From Farms to Incubators: Stories of minority women entrepreneurs in agtech in the Salinas Valley and beyond. The series is sponsored by a grant from the International Center for Journalists. Part Two focuses on the emergence of agtech, a new generation of young women in the agtech space, and the challenges and opportunities they face.
“Change is the only constant in life” — Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher.
MENLO PARK — In early February, over 200 people packed the Quadrus Conference Center for the first THRIVE Forum, a daylong conference to connect the agtech industries in Salinas Valley and Silicon Valley. As is usual at ag and tech conferences, most of the attendees were men, and the THRIVE top 50 companies were mainly led by men. But numerous women also attended.
Agtech is the marriage of agriculture and technology, whether it be software or hardware, that uses innovation and technology to produce better crops more efficiently.
During conference breaks, the crowd networked over wine, appetizers and exotic fruit against a backdrop of Jasper Johns paintings. I wove through the crowds, searching for minority women entrepreneurs or heads of companies, struggling at first.
“You’re searching for a unicorn, aren’t you?” said Puon Penn, executive vice president of technology capital at Wells Fargo. A unicorn is a mythical creature, but in the high-tech world it is also a startup that reaches $1 billion market value. In this case, too, it meant a rarity.
Challenges and opportunities: Jessica Gonzalez and Rivka Garcia
Challenges and opportunities: Diane Wu and Poornima Parameswaran
Challenges and opportunities: Christine Su – CEO and founder of PastureMap
But when I took a step back, I found women not only from the two valleys, but from around the world.
- Corine Dubruel, the deputy chief officer of SunR, a solar energy company based in France.
- Erica Riel-Carden, a Menlo Park agtech attorney and former grower who just launched her own agtech consulting company.
- Karen Caplan, CEO and president of Frieda’s Produce, a specialty fresh produce company started by her mother, launched in the male-dominated Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market.
I spotted Diane Wu and Poornima Parameswaran, co-founders of Trace Genomics, an agtech startup based in Salinas and the Bay Area that measures soil health.
Caplan later reminded me to not make assumptions based on numbers: Feb. 1 was a busy conference day. The Watermark Conference for Women in Silicon Valley was the same day, and the keynoter was Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg.
Pam Marrone, CEO and founder of Marrone Bio Innovations Inc., considered a pioneer of women entrepreneurs in agtech, said she has observed a shift in the industry. Marrone, who started her first company, AgraQuest in 1995, remembers being the lone woman in the ag and tech space for a long time. It was both obstacle and opportunity.
“Being a woman, I stood out,” she said. “When I cold-called and looked for money from venture capitalists,they all took my calls.”
She’s encouraged by what feels like a positive change.
“Before two years ago I saw nothing,” she said.
She now knows a half-dozen agtech companies owned by minority women. Change, she said, is being ignited by women who have worked in Silicon Valley and who are keen on using their skills to create something of their own.
“Women want to work in things socially responsible, environmentally responsible and sustainable. There’s no question it is generational,” she added, noting many of the women are Millennials, young women with a passion for math, science and technology.
The opportunity is tremendous. In California, agriculture and technology are two of the nine prominent industries fueling GDP growth; its $2.5 trillion value makes it is the sixth-largest economy in the world. Tech employs 3% of the total private workforce and contributes 8% of gross state product, and California’s farm and related processing industries employ 7.3% of the state’s private sector labor force and make up 5.6% of its labor income. In 2015, California’s farms and ranches produced roughly $47 billion.
At the same time, industry players have been forced to innovate to stay competitive, especially in a global economy. In California, a labor shortage, the drought, limited land and the rising cost of doing business all weigh heavily on the industry.
Big agriculture companies have been finding ways to innovate internally. At the THRIVE Forum, Taylor Farms CEO Bruce Taylor said ag firms were searching for technologies that address efficiency.
“Our costs continue to go up. Labor is almost going to double the next couple of years,” Taylor said. “If we are going to hold onto our cost structure, we have to be more efficient.”
Most large agriculture companies are growing their own internal R&D departments, filled with research scientists and Ph.D.s. These private family-owned companies are collaborating with agtech startups on projects that revolve around soil testing, automation, robotics, drones and big data analysis.
John Hartnett, CEO of SVG Partners who organized the forum, said SVG’s partners — including Land O’Lakes and Verizon — increasingly seek “companies with ready-to-go solutions.”
Around 2010, agtech — then a niche that few had heard of — began to emerge as its own sector.
Venture capital money started to flow in. According to The Cleantech Group, before 2013, investment in agtech was slow if not flat, and innovation seemed limited to biotech and seed genetics. In 2014, venture capital investment jumped to $2.36 billion and reached $4.6 billion in 2015. Agtech-centric incubators and investors such as Rosye Law and EcoSystem Integrity Farm surfaced, too.
At the same time, more women were working in an industry once dominated by men, especially in senior management. Companies such as Taylor Farms have worked to hire and promote women to higher levels, said Margaret D’Arrigo-Martin, the company’s vice president of community development, who has over 25 years of experience in agriculture.
“It is still kind of a good ol’ boy’s mentality especially in this Valley, and I still think there’s a gender gap that exists, but I see it closing,” D’Arrigo-Martin said. “I now see women advocating for themselves.”
D’Arrigo said has seen a steady rise of women at Taylor Farms, especially at the management level.
Moreover, in recent years a generation of women have returned to Salinas to work at their family companies:
- Teresa Matsui left Minnesota and returned to Salinas to run her family’s business, Matsui Nursery.
