Elena Malkova interviews Shawn Harris and Yvonne Geurten

International Women’s Day in the fresh produce sector

March 8 is International Women's Day and, born and raised in Russia, I cannot, even after 26 years and now fully integrated in the Netherlands (where this holiday does not exist) just let it pass, says Elena Malkova, who started working as a coach after working in the fresh produce industry for 25 years. "So I figured that the best way of celebrating it is to put in the spotlight successful women who made their name in the fruit and vegetable industry. Not that they need the spotlight, but because they are truly inspirational and we all need some extra inspiration in times like now!

The moment I got this idea, two names immediately came to mind (and not because there are so few women in top positions in the industry, unfortunately). To me, these two ladies are examples of breaking through and succeeding in a male-dominated industry (a male-dominated industry is when 25% or less of the people working in it are women), and having done so in their own unique and different ways: one as an entrepreneur and one as a top executive.

I am convinced that their view, their voice, their answers to the questions about female participation at the top, female leadership are of interest to everyone in the trade.

So I reached to Shawn Harris, the founder of “Nature’s Pride”, the woman, I once read, is called the “Robespierre of the avocado revolution” currently an investor and mentor with several startups and one of the Dragon's in “Dragon Den” on Dutch television; and Yvonne Geurten, the CCO of “Harvest House”, one of a few women I know acting on C-level of a big corporation today. They both said yes and I am so grateful that I can share their views and not only my own: views of three women with different backgrounds, different carrier paths and sometimes different opinions united by passion for fresh fruits and vegetables.

Without this passion none of us would manage 20+ years in the business we all agreed is super tough. And though Shawn and myself stepped out, we are still connected to it: Shawn is very proud that she is in touch with the produce people all over the world and I love working with leaders and teams in the branch most of all. I guess you can take the girl out of the business but you cannot take the business out of the girl.

My biggest question was : how come there are so few women on the top in the industry? And yes, it is the general picture everywhere. The numbers show that only 5% of CEO’s all over the world are women and there are even talks on setting quotes in order to increase this number – something all three of us find ridiculous : people should be promoted on their capacities, their hard work and input and not on gender or background.

But I totally believe that it is much tougher for women in fruits and vegetables to get ahead. I was personally denied a promotion due to my “female feature of being too emotional”. Something my conversation partners did not really agree with. Both Yvonne and Shawn believe that most women do not want to make sacrifices on time and personal life in order to make a career and get to the top. They believe that it is about the choices women make, not about daring to be vulnerable (something Shawn always embraced and I totally rejected for a long time). That was a big wakeup call for me: if we want to sit on the biggest table we need to take responsibility to actually come to the party in the first place!

Fruits and vegetables is tough business, it is demanding, it is non-stop, it is stressful and very dynamic. You need to be a strong woman to stand out and keep standing. Shawn believes that it is absolutely true for men as well. You need to be strong person. Period.

A strong person who believes in their course and follows it no matter what; who is ready to make a decision and stick to it, even if this decision will lead to a mistake down the road; who is prepared to tap into their inner power enough to put the opinions and criticisms of others aside and not to take them personally (something I admit I did not manage properly for very many years and I believe a lot of women don’t do still); who is not afraid to work hard.

This last one is actually one of the lessons for both Yvonne and Shawn. Yvonne is a person who has been taking on all the challenges presented at work with both hands and had to learn to set her boundaries and create a life/work balance: something truly important for all leaders. Shawn has built her empire working long hours and though she was always great at selecting the right team and delegating, she does believe now, looking back, that she could have done it while working a bit less.

I believe that the working smart instead of hard concept is somewhat a challenge for a lot of people in the business. I hope that the belief of Shawn, that a multimillion euro business can be built without putting in 60 hours a week, and of Yvonne, who consciously makes time for things that make her happy while managing 4 departments, will be an incentive for many leaders to give the idea a good try: for themselves and for their people!

Being there for the people, the ability to listen, to get involved, to ask questions and dig deeper, is actually the leadership skill all three of us see as really important and something most women are really good at. Though we do not really believe in female leadership vs male leadership, and Shawn is adamant that she is an entrepreneur, not a female entrepreneur, I deeply believe in the female qualities that are especially needed for the success in the fruit and vegetable businesses of the future. I believe that women can innovate, become involved in the changes the branch is going through with much more flair then men. I advocate the involvement of smart capable women in determining and executing the vision of the company.

“It takes enlightened men and brave women to change the world” – that is the story behind Yvonne’s professional growth.

Shawn doesn't agree with my plea (may be that is why she built an empire and I haven’t (yet)). Her belief in people (not men or women) making their own luck is inspiring. Though she is sure that women are stronger communicators and do a better job in taking their time to make a decision and then sticking to it, she is positive that those skills can be mastered by male leaders. As Yvonne mastered powerful participation and the ability to cut the knots – qualities considered to be male.

Looking at those women I learned that though I still want to see more successful powerful women in charge in the fruits and vegetable industry, even more I want to see more great inspirational leaders taking the business to new successes. And I hope the insights of this article will contribute to it -  because all three of us are in love with this branch and its people. As Shawn has said – we're the only branch where camaraderie and cooperation between the businesses are at the highest level! Something I never thought of but I love the idea!

Happy International Women’s Day!

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