Editor’s Note: Amy Wu covers agriculture and agtech from the Salinas Valley. She was recently awarded a grant from the International Center for Journalists, supported by S&P Global, to report on the accomplishments and tribulations of being a minority woman entrepreneur in the US. Her work on women in agtech can be found at Farms to Incubators.
The question surfaced over the course of a season.
After attending various agriculture-related meetings and conferences in Salinas Valley – hosted at the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology (WGCIT) – I realized I was one of very few women in attendance, and the only minority.
Where are all the women in the agriculture industry?
A grower pointed out that there were women in the fields. Many of the migrant farmworkers in California are middle-aged women, many who don’t speak a word of English. Field workers are tremendously valuable, but what about women in key farm management roles or running agriculture technology (agtech) startups, I asked growers and industry association leaders? I was increasingly disturbed by the silence that often followed.
When I dug further, the statistics were sobering.
While women make up 40% of the agricultural workforce in the developing world, according to The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, few are farm owners and growers.
Here in the US, the number of female farmers is actually declining; according to the latest USDA’s census published in 2012, the number of women farmers in the United States was 969,672, a 2% decline since the last report in 2007. The reality in Silicon Valley, just 65 miles north of Salinas, was equally grim.
An estimated 93% of the leading venture capital firms are run by men, according to 2016 CrunchBase Women in Venture report. And the statistics on women in tech are grim. Women remain the minority at the leading tech companies with 17% holding tech jobs at Google and 15% at Facebook, according to a 2015 study by the American Association of University Women, which has been referenced in both the press and academic journals.
Universities and local, regional and national education departments are making an effort to increase the number of women studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) degrees.
The local community college in Salinas and California State University Monterey Bay both have a program where students receive a computer science degree in three years, and women receive first priority to get a place. But the results seem slow going if the statistics about workers in STEM disciplines are anything to go by.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up 47% percent of the total workforce, but there are significantly fewer in science and engineering. For example, women make up just 28% of environmental scientists and geoscientists and only 12% of civil engineers.
I stepped up my search for women entrepreneurs in agtech, and I found a handful of passionate women with amazing stories and a love for ag and tech. When I looked for minority women working in agtech, the number was much smaller.
“You’re looking for a unicorn,” an attendee of an agtech conference said half-jokingly.
Pam Marrone, the CEO and founder of Marrone Bio Innovations, is a pioneer in agtech entrepreneurship and launched her first company in 1996.
“I am seeing more now. I know three, and they are early stage startups, but before two years ago I saw nothing,” said Marrone, pointing to a variety of factors. “I think it’s the money going in; there’s a real push into sustainability, and some of the women came from Silicon Valley.”
To be sure, agtech is a window of opportunity to make a splash in both agriculture and technology for a gender that for many years was sidelined.
At some point, will we see more women managing the fields and launching agtech companies?
Gender balance isn’t just for the sake of balance, but also because women have a savvy for multitasking, for innovating, and for launching or joining companies that can make a greater difference on society.
I identified six minority female agtech entrepreneurs, and although few, they are all pioneers.
They also seemed to agree overall that while they were few and far between — many of them did not know each other — there is hope that this will change going forward.
A critical question is, what will it take to build an ecosystem of female entrepreneurs that is welcoming to minorities?
Miku Jha, the CEO and founder of AgShift, said it is critical to “have access to the ag ecosystem, to understand the business needs and to validate the business model with early customers is most. It is not the technology but rather access to the business in ag which needs to be more thought through.”
Jha said more ag accelerator programs would help increase startup access to early seed funds or opportunities to vet the product. Access to early funds are pivotal in a sector that requires much time from testing to market; in many cases harvests only come once a year.
Christine Su, the CEO and founder of PastureMap, said women passionate about agriculture and agtech overall shouldn’t shy away from the spotlight. Su urges women entrepreneurs to attend conferences and speak on panels.
“Make space at the table and hand us the microphone. When the agtech panels and speakers look homogeneous, the implicit message is that “this is what success in agtech looks like,” or “this space isn’t really for you.” Perception becomes reality,” Su said. “We need to invite women and minority leaders to take a seat at the table. Female entrepreneurs, farmers, ranchers, investors; they all need to be given more voice in the agtech space.”
Finally, I caught up with Dennis Donohue, head of the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology and former Mayor of Salinas. He said he is seeing more women leaders, many who happen to be minorities, in the agtech space. Recent winners of the annual THRIVE accelerator program have been women, including Diane Wu and Poornima Parameswaran of Trace Genomics and AgShift’s Jha.
“One of the terrific opportunities around agtech is it is talent based and optimizing opportunities,” Donohue said. “It isn’t limited to who owns land and facilities. So, if women are creating products, intellectual property or meeting the needs of the industry, the barriers are more around intellectual capacity and attracting funding, and I think that really broadens opportunities to access the ag world.”
Or maybe it will take more buzz to get women in the spotlight and inspire younger women to take the leap. Contests such as FoodBytes! can increase exposure, mentorship can inspire, and associations – even within existing ones such as Women in Technology or National Women in Agriculture Association — can be a powerful force in creating a community and connections. And you never know – with passion, commitment, and patience, we could see the next generation of Sheryl Sandbergs coming to agtech.
Related: Listen to our podcast on how women are informing food and ag innovation here.