From Farms to Incubators: The last of a three-part series of stories about minority women entrepreneurs in agtech in the Salinas Valley and beyond. The series is sponsored by a grant by the International Center for Journalists. Part 3 focuses on efforts from the public and private sectors to develop a knowledge-based workforce, and a new generation of girls and young women considering a future in agtech.
SALINAS — On a recent weekday, Hartnell College’s campus in the Alisal District was bustling with a new semester. Students were wide-eyed and almost giddy as they searched for their classrooms.
Hartnell, a community college headquartered in downtown Salinas, enrolls over 17,000 students and nearly 60% are Hispanic. Its Alisal satellite campus, focused on agriculture and increasingly agtech, opened for class in 2013.
Hartnell is a critical piece of what former Salinas mayor Dennis Donohue calls “building a pipeline,” developing a well-educated and skilled workforce ready to tackle a knowledge-based economy.
“Salinas is gearing up for the future,” said Donohue, who recently joined Western Growers to lead business development for the Center for Innovation & Technology. “We are giving birth to a very exciting movement: the rise of young Latino entrepreneurs.”
He pointed to Anita Garcia, a student completing the CSin3 program at CSUMB, who turned down a six-figure job offer from Salesforce the San Francisco-based cloud computing company.
“She is choosing to stay here,” Donohue said.
The Alisal is one of the poorest districts in Salinas — tightly packed with multiple families living in single-family homes, at times rife with gang-related violence. Many of its residents are workers in agriculture or the service industry.
Hartnell’s Alisal location, a small but modern campus that cost $36 million to build and sits on nine acres of farmland, is unusual among community colleges in that it was created and funded by the industry.
“The campus exists for and by the industry,” said Susan Pheasant, director of the Agricultural, Business and Technology Institute at Hartnell. The college’s nearly 150 advisory board members, many from the industry, drive a curriculum that tackles issues such as labor shortage and water limits.
Some of the campus’s largest benefactors include the Tanimura Family Foundation, D’Arrigo Brothers, Ocean Mist, Taylor Farms and Fresh Express/Chiquita Brands. The classrooms are named after the company sponsors: the Fresh Express Science Laboratory and the Green Giant by Growers Express Classroom.
In less than three years, enrollment has grown 7,500 and roughly 3,000 of the students are in the agricultural sciences and food technology. Reflecting Salinas’s demographics, the average age is 33, and most are Latino-Hispanic. Most are the first in their family to attend college, and many are the children of parents who also worked in the fields or packing or canning industries.
Pheasant is seeing a growing female student population, perhaps encouraged by job opportunities. In addition, annually Hartnell hosts a program pairing 20 professionals and female students.
In addition to the Alisal campus, one of Hartnell’s flagships is the CSin3 program offered jointly with California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB). The program leads to a degree in three years – students earn an associate’s degree from Hartnell and a bachelor’s from CSUMB in computer science and engineering. All receive full scholarships.
The program is funded by Andy Matsui, founder of the Matsui Nursery, grower of orchids. Matsui, an immigrant from Japan at age 19, never attended college but is a strong proponent of education. CSin3 was his idea.
His daughter, Teresa Matsui, who now runs the nursery, said the program targets young people from underserved communities.
Pheasant said they want students to realize that agriculture isn’t limited to the fields: It includes the research labs, marketing science and technology. The college launched a semester-long competitive internship program with Mann Packingin which students receive credit and work experience; two even received job offers. Earlier this month, it held iAgriculture, a daylong professional development day focused on opportunities in agtech. In addition, the campus houses a series of K12 programs — including NASA, Coder Dojo and the soon-to-launch a Girls Who Code Club — to encourage youth to explore careers in science, computers and technology. Roughly 40% of the 7,500 children are girls, said Maggie Melone-Echiburu, director of Hartnell’s K12 STEM Programs.
There lies a connection between CSin3 and the K12 STEM program; CSin3 students sometimes teach the K12 STEM classes, and most recently an alumnus of the K12 STEM program is now enrolled in CSin3.
Minority women entrepreneurs in agtech agree that things have been changing. The constellations appear to be aligning: The agtech sector is gaining steam and funding as agriculture is forced to innovate to stay competitive.
Pam Marrone, CEO and founder of Marrone Bio Innovations Inc. and a pioneer in agtech entrepreneurship, has made it a point to mentor a new generation of women in agtech. She sits on the boards of three women-launched agtech companies, including AgShift, launched by Miku Jha, and the Redmelon Company, launched by Le Vuong.
“I open my Rolodex and introduce them to investors,” Marrone said. “I tell them go to the Village Capital incubator, I’ll read their business plan and help them sometimes I help them with a little money.
“There will definitely be more women because of the opportunity to have an impact to create something new.”
A growing number of women are working in white-collar positions at agriculture companies, led by Taylor Farms, Driscoll’s and Tanimura & Antle. At Driscoll’s, one of the largest berry companies in the world, the scientists leading the research and development are women.
Tanya Mason, vice president of business development at Taylor Farms, has risen through the company ranks over 14 years and observed there are more women working in all aspects of agriculture.
