‘Ag Wannabe’ – Christina Fitzgibbons on joining the AG industry

Christina (Couture) FitzGibbon is a member of the Ag Women’s Network leadership team. She found a fantastic professional fit in agriculture, and she’s embraced new opportunities to expand her network and contribute to the industry. She shares with us some advice that she’s picked up along the way and her questions about next steps in life and her career.

If you’re interested in connecting with Christina, contact her via Twitter: https://twitter.com/@agcouture or email: couture.christina@gmail.com

1c68df8Please tell us a bit about yourself and your career path.

I am a passionate ‘ag wannabe’ and proud to be able to bring my consumer perspective to the industry. Growing up in rural Ontario enabled me to experience my first taste of agriculture, and I instantly became enthralled with the process, the effort, and the craft of making food and the farmers behind it. Being a small town girl, when it came a time to choose a University, the University of Guelph was the obvious choice! There I obtained a degree in psychology (with a minor at “the Ranch”) and then furthered my education by obtaining a post graduate honours degree in marketing management from Humber College.

After living and gaining professional experience in Toronto I found myself back in Guelph, in the hub of agriculture, working in a marketing role within the agri-food industry. Today, I work at RKD Web Studios in marketing and account management with both ag and non ag clients. Becoming more involved in the ag community has been very important to me, and has given me a true sense of pride. I love that through professional and personal channels I have the opportunity to lend a hand to the agricultural community and offer an educated voice and perspective from the consumer standpoint.

How do you define success? What steps do you take to get you there?

I am a strong believer that success is self-defined. What I think is successful may not be what my friend or colleague believes. But to answer the question… my definition of success is being in a place of continual betterment and learning. If you are able (and lucky enough) to find a position or a role that you are continually learning from and growing from I believe you are successful. For me, my career path has had some ups and downs, but today I consider myself very successful. I hold a position in an industry and organization that is constantly changing and evolving, therefore there is always something to learn and stay ahead of.

“While I have never helped calve a cow, I embrace the agriculture mindset and I am not afraid to get involved or get my boots and hands dirty. My desire for consumers and ‘non-aggies’ to get more involved and engaged in how food arrives from the farm gate to consumer plate is what drives me to continue to be an Agvocate for the industry.“ – Christina FitzGibbon

The biggest step I took in my career and one I continue to take is to get involved! Network, meet people, and put yourself out of your comfort zone! The first organization I joined was Canadian Agri Marketing Association (CAMA), and to be honest I was nervous to get involved and share my voice. But now, I can proudly say I have been on the CAMA board for three years and I am now the Vice President of the Ontario Chapter. The Ag Women’s Network and CAMA have forced me out of what is ‘comfortable’ and have made me more confident to take on new roles professionally.

In the spirit of these profiles helping others, are you willing to share a mistake you made but taught you something important?

Without trying to sound like everything is sunshine and rainbows, I do not think in your career or life you can make ‘mistakes’. Everything is a learning experience and it is how you approach a situation, and what you take from it, that will define the outcome.

That said, I will share a lesson I learned on workplace politics that I believe can be applied to the office or barn… DON’T GET INVOLVED. This can be easier said than done, but I honestly have never heard of an outcome where someone got involved and it ended well. Whether you wear boots to work or three inch heels, try to take the high road and refrain from commenting or lending your opinion. And if you feel you have to, ensure it is constructive and will have a positive effect on those around you.

Christina with Husband Nick FitzGibbon

Christina with husband Nick

What’s the most burning question for you right now in your career?

As someone fast approaching 30, some would say the biological clock is ticking! How starting a family will impact your career is something a lot of my friends and colleagues have been discussing in GREAT length. When is a good time? Will my employer think of me differently? Where do I need to be before I make that step? Lots of questions and thoughts.

A main concern of mine is my career slowing down as priorities change. To be a successful business woman AND have a family is definitely the goal, but what is realistic? I have seen so many women become superwomen, amazing moms and never miss a beat in their career. And of course I strive to be like them.

But does being superwomen come at a cost? Women in agri-business, like other industries, tend to feel the pressure to work through their maternity leaves or come back early to their jobs due to lack of coverage or feeling they are being left behind. So my burning question is, is it fair for employers to expect the ‘superwoman’ as the new norm? Or are we setting unrealistic expectations when it comes work and family life? I would love to hear your comments on this one!

