Thursday, May 19, 2022

Women in Agriculture

The Packer: UnitedAg Focuses on Delivering Benefits, Innovation and Advancing Opportunities for Women

This article was featured in a Special May Edition of the Packer Magazine, "Women in Produce"

UnitedAg, a leading association health plan, has earned a reputation for successful health plan innovation. The non-profit organization also has the distinction of being largely female led.

With a woman serving as the Chair of its Board of Directors and a woman at its helm as president and CEO, the organization is an anomaly in the agriculture industry. CEO and president Kirti Mutatkar believes it’s also the reason behind the company’s success.

“United Ag tripled its business in the last couple of years and grew its membership to 220 million last year. I believe it’s due to our empathy,” said Mutatkar. “We take the time to listen to our members and really understand their needs. Women intuitively do that. We don’t lead with ego, we lead with compassion and collaboration. Some people might see that as a weakness, but I see it as a strength that’s needed in today’s world.”

Mutatkar said that when the company introduces new programs, it strives to ensure that those programs reach and meet the needs of its members. “We look at programs through the lens of the impact they have. We want to go deeper, to study the membership and see how they are engaging. Are there language barriers or cultural barriers that are preventing somebody from using this product?” said Mutatkar. “We want to remove those barriers.”

To ensure that women have opportunities to grow within the industry, the organization sponsors WomenAg Academy. This unique member-exclusive one-year leadership program UnitedAg Focuses on Delivering Benefits, Innovation and Advancing Opportunities for Women helps women fine tune their leadership skills. Through workshops, mentorship and coursework, participants discover their inner selves as they become stronger, more empathic and authentic leaders.

“This is more than just a leadership program, it is a community of agricultural leaders that empower one another regardless of where they are in their careers or how much experience they have,” said Mutatkar. “The leadership sessions aren’t typical. They go deeper and urge participants to think about who they are at their core as leaders and what they really bring to the table. We want to create a community of leaders based on trust and promote an open exchange of information. The program’s core is based on the belief that you can’t lead authentically if you don’t truly understand who you are.”

Maribel Ochoa, UnitedAg director of communications believes that participants benefit from stretching their skills. “The purpose of the WomenAg Academy is to think outside the box, outside your comfort zone and outside your community,” she said.

The organization has also created the WomenAg Network. In this judgment-free space, women in the industry can network and share stories and experiences with peers through chats, webinars and workshops.

“The network is a way for women to build a community of trusted advisors to cheer them on and give them the confidence to be the best leaders they can be,” said Mutatkar. “The community offers a judgment-free space, a sounding board for women leaders in the industry and educational sessions. The WomenAG membership is free and we have about 60 participants so far. Women in the industry are encouraged to join this valuable network.”

Veronica Urzua-Alvero, Chair

Urzua-Alvero, Vice President of HR Operations, Church Brothers/True Leaf Farms, is a 25-year industry veteran. She supports industry associations such as Grower-Shipper, AgSafe and APMA, and plays an active role in UnitedAg’s WomenAg Leadership Academy. Urzua-Alvero joined the UnitedAg Board of Directors in 2015 and was appointed Chair in 2022.

Deborah Adam, Director

Deborah Adam, CFO and owner of Innovative Produce, is committed to the well-being of her company’s customers, community and employees. A UnitedAg Board of Directors member since 2022 and an alumnus of the WomenAg Leadership Academy, Adams brings a deep industry knowledge and a talent for creative problem solving to the board. “In this industry, you need to be good at solving problems in creative ways,” she said.

That’s been especially true over the past few years. Adam said one positive outgrowth of the pandemic has been an increase in thoughtfulness she’s seen in the workplace. “Families are dealing with how to fi nd a work life balance. I’m a mother of four and a grandmother of seven and I’ve seen people struggling with having to become their children’s teachers and trying to keep their families safe while working. We need to all be really thoughtful and really flexible,” she said.

A former AgSafe board chair, member of CWA, and trustee for the Santa Barbara Food Bank, Adam holds a BS in Dietetics & Food Administration from California Polytechnic State University.

Recently, she has been developing and beginning to implement a succession plan for her business, a process she said has been a skill-stretching exercise. “Sometimes it’s easier to do everything yourself. When you’re a business owner it can be scary to hand over some of your responsibilities. I’m a big believer in cross training and I think that has helped the business during the last few years. Teaching other people what I’ve learned is a big accomplishment,” she said.

Loretta Brown, Director

A U.S. Army veteran and Georgia native, Brown is Office Manager at Rijk Zwaan USA Inc. She has over 30 years of experience in the ag industry, has served on UnitedAg’s Business Solution Committee and is an inaugural member of the WomenAg Leadership Academy.

