As part of the GHJ 2015 Food and Beverage Conference at the end of last year, a panel of industry experts discussed the role of women in the industry. I had the privilege of moderating a discussion with three top industry players: Ramona Cappello (founder of Sun Harvest Salt LLC), Ellen Chen (co-founder of Mendocino Farms) and Bill Shen (director of Encore Consumer Capital). The panel’s theme was “Leaders, innovators and consumers: How women are driving the food and beverage industry evolution.”
On the topic of women leaders of food and beverage companies, Ramona Cappello said that she didn’t think consciously about being a woman but more about what she can bring to a business situation.
“I don’t win if I try to be a guy – I only win if am real, authentic, and genuine,” Ramona explained.
Ramona also said that she had been told it would be harder for to raise money as a woman, but she has honed her approach for surmounting that challenge: “I look for areas of common ground to warm up the room. Once we’re more on an even playing field, we get down to business.” She cautioned that anyone seeking funding needs to have a viable business model, “and then gender or other areas of diversity simply don’t matter.”
When asked about whether her style of leadership is different because her husband is her company’s co-owner, Ellen Chen said she felt that how she communicated and listened to her team is an advantage, and also that “I can be an example to our younger female employees that the sky is the limit when it comes to how far a woman can go.”
She also said that she is a reflection of the female Mendocino Farms customer, and she has used that to influence aspects of the business like restaurant design and product features.
Ellen had to break through some boundaries when it came to financing though, and explained, “For private equity companies, the default was to speak to my husband, so I had to inject myself into the conversation and make sure my voice was heard.”
Since Bill Shen comes from the finance world, he had some strong insights into women-led businesses and whether a woman-led business had any strengths or weaknesses as an acquisition target. He described one of Encore Consumer Capital’s first projects, which was specifically designed to look at women-owned business and more broadly at minorities and underserved communities.
“I’m proud to say that that led us down the path of recognizing the uniqueness and viability of these types of businesses,” Bill explained. “We do everything we can to build a connection and forge those relationships that may be outside the traditional consumer business mode. It’s important to recognize and celebrate our differences – I use this attitude every day to calibrate and find points of connection.”
Overall, it’s clear from what the panel said that we all need to make a conscious effort to find new ways to recognize the contributions that women make to our business and celebrate their differences and what they bring to the table. This reflects what we saw in our recent whitepaper, Women in the Food and Beverage Industry: A GHJ Report, which was based on a survey of West Coast food and beverage executives. To download the whitepaper, click here.