How do you define agriculture?

The center of the world. Without agriculture and the production of food where would we be?

AWN

Mary Ann Doré, Robyn Walsh, Maureen Balsillie, Jen Christie, Christina Crowley-Arklie, and Christina Fitzgibbons during an AWN Leadership team meeting

What do you do as part of the AWN Leadership Team?

Since becoming part of the leadership team in 2014, I have had the opportunity to work on various projects including event planning, governance/policy and currently working on a new website (coming soon!). From the beginning when AWN was just a small group of women meeting in my kitchen to now, a group of 1300+ women and counting, I feel blessed to have the opportunity to both work and learn from this network of strong women.

Currently our leadership team consists of eight strong women from all different backgrounds and expertise. Working with them has been a pleasure and given me the opportunity to grow personally and professionally. A big thank you to Jenn, Christina, Maureen, Joan, Megan, Robin and Mary Ann for your continued support; I look forward to helping AWN grow and take on new challenges with you all.

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Volunteers make the world go round

– Happy National Volunteer Week!

volunteer_hands

12.7 million Canadians volunteer every year in Canada

This week in Canada we are celebrating national volunteer week! What an awesome thing to celebrate! According to Volunteer Canada, 12.7 million Canadians volunteer every year, giving 2 billion hours annually. That means one in three Canadians volunteer every year. Statistics Canada lists it even higher with 47% of Canadians volunteering. Stats like this give me so much hope for the future. As North Americans,  we are incredibly privileged, but stats like this show that we are very aware of our privilege and are actively trying to make a difference, Stats like these show that we care about those who are struggling and want to contribute to the betterment of our communities, our country, and beyond.

Volunteers really do make the world go round. Donating money to a charity is quick and easy (and I highly encourage everyone to put aside funds every year to an organization whose work you believe in) but giving your own time and efforts to a cause is equally valuable.  To get a better look at the impact of volunteerism on the economy, let’s assign it a dollar value. If every volunteer was paid minimum wage per hour, it would have cost the Canadian economy at minimum $20 BILLION a year. And this doesn’t even take into account that a significant amount of the work likely has a higher fair market value, probably between $20-50 per hour. I would also suggest that there is a significant amount of volunteerism that can’t even be measured. Think of people who volunteer for small organizations. Those who are activists and show up to demonstrations. There are so many volunteers who cannot be quantified, because they step up without batting an eye.

Volunteering is a fantastic way to fulfill your passion. While I greatly enjoy the work I do, and am passionate about the organization I work for, my volunteering is definitely where I find my true passion. I love Ag and feel very strongly about the advancement of women in this industry. I believe women have an important role and can have a hugely positive impact on our industry as we move forward together. Working with AWN has definitely allowed me to realize this passion and make a lasting impact.

Through my parent’s fruit farm, I once met a women who had established a not-for-profit farmers market in downtown Windsor. She believe deeply in the positive impact of the market. It added a layer of colour to Saturday mornings downtown,  allowed urbanites to develop a deeper connection with their food, and helped  support the agriculture sector in Essex County. In conversation with her one day, she shared stories of all of the volunteer activities she was doing as well as raising her family −her own version of having it all. She also works in public service, and while describing her life to me, she coined the phrase ‘my work is really getting in the way of my volunteering.’ I often have this thought myself as I sit up late working on volunteer items, counting down the hours of sleep I will get that night. I’m sure many would join me in this sentiment, as they spend hours reading briefs for boards or committees that they volunteer on, or simply getting chores done in time to participate in a walk-a-thon on the weekend. Volunteering is a form of empowerment. It really allows us to have it all. It’s a way to work, support ourselves and our family, and still give back.

“My work is really getting in the way of my volunteering”

I wasn’t able to find stats that indicate what percentage of volunteers were women. However, the people I know who volunteer their time and resources are predominantly women. Volunteering as a part of the AWN Leadership has really helped to demonstrate just how much time the women around me give to the betterment of society. AWN is a grassroots organization and is run exclusively by volunteers. At present, we rely on donations of time, space, food, and money for individual events. Without these donations and these volunteers, we would not exist at all. We wanted to take this week to send out a very special thank you. Whether you have contributed to AWN through volunteering on one of the actions team, writing blogs, attending events, or simply following along on Facebook and Twitter. As with so many other fantastic organizations, we are dependent on YOU, and the time and effort  you give us so graciously.