Brown joined the UnitedAg Board of Directors in 2019. She believes her three decades of experience working in the Ag Industry as a black female gives her a unique perspective that benefits the board. She is eager to share her experience and knowledge to help the board make critical decisions that affect members.

“The professional quality I value most about myself is integrity,” she said.

“For me integrity is the most important trait any person can have.” Colleagues respect her trustworthiness, honesty and responsibility. “I always strive to be responsible, thankful, fair minded and to treat others with respect,” she said. It’s an attitude that has made her a respected leader in the field.

An achievement Brown is most proud of outside of the office is her role as coach/mentor to 30 female high school basketball players. Brown currently serves as Chair of the Agribusiness Education Foundation’s Education Committee.

Sarah Gargan, Director

Gargan is Vice President of Kaweah Pump, a third-generation water resource management company that serves family businesses in the Central Valley and has offices in Visalia and Merced. She is proud of the success of Kaweah Pump’s second branch. “The dream of opening a second branch of our family company has been a longtime dream for my brother and I,” she said. “Last year we were able to confirm the success of our second branch now in its second year. The success has come from excellent leadership at the branch and within our board members.”

An alumnus of the WomenAg Leadership Academy (class of 2019 and 2020), Gargan joined the UnitedAg Board of Directors in 2022 and brings leadership experience and a perspective from a “true Ag employer.” She believes her communication skills and ability to work as a team member are assets to the organization.

Gargan, who holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Plant Science and a Master of Science in Education Leadership, has the ability to make coworkers feel comfortable and included and encourages employees career growth even if it means leaving their positions. “I really admire a growth mindset,” she said.

Judy Lundberg, Trustee

Lundberg, co-founder and chairman of the board of specialty vegetable grower Babé Farms, has been involved in agriculture her whole life. “My grandparents my father and father-in-law were farmers. I’ve worked nearly every aspect of farming, from in the fi elds with my parents when I was a child to running accounting and payroll before my Dad retired,” she said. Her son, Jeff Lundberg, currently serves as the company’s president and CEO and her grandchildren are involved in the business.

Lundberg, who previously served on the UnitedAg Board of Directors and was appointed to the UnitedAg Board of Trustees in 2016, believes her wide view of the industry has made her appreciate the need for all employees to have a stake in the business. “All employees need to participate and share their ideas. When you synergize, everyone feels a part of the end result,” she said. “I want every employee that works for us to feel they bring value to the company.”

While the past two years have been difficult, Lundberg said management and employees “pulled together, learned so much and are stronger from the experience.”

Danielle McShane, Trustee

McShane serves as Chief Administrative Officer for Salinas Valley-based Merrill Farms LLC, a grower of fresh produce, including lettuce, romaine, broccoli, cauliflower and strawberries.

As CFO of a company, McShane prides herself on her loyalty. “I think that helps bring a team together because people give loyalty back and want to work to improve the team,” she said. McShane also describes herself as “highly motivated and competitive.” “I always strive for improvement. We can always improve on something, do it just a little bit better. I don’t just want to succeed personally, I want the team to do well,” she said.

A graduate of the California Agriculture Leadership Program, McShane was appointed to the UnitedAg Board of Trustees in 2017. She believes her technical expertise as an actuary and the perspective she gained from working outside the agriculture industry are assets to the board.

As one of the first women on the board, McShane believes her perspectives help enrich the direction of UnitedAg. “Having females on the board offers a different perspective. It’s important to be a strong listener, to hear what people are concerned about and be able to summarize and help navigate tough issues.”

McShane is most proud of the progress her three-year-old daughter, who had a stroke at birth, has made over the past two years. “We’ve done a lot of therapy and she’s made enormous strides in language and motor movements,” she said.

Kirti Mutatkar, UnitedAg President & CEO

Mutatkar joined the organization in 2001 as the Chief Financial Officer, a position she held for 10 years. As CFO, she directed all operations of the organization, was instrumental in a complete company reorganization, launched a Third Party Administration division, and developed a business plan to strategically prepare UnitedAg for the impact of the Affordable Care Act in 2014.

Mutatkar holds master’s degrees in both fi nance and microbiology and completed the UCLA Anderson School of Management Executive Program. She currently serves as Treasurer for Health Care Administrators Association (HCAA), Board Member for the Agricultural Council of California and Director at Large for AgSafe. She was nominated by the Orange County Business Journal for the 2018 “Women of the Year Awards” and was Awarded the “Reinvention” Award by the Association of Corporate Growth in Orange County.

Source: The Packer