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Could you be a mentor in the food and agriculture industry?

As 2021 comes to an end, now’s a great time to think about positive new year’s resolution. Why not do something for others in the food and ag industry? Could you support a woman’s career and gender diversity in the industry by becoming part of the WFA mentorship program? 

When Women in Food and Agriculture (WFA) launched their 2021 mentorship program at the end of 2020, the plan was to match up twenty women from agricultural value chains with mentors of any gender to offer support and guidance through their careers. The campaign attracted more attention than they could have imagined with 120 representatives from the food and ag sector taking part. “The response was incredible” Melissa Huizer, Mentorship Operations Manager at WFA told us, “but it also really highlighted the need and demand for free programmes like this in our sector.”

In 2022 the WFA mentorship program is back and looking for a new group of mentors and mentees. With the support of partners Alltech, the initiative is growing to support even more women in the food and ag sector over the coming months. The plan is to eventually have a complete mentor and mentee directory to aid networking amongst all participants and maximise the chance to build meaningful connections in the food and agriculture sector. However, the challenge the WFA team faces is recruiting enough mentors to join the initiative. It was clear in 2021 that the demand for those needing a mentor (known as mentees) was higher than for those who applied to be a mentor. Melissa thinks this is in part down to confidence, “Often people imagine mentors to be CEOs of business with so many years of experience, but this is a real misconception we hope to address. In reality, we match mentees to anyone who has more sector experience than them as part of our programme. We ask that our mentors have at least one year of experience in the food and ag industry, as we feel number of years’ experience is not always the most important factor in selecting a mentor. A C-suite executive mentoring a graduate employee in their first job is not always going to be of maximum benefit to them both. We have found that having a mentor who may be closer to you in your experience level means both the mentor and mentee can get the most out of the process.”

“Aside from this experience in the industry, we do not have a strict list of criteria for our mentors as we believe everyone can have the ability to mentor. We understand that people have busy lives so we ask participants to commit just one hour a month to support their mentee. We are looking for good listeners who are open and honest, as well as willing to share their experiences and opinions. Ideally, mentors will possess some sort of leadership experience but this can really be anything from leading projects to volunteer work outside of the workplace. We also appreciate that people may be new to this sort of responsibility, so we provide a series of workshops and drop-in sessions to support our mentors in their roles and members of staff like myself are on hand all year around to address any questions that arise.”

Another issue Melissa touched on is the misconception that as a mentor you are not getting as much out of the mentorship it as the mentee. “What we have discovered is that our mentors tend to share positive feedback even more often than mentees, as they really enjoy themselves and appreciate the process. The feedback we have received tells us this has been a great opportunity for many to develop their skills in the areas of coaching and managing, builds their confidence and allows them to reflect on their own development and growth. It is also incredibly rewarding and you really can change someone’s life and career through your role as a mentor. It’s great to see people realising how much positive influence they can have. In fact, one of our 2021 mentees has even recently applied to become a mentor, realising she has a lot to offer to a more junior woman in the field!”

Some feedback from the 2020 cohort was from a mentee who explained the value they got from the program. “This mentorship has made me more mindful every day of what I can do to achieve the progress I am looking for. It felt like I had a personal cheerleader, one that has my best interests at heart and supported me in different ways to get to that.”

One mentor told the WFA team that their motivation for getting involved in the initiative was due to the benefit they had experienced from mentorship in the past and their desire to give something back to support women to progress in the sector. “In many moments of searching for clarity or facing challenges in my career, having a mentor to share, exchange and grow was fundamental,” she told us. “So, after 20 years of professional experience, I started to feel the calling to share all that I received from my mentors.”

The importance of male mentors in the programme

Another reason for the lack of mentors in initiatives like the WFA mentorship programme, is the assumption that women would be best placed to take on the role of mentoring other women but as Melissa explained, this isn’t true. “We encounter this issue across our campaigns. Some believe gender diversity is a women’s issue to solve. Clearly this is not the case and ensuring male mentors to join the program is vital. In the application process we do ask mentees if they would have a preference in the gender of their mentor and we find some applicants actually prefer to have a male mentor as they feel it is important to gain a male perspective on how they can progress their careers. We are so lucky to have a group of male allies who embarked on our mission to support women in food and ag and who have become mentors as part of the initiative. We hope we can encourage more male mentors to get involved for our 2022 cohort.“

If you are contemplating becoming a mentor, Melissa has only one word for you: “Apply! It might be the best thing you do for your career, and you can really make a difference in our industry.” As one mentor from the 2021 cohort put it: “We still have a long way to go when talking about women in leadership positions, especially in agriculture… My gratitude to the Women in Food and Agriculture Mentorship Program, for the opportunity. I recommend it to everyone who wants to broaden their vision and network.”


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