Stay rad volunteers of the world, and keep fighting the good fight!

-Maureen @greenMreen

Industry Profile – Marie McNabb

Marie McNabb is a dairy farmer in Waterloo County who shares her expertise on the Gay Lea Foods Co-Operative Limited Board of Directors. She is also a leader in her community, stepping up to help in leadership roles in various organizations. As part of #AWNGetOnBoard week, she shares her experiences to help support and inspire other women in Getting on Board!

If you’re interested in connecting with Marie, contact her via email at callumlea@gmail.com

To start off, please tell us a bit about yourself and your career path.

Growing up in a farm family of six siblings, we were all encouraged by our Mom to go to

2015 Liam's Birthday

Marie McNabb with Husband Ken and three sons

university or college. I learned at an early age, the value of participating in volunteer organizations and the benefits they provide to people and the community. My earliest exposure was to 4-H, which brought me into contact with county Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food (OMAF) staff and the local leaders. All of this sparked my interest in taking agriculture at the University of Guelph.

After graduating, I worked with the OMAF(RA) for 14 years in Toronto, Dufferin County, Halton and Peel Regions. I held a number of positions over the years as Assistant Ag Rep, Acting Ag Rep, and Farm Management Specialist. I built up a clientele that respected my ability to respond to their needs.

Following the birth of my third child, I opted to join my husband as a 50 per cent partner in our dairy operation as well as start a part-time bookkeeping business. I have worked casually for an accountant for the past 10 years, assisting with the completion of applications for risk management programs. I work at Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show in the fall manning the show’s office acting as reception and the front line problem solver for exhibitors and attendees.

I have always been involved in community organizations. Since 4-H as a child and Junior Farmers as a teenager and young adult, I have served in board, executive and committee roles.  These included a Cooperative Nursery School, county 4-H associations, Minor Hockey Association, School Council, Dairy Producer Committee etc.

You are currently a director on the Gay Lea Foods Co-Operative Limited Board of Directors. How did you start on the board?

Gay Lea Foods Co-Operative is a dairy processing company owned by over 1,200 Ontario dairy producers. We have $660 million in sales with seven processing sites and 900 + employees. The Board is comprised of 10 dairy producers, of which two are women, and there have been women on the board since 2005. We are a Governance board and there are also 60 delegates (15 in each of four Zones).

I was asked to let my name stand as a Delegate in our Zone and was elected by fellow dairy producers in 2010. I ran for the Delegate position on the Audit Committee the following year. In 2012, a Director position was available in our Zone. I was approached by other Directors to consider the position, and I researched the position, talking to directors, delegates and members. I decided that I was very interested in the opportunity of learning more about the dairy processing industry and the challenge of being a Director of a dairy cooperative.  My husband also gave me the green light to go for it.

I felt I had the skills to bring to the board and was more than willing to learn what I didn’t know about the processing side. At no time did I get the feeling that being a woman was going to determine whether or not I was going to successful. Three of us were nominated and ran for the position. I was elected and completed first three-year term and just started my second term.

I believe that not enough women run for positions. We are just as qualified and have just as much time as our partners.

Can you tell us about what your responsibilities on the board include?

It takes commitment, time management and getting to know the voters. I made phone calls to people to encourage them to come to the annual meeting. I didn’t ask them to vote for me, but did ask them to support the election process. I was the first person to use a PowerPoint presentation in a speech and am still remembered for that.

As a Director, I am away roughly 55 days a year. Board meetings are two days a month in Mississauga. I sit on one board committee and I am responsible to several outside organizations such as Cooperatives and Mutuals Canada and OnCoop. Our day-to-day work involves daily emails with news articles from around the world covering dairy and related issues.  We also receive updates on Gay Lea business as it pertains to the board and will typically have 15 to 20 reports to read prior to board meetings. At the board table we make decisions on capital purchases of equipment, land, as well as discussions of acquisitions and alliances with other businesses. We are responsible for setting the strategic direction for the cooperative. The hiring and performance reviews of the CEO are board decisions as well.

Do you have tips for AWN members who are interested in or considering board positions? 

How do we as women get to the point of recognizing the ability to lead, in others and ourselves? Things I have done that led me to being asked to run for the board include networking in the community, imagining myself in leadership roles in local organizations, and stepping forward to showcase to others that I could move into a more complex leadership role.

