A Snapshot of Growth at the 2017 Women's Fresh Perspectives Conference
MIAMI, FL - In 2013 I raised my hand at the inaugural Women’s Fresh Perspectives Conference and naively asked the first women’s panel “hypothetically” what a new-to-the-industry, clueless 24-year-old should do to set themselves up for longterm success in fresh produce. After the chuckles died down, the panel responded kindly from the stage, explaining that this industry is all about the people.
How right they were.
Five years later, this sentiment has proven true time and again. And the conference holds a special place in my heart, both as my first industry event, and as one specifically designed to help women raise the bar for fresh produce. That first conference was a resounding success, catapulting it through this hallmark five year anniversary with no signs of slowing. And so, coming to the conference for the second time since its inception gave me a unique snapshot into its growth as women from around the industry flocked to Miami, Florida. Some faces were familiar; many were new, and all came to “Own It," the theme for this year's event.
I touched base with Diana McClean, Director of Marketing for Ocean Mist Farms, for an executive perspective on the conference. She had this to offer, “This is my third conference, and I can say that each opportunity to attend delivers both results and action items to take back, not only for my own personal professional development, but also for the benefit of my organization. It’s always so exciting.”
On Sunday, the event warmed up with a collegiate welcoming from Margi Pruitt, Senior Vice President of PMA, who highlights the importance of this gathering: Organizations with 200% growth are much more likely to have women founders, yet the ratio of women to men on boards remains low. Research shows that more women in leadership positions fuels a company’s success, and this conference helps leverage that competitive advantage by addressing core leadership skills through a curriculum designed specifically with the unique issues that affect women leaders in mind. This year's conference sold out with 250 attendees, 47% of whom are returning and 53% who are first timers. Women from up and down the career continuum are buzzing in anticipation for three days of track learning, tailored sessions, keynotes, and networking. Or, as it should be called in fresh produce, having a great time.
“I’ve been reflecting on the impact this conference has had,” LeighAnne Thomsen, Member of the Founding Women’s Fresh Perspectives Steering Committee and Brand Marketing Manager for Mission Produce, tells me. “I believe the mere existence of this conference has been a disruptor in the industry. In the past five years, the advantages of women in the workplace has been a prominent conversation, more women have been hired and stepped up in my organization and beyond.”
The curriculum kicked off with Juliet Funt, CEO of WhiteSpace, whose hilarious and insightful keynote “Activity is Not Productivity. Pivot, Prioritize, and Triumph” reveals the Thieves of Productivity and offers an arsenal of tools to counteract them. This enlightening session filled pages of notes regarding the high cost of thoughtless activity, which on the conservative end results in a loss of $26,000 per year, per person of productivity. Building in whitespace on our calendars, literally the blank paper between appointments, for strategic and recuperative whitespace saves not only our sanity, but our business.
“Seeing how the program has evolved and changed in these past five years shows promise for what’s to come. It’s very challenging to introduce an innovative program like this to an industry which is deeply rooted in tradition, but I have been thrilled at how this event has excelled. It has grown every year, and upon hitting this milestone, I have faith it will only continue to get bigger,” Alex Jackson Berkley, Co-Chair of the Advisory Committee and Senior Account Manager of Frieda’s Specialty Produce, shares with me amidst the bustle. “Whether you are new to the industry, or have worked in it for thirty years, everyone walks away with new perspectives."
The curriculum picked back up with a flurry of engaging sessions. We learned about whacky lizards named Lenny (and Gina), the language of innovation, and attendees divided into concurrent career level workshops to maximize individual ROI. Throughout the conference these career level sessions covered a range of topics including mastering career trajectory, defining explicit vision, amplifying visibility, effective leadership, establishing effective mentorships, developing self-awareness, financial analysis, and insights from top women executives.
"At this conference you learn so much. It’s not just about women, it’s about learning valuable business skills that help the industry grow as a whole. It’s great to see these unique perspectives, and be able to share,” offers two-time attendee Sarah Deaton, Marketing Manager for Zespri, one of the many sponsors of the event, as I catch up with her in between sessions.
A high note of the curriculum was “Calling All Women. Let Your Voice Be Heard!” the panel session with the Founding Women’s Fresh Perspectives Steering Committee moderated by Cathy Burns, CEO of PMA, in a unique fishbowl format designed to encourage authentic conversation. We learned that Cathy Burns hates tables and that Karen Caplan, President and CEO, Frieda's Specialty Produce, has a towering legacy as a lifelong learner. The innovative forum covered topics such as preparation, developing confidence, creating guiding principles, decision-making, working hard no matter who is watching, and how to keep raising the tide for our entire industry.
“This is the most amazing thing, and we dreamed it up in a basement. It was our 'BHAG', our Big Hairy Audacious Goal, and we made it come true,” Jill Overdorf, Member of the Founding Steering Committee, and Director of Business and Culinary Development, Corporate Executive Chef at Cooseman’s LA Shipping, shares from the panel.
The event comes with a built-in happy hour, offering the perfect opportunity to make new friends with the beautiful Miami backdrop, along with delicious goodies provided by the California Avocado Commission and Earthbound Farm.
As the event winds down, I can’t help but reflect on how far the conference has come. It’s more nuanced than the first event, with a new location, and even more robust schedule. I'm confident that it’s an experience that will continue to pay dividends 5, 10, and 20 years down the road.