Distances separate rural women, but coming together shows them that they are not so far apart after all.
For the last three years, Iris Meck has invited rural women to attend a two day conference called Advancing in Women in Agriculture.
Women older than 19 from across Canada gather at conferences in Calgary and Toronto to share stories and experiences in the world or agriculture.
“How much better can you get when you bring a group of women of different ages, different cultures, different experiences, different levels of management, different levels of career and have them all share their stories,” Meck said.
The Manitoba farm girl’s career saw her move from a job in Saskatchewan to Calgary, where 17 years ago she started her own communications and marketing firm co-ordinating conferences, workshops and forums.
Her dream was to do something for women to build leadership skills based on four principles:
- how to build a career
- learn financial management and independence
- maintain health and the balance of life
- develop ability to communicate stories but also learn with mentoring, coaching and networking
“I don’t think women use mentoring and coaching and networking enough to fulfill their own experiences. It is not just shaking your hand and saying goodbye, it’s keeping up that relationship and having a reason to go back and ask that question,” she said.
Through her business, Iris Meck Communications, she found sponsors to bring 35 young women from western universities and colleges to the conference. She also hopes to link her international volunteer work to sponsorship for women from other countries so they can attend.
She is involved with a foundation in Peru that supports a sewing school to teach women how to start their own businesses, sew for their families or get jobs in nearby Lima.
The group also supports a farm and worked with people to clear land and grow potatoes and root vegetables to sell or feed their families.
Meck also sponsors five to eight female university students from Africa to attend events and conferences, including an international biotechnology conference.
“I would love to bring them up here and we are working towards that.”
However, it is expensive.
“There are so many things I want to do with advancing women, but it takes resources,” she said.
Women from across Canada and five American states attended this year’s conference to hear examples of how they can advance in agriculture. There were common threads of dealing with disappointments, setbacks and conflicts but also the satisfaction of success.
One of the women was Natasha Vandenhurk, part owner and chief executive officer of Three Farmers, a Saskatchewan company that sells camelina oil and chickpea products. She came into the business at age 24 with a degree in economics and little experience.
“The economics degree might have challenged my math skills on a daily basis; it did nothing in honing my skills in forecasting, financial statement analysis, cash flow management or drumming up dollars,” she said.
Her real education was about to begin. The business grew from selling a few bottles of oil at farmers markets to filling container loads. She worked around the clock trying to raise a baby, run a company and salvage a marriage.
“If I hadn’t had my sister as a partner, the outcome wouldn’t have been as favourable,” she said.
Life was chaotic and demanding and she is still learning to strike a balance.
“Balance is a lovely thought, but I think there are times in life where there is no balance,” she said.
There were disappointments but victories as well, and she learned to see the silver lining in the clouds.
“I am like every other mother out there. I am overtired, overworked but overjoyed,” she said.
Having a family and a company is stressful, but millions of other women cope with the same challenges of work and family.
“This is what we do as women. We solve problems that often seem unsolvable,” she said.
Also speaking at the conference was Jennifer Christie, part of John Deere’s marketing strategy team and a driving force behind the Ontario-based Ag Women’s Network.
She learned to pay her dues and promote herself when she saw opportunities appear in her own career.
“I believe there is some work that has to be done ahead of time before you can ask for those opportunities,” she said.
She understood hard work from growing up on a grain and dairy farm in Ontario.
Working for John Deere, she attended farm shows for two years, where she did everything from polishing tractor windows to meeting the public and picking up garbage after the event.
She admitted she had to develop a positive attitude, and when a manager was not interested in her ideas to work with dealers, she stepped back and decided not to let setbacks drive her off course.
A new manager eventually listened to her ideas about marketing strategies and she is now the only person in North America working as a dealer development manager. Before that, she was a territory sales manager in Ontario.
“You can have the work ethic, you can have the right attitude, you can figure out the opportunity and pitch that, and you still may not have the right manager in your court to make it happen,” she said.
She wanted something more ,and in 2013 she joined a group of young women who were working in agriculture and looking for mentors and opportunities to build networks to help them face challenges in the work place.
The group could not find many female leaders to help them, but they found after starting a Facebook group that they were mentoring each other.
The group was developed for women in Ontario, but membership has spread nationally. They recently launched a new website that welcomes all women at agwomensnetwork.wordpress.com/.