It’s finding the balance that’s really tough for me, and my support network is vitally important to me for that.jpgAnother key aspect in taking on these leadership roles is the ability to represent the whole and not yourself. Also, it’s important to learn about and understanding your fiduciary responsibilities. Understanding this concept, you will be a much more respected leader.

Along the way I was willing to learn, make mistakes, own them and learn from those mistakes, and solve them either by apologizing or making it right for those involved (or both).

How do you define success? What steps do you take to get you there?

My definition of success has changed over the years. I relate it now more to happiness. Success is a combination of teaching, inspiring, motivating, leading, mentoring, visioning, goalsetting and being part of a team. I am happy when I can work toward these. If I, my family, co-workers, or fellow board directors cannot derive a sense of pleasure (or at least contentment) from a decision, I don’t think we have been successful.

What is the biggest professional/personal challenge that you’ve had to face? What did you learn from that experience?

I ran for a board because I felt I could save it. My husband could see I was not enjoying the experience when I came home frustrated and angry with the politics. I have always prided myself on being value driven and ethical. For the first time in my life, I withdrew from a volunteer commitment. It is not something I am proud of even though I was much happier once I made the decision to leave the organization. I had taught my kids that when you make a commitment, you see it through to completion and still believe this to be true! I learned that you are the best board member when you are passionate and committed. You must believe in the organization and their mandate.

Who would you say has been your biggest influencer/mentor? What have you learned from them?

I have several.  First my Mom, as my Dad passed away when I was 17. Mom saw that all of us had the opportunity to go to university or college. I am one of four girls and we are all university educated. Also five of my closest university friends have enjoyed careers in agriculture. These women and my family are my support team; along with my husband, Ken. He plays a very large part in my decisions in assessing whether we can manage the farm and the family, while one of us takes on leadership roles. It’s finding the balance that’s really tough for me, and my support network is vitally important to me for that.

What’s the most burning question for you right now in your career? 

I’ve been asked to consider stepping up for the executive of the Gay Lea Foods Co-Operative Limited Board. I need to fully consider the commitment of time, the learning curve, which I must be ready to take on and examine my own wants and needs (as well as my husband’s!) to make a decision.

How do you define agriculture?

My definition of agriculture is everything from primary agriculture to the food on the table and all points in between. It is an incredibly large industry and yet so small at times. It is dynamic, innovative, vibrant, and exciting. The young women in AWN who comment and explore all sorts of topics in this field inspire me.

I believe that agriculture must continue to cultivate leaders (you and me) who will speak to consumers about food. We must be prepared to answer questions on biotechnology, animal welfare, protecting our environment and farmland.

If you know of a woman whom you think would be a great person to profile, please send your suggestions to Stephanie Craig via email at contact.scraig@gmail.com

So what can we do to get more women on AG Boards?

In Ontario, it is clear that we have the interest to achieve gender equality on boards, and while many people feel that implementing gender quotas on boards, many women have identified that they do not want to be selected for a board that has a gender quotas. Women want to be selected for a board based on ‘merit’ and not for their gender.

(For the records, I believe that quotas are a wonderful solution. I think that perhaps to achieve a world where gender equality is the norm, we need to be leaders and say, ‘I’m on this board because of my gender, but I will defy expectations in order to make gender equality the norm for the next generation’)

That being said, we need to push our industry to make it more available for women to join a board. Over the course of the week, several suggestions have been made of changes that our industry can make to help achieve gender equality.

