Three women-led startups won Rabobank’s FoodBytes! 2017 San Francisco event, beating more than 160 startups from 20 countries that applied to pitch at the event. The event took place on March 16, which just happens to be during Women’s History Month making the wins even more poignant.
Vega Coffee, a direct-to-consumer coffee subscription empowering coffee farmers, took the Judge’s Choice Award; Evaptainers, a startup developing electricity-free refrigeration for developing markets, snagged the People’s Choice Award, an accolade voted on by the audience; and Pure Cultures, a company creating probiotics for pet and livestock health, claimed the Highly Commended award.
Vega Coffee and Evaptainers won an invitation to Rabobank’s annual NYC December pitch event, legal consultation with international law firm Holland & Hart’s, and a branding consultation with Nucleus Maximus. Pure Cultures will also receive consultation services with Holland & Hart and Nucleus Maximus.
Although the companies come from three different sectors within food tech and agtech, each CEO shares a similar perspective when it comes to being a female entrepreneur in the tech and agriculture industries—two sectors that many would describe as male dominated.
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“As a woman, I stepped into business and leadership norms that had been laid forth mostly by men. It took me a while to realize that I don’t need to fit into anyone else’s mold,” Noushin Ketabi, CEO of Vega Coffee told AgFunderNews. “After all, I have a particular set of experiences that have been shaped by my identity as a woman—and I’m proud of that.”
Ketabi’s subscription coffee delivery service aims to help smallholder farmers roast and sell their coffee and increase their profits up to four times more than if the producers were using traditional export channels. She also notes that one of the main drivers behind the creation of Vega Coffee was to promote gender equity in the coffee industry.
“To give some context — in coffee production, women play a critical role in farming and post-farm processing, but they generally do not have access to resources like capital, credit, and jobs in the same way that their male counterparts do. At Vega, we’ve set out to create a movement in the industry, by highlighting these qualified women and promoting opportunities for them to showcase their talents in all aspects of coffee processing — including roasting, cupping and beyond — alongside men.”
All three entrepreneurs have a unique perspective when it comes to the tech and agriculture industries’ receptiveness to women.
Colleen Kazemi, CEO of Pure Cultures, has worked in the tech world for several years but now, with her prebiotic and probiotic products that she hopes will reduce antibiotic use in animals, she considers herself a member of the biosciences and investor community. Both communities are dominated by men in a way that the general tech startup world was not, she says.
“When I was in tech, I didn’t feel like it affected me much. In the startup world, being a female has had its advantages. There is a large ecosystem geared towards helping women succeed,” she tells AgFunderNews. “The tribe of smart, successful and supportive women I know has helped me get where I am today. We’re a powerful force and the company profitability of women-led companies proves it.”
Serena Hollmeyer Taylor, CEO of Evapataners, also describes the tech and ag fields as male dominated but has noticed a changing tide.
“I think that each industry struggles to improve its diversity, including gender, ethnicity, socio-economics, etc., in a different way. I’m always conscious of the diversity—or lack thereof—in the room as I think that this is where the improvement starts,” says Hollmeyer. “Recently, though, I was thrilled to see the FoodBytes! event include and attract a diverse crowd of innovators, judges, mentors, and attendees.”
As far as advice for aspiring female entrepreneurs, the trio agreed that launching a company, particularly in tech, is not without its daunting challenges and roadblocks.
Fortunately, they also shared some sage wisdom: Be yourself, which includes embracing your gender, push through the challenges, and surround yourself with a diverse team of individuals that will provide you with valuable feedback.
Are you a woman innovating in food and agriculture? What have your experiences been? Email [email protected]
Don’t forget! Applications are now open for the next FoodBytes! events (listed below) and to learn more about what to expect from FoodBytes! in 2017, read our recent Q&A with Manuel Gonzalez, Rabobank’s head of innovation and managing director for North America.