“Ten years ago in the fields, you wouldn’t see as many female field managers,” Mason said.
A city looks ahead
In Salinas, officials agree that agtech is critical to the success of the city.
“We are going after agtech and have been for four years now, and it’s just starting to blossom,” said Salinas City Manager Ray Corpuz Jr.
Diversity is important to that.
“Agriculture has been traditional, a man’s world, but that all has to change,” he said. “I don’t think traditionally there were pathways and expectations allowed participation for minority women.”
Corpuz points to the city’s demographics: The average age is 28 and roughly 75% are Latino-Hispanic.
“So why aren’t we doing more so there’s full participation?”
One way to address that is the partnership with Hartnell and the four other cities in the Salinas Valley to train workers in agtech.
A common thread
On a recent weekday DigitalNEST – a Watsonville-based nonprofit, offers high-tech and professional skills training including coding, graphic design and videography for youth – is buzzing with young people. Even during winter break, the two-story center in downtown Watsonville is busy with activity.
These are high school students who are passionate about tech. The center offers after-school classes in everything from animation to programming to web design. Most of the students were born and raised in Watsonville, a city of roughly 52,000 sandwiched between San Jose and Salinas where the biggest industry is strawberry production. Many of their parents and grandparents have been farm laborers and packing workers.
Jacob Martinez, founder and executive director of DigitalNEST, wanted to give young people marketable skills.
“In Salinas and Watsonville, you see our brightest youth leave and never come back because they see opportunities, but what about opportunities right here in the community?” Martinez asked.
DigitalNEST is also focused on recruiting more girls to join DigitalNEST (they now make up roughly 35%). It has launched a regular meetup for girls to share their experiences, insights and any concerns they have.
At Hartnell College, Melone-Echiburu said that though encouraged by the energy of the students, she is concerned about how sustainable is that pipeline. Certainly there are jobs in the industry. The continued labor shortage, for example, continues to drive the industry to innovate and attract a new generation of workers.
“We’re always looking for talent and to recruit a new generation in the fields,” said Albert Garnica, Taylor Farms’ vice president harvest operations, noting the shift to automation to woo younger workers to the fields. Currently, the age of field workers ranges from 47 to 70.
“Who has the capacity to use these kids we graduate? Where would they go locally with their brains?” Melone-Echiburu asks. “My concern is, where are those jobs in Salinas?”
Theresa Matsui also pointed to the lack of good-paying jobs and the high price of housing: In the past year, rent in Salinas has risen 9%. But Matsui said change starts with education.
For example, her eyes light up when she talks about the young women who have gone through the CSin3 program. So far, 53 students have graduated, roughly 40% of them women.
“I think they can bring a really valuable experience to these companies,” said Matsui. “Give them tech skills and then you have the mecca of agtech and you’ve got a nexus.”
Pioneers and frontiers
Change takes an attitude and faith, said Christine Su, CEO and founder of PastureMap in the Bay Area.
“I’ve been working in male-dominated industries my entire life” – venture capital and private equity. “It helps to have a thicker skin, and it helps to use your gender, etc,. to your advantage. I see young women shrinking back and I tell them ‘Don’t blend in, stick out.’”
Change takes wanting to connect with the few women in the space. Miku Jha of AgShift in Santa Clara, has mentored as many as 40 women into entrepreneurship through her career.
“I am very passionate about that,” because many young girls drop out of technology, said Jha, who launched several startups before AgShift and began her career at IBM. “You always need good mentors.”
Abby Taylor-Silva, vice president of policy and communication for the Grower-Shipper Association, is a farmer’s daughter and said she grew up seeing “minority women and women in general work in all types of agriculture jobs, throughout my life.”
She has observed that “many of these women, their daughters and granddaughters, as well as women new to the industry, have moved up in the industry into managerial and executive roles over the years, sometimes in their family companies, sometimes in companies they’ve worked in throughout their careers, and sometimes by starting their own companies.”
And their daughters
In her final semester, Anita Garcia, a student in the CSin3 program, is neck deep in studies and activities.
She’s passionate about “machine learning” and in her capstone project this semester she’s creating a short-term labor forecaster.
“It lets farmers know how many people will be needed to complete the harvest at hand, and designed to prevent crop loss,” Garcia said.
Garcia recently launched a club called herScript, many of its members women in the computer science program. The group has been involved in agtech projects, including hackathon, and served as agtech initiative mentors for DigitalNEST.
After graduation, she will work as a coordinator at CSUMB’s computer science department at the same time she pursues a master’s degree in computer science from Georgia Tech.
Born in Ventura and raised in Salinas, Garcia was a top student at Salinas High who has always had a passion for computers and coding. She will be the first person in her family to graduate from college.
Last summer, she interned at Salesforce’s office in San Francisco, impressing her supervisors so much that they offered her a six-figure full-time software engineering job. Garcia turned it down.
“I’d rather stay here, this is it for me,” she said. “This is where I plan on staying until I’m not sure when. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
*This article first appeared in The Californian on February 17, 2017