  1. Invite her to run –A program started by the Liberal Party started this program during the nomination process for the last election. Under this program, the party reached out specifically to women to ask them to run for public office. This can be as simple as reaching out to a friend who would be an awesome on a board or committee or can be as formal as organization reaching out to women specifically to apply for board position. As stated before, men will apply for a job when they have 60% of the qualification but women will wait until they have 100% of the qualifications. This program lets women know that we, as an industry, want their voice heard.
  1. Mentorship – Research suggests that 88% of entrepreneurs with mentors survive in 4c2069021fab2d32d058b64f8aee7af1business, compared with a failure rate of about 50% for those without a mentor. For women, mentorship is incredibly important, especially on Boards. Mentorship can be something as simple as reaching out to women who are new on boards and offer to be a sounding board, or something as formal as regular debriefs to check in. The Ministry of Status of Women has a program called It Starts with One, which challenges women in leadership (and non-leadership positions) to mentor another women
  1. Childcare and Accessibility – We know that boards require a time commitment. And for many women, that means taking time away from their children and family life. This can mean anything from missing small moments, to not seeing their children’s first steps. For many mother, this can be a burden to carry and may be a strong barrier to achieving gender diversity. We need to challenge organizations to be more accommodating, not just for women but for parents in general to be able to spend time. Some women have indicated that if there was more accommodations for families, in the form of childcare, or remote meetings, that they would be more than willing to step up. These hurdles, that are keeping women out of the board room are the same that occur for women in the workplace and would allow parents to contribute without sacrificing their family life. The House of Commons is currently revisiting it schedule to help accommodate families for MPs so why can’t we revisit this in the Ag sector?

What are some other suggestions to help achieve gender equality on Ag Boards? What can our industry do? What can we do as friends, coworkers, and individuals? AWN would love to hear your thoughts on Facebook or Twitter using the hashtag #AWNGETONBOARD or comment below!

-Maureen

Demystifying the Board of Directors

Things to consider before committing to a board

“I am thinking about joining a board…what do you think?”

An immediate reaction to this question could be, “go for it! What do you have to lose?” And although this might be true in some cases, it is important do some research before committing your time, energy and passion to a board.

After a post was made on the AWN facebook page looking for advice on joining a board, I decided to reach out to a professional to gain some insights that hopefully helps our network when weighing the options of joining a board.

Having done some work in the past with Strive! – a consulting organization that helps to build and establish purpose-driven boards and leadership teams – I got connected with Mary Lynn McPherson, a Strive Senior Consultant, with previous work experience at the Royal Bank, as the banks first female agrologist!

She stressed, “First and foremost board work is about service… to a cause… to an organization… most board positions are volunteer (not paid), and therefore it is important to be passionate about the cause.”

Passion… passion for farming, passion a feeding the world, passion to support women, whatever your passion is, it is important to be involved in a board that shares your passion in order to help the cause move forward and inspire change! Okay great, so you have passion – now what? Here are some points

Mary Lynn made that will make you critically think before jumping in:

  1. Board work is about team work – and it is likely one of the most challenging teams in that this board of peers is expected to arrive at a ‘one voice’ message for delivery to its one staff/group… It is important to be diplomatic, kind, courageous, and willing to ask tough questions.
  2. Board work carries with it fiduciary (stewardship) responsibilities – so it is important to understand financial reports, be prepared to accept a certain level of financial responsibility and put/ensure appropriate financial risk mechanisms are in place.  So asking for a copy of the financial statements and asking questions about the financial stability of the organization in advance of joining on a board is a smart move!
  3. Board work can be very rewarding – especially if you are on a board that is a ‘fit’ for your time and the type of volunteering you like to do.  For instance, if you prefer thinking strategically and weighing big picture risk and reward options, a governing board might be a good fit.
  4. Alternatively, if you like to roll up your sleeves and get involved in making things happen, a working board might suit you better.
  5. Board work can be time consuming. It is important to understand the stage in which the board is in. Is the board you are looking to join well established or is it just starting off? Typically if a board is just starting off you are going to experience some growing pains and therefore require more input and time. Before joining it is important to ask questions to understand commitment level so you do not over commit yourself.

Although these points may seem like common sense after reading it over, a lot of people do not take the time to consider the impacts of sitting on a board- you need to research and ask questions!

Still interested in serving on a board? Before you fully commit I would suggest asking to attend a board meeting in advance of signing up. This will give you an opportunity to see firsthand how the board runs, and more importantly if the board culture is a fit for you. Just like when interviewing for a new job, it is important to get a sense of the people you will be working with and if they will mesh well with you. Feeling comfortable enough to express your opinions and share your ideas is critical to both the board’s success and your fulfillment as a volunteer.

Having had the opportunity to serve on two boards over the last four years (CAMA & AWN), I personally have had very rewarding experiences. Surrounding myself with leaders and passionate individuals has inspired me to get more involved in my community and take on new career opportunities. I would highly recommend getting involved in a board that aligns with your goals and passions, but be sure to research and be prepared for the role.

Best of luck AWN and I hope these insights help you in your decision making process!

  • Christina Couture