emerging economies or even in places like the US. In the US alone, the number of women leading farming operations is increasing every year and I would not be surprised if more women than men run farming organizations in the future. In the agricultural industry, we have an extremely long way to go to have women in the senior leadership positions (and not merely in the “people” category) and to have women make up 40 to 50% of the directors on corporate boards. We are also seeing an increase in the number of women entrepreneurs everywhere and the contributions they are making will pave the way for those who follow. Young people (women) have better solutions to their problems but are not empowered enough to bring the change. I believe by mentoring the youth and startups I am making my wide network accessible to them to facilitate their growth.

The most important thing that we can tell all girls and women interested in fields that at present are dominated by men (e.g., agriculture and science) is to not be intimated and never think that they cannot push through every barrier. Yes, it will be harder than if one is a white male, but it is not impossible. Hold onto your dreams and go for it!

Q: With the fast pace of development in almost all the aspects, where do you see the agriculture industry ten years from now? You are socially also active, any advice?

In all aspects of the agricultural industry, I think that we will see a much more integrated system, including science that is more integrated, i.e., one focused on the entire system and not just one component of it. The future will give growers more and more opportunities to develop management plans that are tailored specifically for a farm, grassland, or forest. This will result in increased income while also increasing the sustainability of agricultural production. Knowledge will lead the way and the more knowledge a person has about the operation, the greater the chances for increasing sustainability and profitability.

I have always been socially active to fight for justice. I believe every person on this earth has a purpose for being here. I believe in making a difference in other people’s life. With this faith, I move ahead and give back to the community. I am an aggressive reader (fiction and history) and love to paint. It gives me my mental space and helps me relieve stress as well as provides perspective to view things differently.


Thank you readers for your support and motivation which keeps us going. We believe that there's a lot to learn from our leaders' lives, if this seriesis able to inspire even a single person, then we are on the right track. We look forward to bringing more and more inspirational success stories to you, especially from our women leaders in this male-dominated sector, and make you believe, if they can do it, you can too.

IF YOU KNOW OF ANY SUCH WOMEN LEADER’s SUCCESS STORY, please share with pammarrone@bioaglinkages.com or suchetawadhwa@bioaglinkages.com

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BioAg World is hosted by Global BioAg Linkages, in partnership with industry associations and international agri publications.