When Allison Kopf posted an open google doc on LinkedIn with the names of 75 “Inspirational Women in Ag” on Saturday, she knew it would get a response, but she did not expect the response to be as swift as it was.
“I’m not surprised the list has grown to over 200 women. I am surprised at how fast it’s taken off though. I’ve already had two conference organizers ask to make intros to women on the list for speaking opportunities. It’s incredible to see the network forming already and I’m excited for what this could mean for our industry.”
Kopf is the CEO of Agrilyst, a New York-based farm management software platform for indoor farmers. She created the original list out of frustration with the speaker slates of conferences and events she had lately attended. “I was really frustrated with seeing a bunch of panels come my way recently that were not representative of our industry,” Kopf told AgFunderNews.
“I’ve seen so many ag events lately with a severe lack of women speaking. Here are 75 women who I’d love to hear and learn from. Many are scientists. Many are CEOs. Many are investors. Many have raised VC funding or will be. All are worthy of a seat on the stage.”
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She put those names on a Google Spreadsheet, posted it, and almost immediately, more names started flooding in.
Kopf said that when she founded her company in 2015, after four years at indoor hydroponic grower Bright Farms, she thought that the agtech industry was just another male-dominated industry.
“Being a woman in the VC-backed tech world and ag, I just assumed that there were not that many people like me and that gets enforced when you go to events. It’s not true.”
Two years ago when Kopf spoke at the Women in Agribusiness Summit, she realized that agriculture was full of women, but too many public representations of the industry — panels and conference speakers — were dominated by men.
“In agtech, there are many women who are founding companies. There are many women in leadership positions. To me, it doesn’t make sense that there aren’t women being asked to speak,” she said.
In Kopf’s view, the issue is not one of supply, but of awareness.
“I think there’s a networking problem. In some industries, it makes sense to blame a pipeline problem. In this industry, it’s primarily a networking problem,” explained Kopf.
The Matter of Representation
Kopf’s list is challenging those in a position to set the program for industry events to reach outside of the people they already know. But why does gender representation and diversity in general matter at panels and conferences? According to Kopf, agriculture is a field where such events hold added significance.
“In this industry, conferences and panels matter a huge amount. In ag, conferences are often one of the few times that farmers are getting off the field and It’s a way for technology companies to get in front of them. It’s a really good opportunity for folks to meet each other and shrink sales cycles, which in this industry is important because of things like slower adoption cycles and field trials,” she said.
So panels and presentations have real stakes in ag said Kopf, but several women in agtech told AgFunderNews that what they don’t want the list to lead to, is more invites to speak about the role of women or diversity in the industry.
“I think being recognized just because you are female is not entirely beneficial. I want to be recognized for being good at my work when it’s an uphill climb every day,” said Melissa Brandao, CEO at HerdDogg, a startup developing smart tags for cows.
Kopf further argues that simply being female doesn’t make one qualified to speak on the subject of promoting diversity in the industry, though she and other female agtech leaders are consistently asked to participate in such discussions.
“It’s a cop-out to ask any women to be on a panel about diversity. Ultimately, women should be asked to be on a panel to speak about things that they’re experts in,” diversity promotion and HR being its own area of expertise, explained Kopf.
A popular tactic for encouraging gender diversity on panels in tech and the sciences has been what was coined by Atlantic senior editor Rebecca Rosen as the “panel pledge.” Those who have taken “the pledge” commit to asking about the gender makeup on panels they are invited to join and decline to participate until at least one woman is added.
Derek Bartlem, Head of Research USA at the KWS Gateway Research Center in St. Louis posted on LinkedIn in response to Kopf’s list that he has been doing this with some success.
“We can all contribute to change here – I now refuse to join panels unless they are truly representative of the diversity in our community. Sure I get invited to less panels now, but I now get a greater learning benefit from broader viewpoints as an attendee and also gain a sense of pride to see these changes happening in the St Louis community!”
Kopf also said that as a woman herself, it’s difficult to take a “panel pledge,” since her presence is part of the solution, but that the list should help men make suggestions when trying to enforce the pledge themselves.
“I’d love to see more men take the “panel pledge” – if you’re invited to speak on what will be an all-male panel, recommend a female alternative. This list is a great resource for that,” said Connie Bowen director of operations at The Yield Lab. Bowen told AgFunderNews that she is already using the list to complete the agenda for her next event.
“What I hope this list does is create awareness and give pause to those who are the voice/face of the industry– media, conference organizers, universities, incumbents– and empower those women who are in those organizations to pull up this list and challenge leadership when there are only males represented,” said Renee Vassilos, an agricultural economist and consultant who spent nine years at John Deere.
photo: courtesy of Women in Agribusiness Summit 2016