Women crack business barrier

Winning career paths | Speakers at leadership conference share stories on how to seize opportunities when they arise

The appreciation of mentors and the ability to seize opportunities were common themes for a group of women who gathered for a leadership conference in Calgary April 28-29.

Each of the speakers at the Advancing Women conference has followed a different career path: making a few mistakes along the way but ultimately proving themselves in the world of agriculture.

Fran Burr, who is responsible for marketing Cargill’s AgHorizons business unit in Canada, has had a career spanning four decades.

“I have to say when I started in my ag career, gender was an issue, she said.

Job interviews were awkward and stereotyping was frustrating when she was told she would never last as Cargill’s first woman sales representative in Western Canada.

She was eventually promoted to sales manager, and a newspaper article described her as a “brainy and vivacious brunette.”

“As if being a brunette had anything to do with the fact that I was the first woman to hold such a senior sales agricultural position,” she said.

Times have changed for the better, and corporations are now looking at talent and experience rather than gender.

Many still have a policy of promoting from within, but sometimes it is hard to elevate women when there are not enough of them in the mid management ranges to groom for senior positions.

Mentors offering good advice were critical for her, and she learned to listen closely, especially when she was at a career crossroads and unsure whether she had the ability to take on new challenges.

She believes in planning, seizing opportunities and forethought before making decisions.

“From my experience and watching others, their careers, from the sidelines, good career paths are not always about good planning. Sometimes plans get dumped by serendipity,” she said.

Senator JoAnne Buth also believes in opportunity.

“I did have goals, but I didn’t do any planning,” she said.

Bluth was president of the Canola Council of Canada from 2007-12 before prime minister Steven Harper appointed her to the Senate in 2012.

She first worked as a meat wrapper at Eaton’s in Winnipeg. She earned money to go to university and had a career that took her from the City of Winnipeg, the Manitoba government and Agriculture Canada as an entomologist to DowElanco Canada doing insecticide and herbicide research before joining the canola council.

“There was no planning but more importantly, seizing opportunities,” she said.

In the Senate, she is involved in innovation in agriculture.

Innovation has driven Alison Sunstrom. She is co-chief executive officer of GrowSafe Systems.

“We are geeks, nerds and cowboys,” she said.

She calls herself a dream builder and a technology evangelist.

“I want our technology on every farm, but what we are very proud about is that we built a company that is very profitable. We have virtually no debt,” she said.

At 29, she invented a way to ex-change data before there was the internet. The concept earned her enough money to invest in other agricultural companies.

She joined GrowSafe in Airdrie, Alta., in 1999, and working with business partner Camiel Huisma, has expanded the technology around the world.

The company has invested $12 million in research and development with agribusiness, government and universities.

She worries about the future and profitability of agriculture and argued that it needs innovation. She has also learned how to hire the right kind of people to advance the business and never shuns hard work.

“You’ve got to like working hard for 18 hours a day for yourself instead of eight hours for someone else.”

More importantly, she encourages other women to make mistakes, take risks and learn something new.

“Remember what is important and empower the next generation.”

Angela Santiago, the youngest of the group, said she never planned a career in agriculture. At age 42, she is CEO and co-founder of the Little Potato Co. near Edmonton.

When she was 24, she and her father started with an acre of specialty potatoes that they planted and harvested by hand.

Now they have 125 employees, grow specialty potatoes on 4,400 acres at Edmonton and produce 50 million pounds a year.

“I didn’t grow up thinking I couldn’t because I was a female. I thank my parents every day for that,” she said.

She joined an entrepreneur club to share information and ideas and seek support as a business owner. She set up a company advisory board for support and guidance in expanding the business.

She also uses a business coach to challenge her and make her accountable for decisions.

“There is a community that is still raising me,” she said.

Stricken with breast cancer at 39, she decided she needed more balance in her life.

A mother of four children, she decided to set up a vision board with pictures of four buckets representing herself, marriage, work and the farm so she could give attention to what is important to her.

“Goals are important, and I am still growing.”

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