May 15, 2017

Western Growers Center for Innovation Opening Doors to Workforce Diversity

Earlier this year, Uber made headlines…not for its ride-services mobile app, but for its lack of diversity. The transportation network company released its first diversity report in March, revealing that women are underrepresented at the firm, in particular when it comes to jobs related to technology. While women make up 36 percent of Uber’s overall workforce, only 15 percent of the company’s tech jobs are held by women.

This trend is not limited to Uber, but repeats itself throughout the technology industry, where women make up an average of 30 percent of the workforce at companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter. The number of technology-related jobs held by women at these companies is far less—19 percent at Google, 16 percent at Facebook and 15 percent at Twitter. And, at Twitter, less than one in three leadership jobs are held by women.

The marginalization of women isn’t just present in the technology industry—it’s in agriculture, too. Nationally, women make up 30 percent of farmers. Of the total 969,672 women farmers in the United States, only 288,264 were principal operators; again, 30 percent.

“Thirty” seems to be the magic number for female employees when it comes to tech and ag companies. Though both industries are aware of the staggering statistics and have made concerted efforts to expand opportunities for women, the workforce still remains predominantly male.



Agtech as we know it today, the intersection between agriculture and technology, first appeared on the scene around 2010 and has since grown immensely. In the past three years, investment in agtech soared 37 percent, from $2.36 billion invested across 264 deals in 2014 to $3.23 billion in financing over 580 deals in 2016.

As agtech continues to boom, so do the opportunities for women to advance in both the ag and tech industries. Through its Center for Innovation & Technology (WGCIT), Western Growers is helping shape a more diverse workforce by providing the support and resources needed for women to become leaders in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)-related fields.

The Center recently hosted a “From Farms to Incubator” event that showcased the story of minority women entrepreneurs who are playing a significant role in agtech. The event included a panel of six female innovators (three of whom are WGCIT residents) who spoke about their businesses and how they overcame struggles to launch a startup in an industry that has traditionally been dominated by men. This event was part of a special project led by Amy Wu, reporter at The Salinas Californian, to tell the story of women in agetch through community events, news stories and multimedia.

“From the beginning, the Center has served as an unofficial sponsor for this project, playing an integral role in developing this storyline,” said Dennis Donohue, lead of the WGCIT. “We helped Amy identify speakers for the stories and documentaries, many of whom are residents here at the Center; helped attract potential sponsors; and have hosted the project’s events and interviews.”

The panel inspired more than 50 attendees, including budding women technologists and entrepreneurs, to make their mark in the industry and continue to push the envelope in developing new systems and products to aid agriculture. The message is going beyond Salinas and has made its way globally; the documentary appeared on a national TV segment in Africa.

In addition to “From Farms to Incubator,” the Center is also a key supporter of herScript, an all-woman organization with the mission to cultivate a community of women innovators to lead in computer science. On April 29-30, the Center came together with Facebook and Google IgniteCS to sponsor herScript Hacks, an annual regional hackathon designed to engage students studying STEM-related topics. The agtech-themed hackathon encouraged university students to collaborate with Facebook engineers and farm owners to create technological solutions to real-world problems. Students left the hackathon with a deeper understanding of the vast opportunities and career possibilities that agtech has to offer, especially women.

“In just a year, the Center has become an ideal portal to success for women looking to break into agtech or lead in the ag and tech space,” said Donohue.



In addition to the direct efforts of the Center, Western Growers plays a significant role in championing start-up companies that are making waves in workforce development.

HeavyConnect, one of the first residents of the WGCIT, prides itself on creating diversity in the workforce by offering young Latinas opportunities and careers in technology. The startup, which builds mobile workflow platforms that automate and simplify many of the tasks that consume a farming manager’s day, maintains a staff of software engineers that is 75 percent female and 100 percent Latino.

Considering that women hold only 26 percent of all professional IT jobs in the entire country, with Hispanic women holding a mere 1 percent, HeavyConnect is helping break the mold.

“We are proud of our demographics and it has strengthened our company,” said Patrick Zelaya, CEO at HeavyConnect. “I truly believe that our unconventional group of technologists is a very powerful corporate solution.”

Trace Genomics has also pledged their commitment to workforce diversity by providing internship and employment opportunities to qualified individuals from diverse backgrounds. Founded by Diane Wu and Poornima Parameswaran, the company delivers a soil-borne pathogen diagnostic test to detect diseases in soil. Both women are the children of first-generation immigrants, the first in their families to become entrepreneurs and are paving the way for future women in agtech.

They have brought on Jacaranda Medina, a soil science major at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and Briana Becerra, an environmental science major at CSU Monterey Bay, to work part-time as customer engagement associates/soil sample scientists for the startup. Both students are looking to use this experience to further explore research careers in agtech.



In addition to the firms that are providing employment opportunities for women, many of the startups housed at the Center—including the founders of Trace Genomics—are demonstrating the success women can have as leaders in agtech.

Another female leader, Diane Wetherington, CEO at iFood Decision Sciences, has been at the forefront of the startup’s inception in 2013. Under her leadership, the company has moved the needle on streamlining food safety data for growers, harvesters, shippers, packers, third-party suppliers and processors. The company has already partnered with multiple ag organizations to further bolster the industry’s food safety efforts and continues to develop new products to advance agtech.

Jessica Gonzalez, co-founder of HeavyConnect, is also an inspiration to her team. As the chief technology officer, she is in the field, tackling the tech end of the company and helping to manage the team of teach developers.

Western Growers and its Center for Innovation & Technology will continue to provide programming, resources and hands-on support to the agtech startups that are developing solutions to agriculture’s most pressing issues. We will work closely with these companies and the industry to make strides in diversifying the ag and tech workforce, significantly increasing the “30 percent” statistic.