- Caitlin Antle Wilson returned to family’s business Tanimura & Antle as director of vendor managed inventory and delivered sales. She returned in 2009 after graduating from Colorado State University.
- Brie Reiter Smith returned to Driscoll’s as general manager of the northern production region. She’s a fourth-generation grower and the daughter of Driscoll’s global chairman Miles Reiter.
The shift coincides with a nationwide effort to encourage more girls and young women to go into STEM — science, technology, engineering and math. Though the percentage of professional women in the STEM fields is still overshadowed by men, there are continued efforts in schools, nonprofits and local government to encourage young women into what are some of the fastest-growing fields. By 2018, it is estimated that the STEM workforce will be at 8.6 million, a jump from 6 million in 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Still, the workforce remains predominantly white and male. Roughly 84% of the science and engineering workforce in the U.S. is white or Asian male. Since 1991, there has been a 12% decline in women going into computer science, according to the National Science Foundation.
Recent studies about race and gender in STEM showed significant gender and racial disparities. A 2015 University of California Hastings study found 100% of the women of color reported gender bias, with 93% of white women saying they’ve experienced gender bias.
Joan Williams, a professor and founding director of Hastings’ Center for WorkLife Law, said women of color were in “a double jeopardy.”
According to CB Insights’ 2015 Venture Capital Human Capital Report, only 1% of funded startup founders were African American — although blacks are roughly 11% of the U.S. population — and only 8% of funded founders were women.
Even so, change is happening.
Between 2009 to 2014, 14,341 U.S.-based startups received funding and 15.5%, or 2,226, had at least one female founder, according CrunchBase’s first report on gender in tech.
The search starts
For this series, I searched for minority women entrepreneurs in the Salinas Valley. My question, “Do you know of any minority women entrepreneurs in agtech?” was frequently met with silence.
“There really just isn’t that many of them,” Riel-Carden said.”There just aren’t enough minority women trained to run startups.”
Manu Pillai, co-founder of Waterbit, an agtech startup in Santa Clara, said the agriculture industry itself is predominantly white and male.
“When I meet with growers, the owners are white males in their 50s and above,” he said. “In California, we might have second-generation Japanese farmers and Indians and maybe farmers from Laos, but California is the exception.”
But a slant of sun has appeared inside the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology, an agtech startup incubator that opened in December 2015 in the Taylor Building in downtown Salinas: A handful of the companies are owned or led by minority women or women based internationally.
There’s Trace Genomics and HeavyConnect, whose CTO and co-founder is Jessica Gonzalez and whose front-end developer is Rivka Garcia.
In the greater Bay Area, there is Christine Su, founder and CEO of PastureMap, and Miku Jha, founder and CEO of AgShift. In the Central Valley, I connected with Megan Nunes, a Portuguese-American who launched Vinsight. A deeper dive unearthed a pipeline of girls and young women in Salinas passionate about science and technology, and keen on exploring careers in agtech.
Some common threads bind these women. Many are first-generation children of immigrants, some are the first in their families to attend and graduate college, others are the first in their families to go even further attaining, masters and doctorates. They grew up with a passion for math, science and research, influenced by their parents. They are always the first in their families to launch a tech startup and take the plunge into entrepreneurship.
Many cited education and the right mentors as vital to their success. Wu, Parameswaran and Su all graduates of Stanford University, known as a hotbed of innovation.
Challenges and roadblocks
These young women recognize the challenges and opportunities in a sector just starting. They aren’t fixated on gender, but also recognize that at conferences, at meetings with customers, when they pitch to venture capitalists, they are often the only women in the room.
This can create an invisible wall, almost a white elephant in the room that is a sticky conversation.
Riel-Carden, a first-generation American, has a decade of experience in agriculture, five of them in agtech. Growing up in southern Illinois, she dreamed of owning her own farm. After graduating with a degree in agriculture from Ohio State, she worked as a grower at a nursery and found herself at first ignored by the workers she managed, many of them Latino men in their 40s and 50s.
“I had to designate tasks but they often went to my boss instead of me,” she said. .
Because Riel-Carden speaks Spanish fluently and attended the workers’ soccer games and parties, she was able to make a better connection.
“I was trying to establish a personal relationship,” she said.
After becoming an agtech lawyer the challenges continued.
“It takes a lot more for me,” she said. “I feel I have to prove myself more when I am sitting in a room with 10 founders and investors and I am the only woman. I have to be more careful of what I say and when I can say it.”
Riel-Carden stays connected with other women through groups like the Larta Institute, a nonprofit that encourages entrepreneurship. On the positive side, she says she is seeing more women in agtech in public companies and, slowly, in private companies.
These women succeed by focusing on the product and the work, and reminding themselves of their accomplishments.
Nunes who launched Vinsight (an agtech startup that provides yield forecasting for specialty crops) grew up in Gustine in Merced County, where her family owns several agriculture companies.
“As far as being female in the industry, from ag side of things I thought it would be difficult, but so far it hasn’t really been,” said Nunes.
“I do feel it when you go to a conference. It’s me and a lot of other men and then you think it is the norm,” said the 28-year-old, but she tries to make gender “a non-issue.”
Like Nunes, many of the women who have shared their stories are hungry to create, innovate and provide solutions to problems, often without acknowledging that they are chipping away at a glass ceiling in three major industries — agriculture and technology and their merger in agtech.