By Dana McCauley

Female Food Leaders bring Compassion, Empathy and Kindness to Work

By Dana McCauley

“You are so nice.” How well I remember being told those words by a smiling, popular boy – let’s call him Rob – in homeroom during my last year of high school. I took his words as a huge compliment; they were exactly what I wanted to hear as a newcomer to the school who yearned to be invited into a social circle. In due course, Rob turned out to be my ticket into exactly the kind of society I craved. Being nice had paid off!

Besides being nice, I was also one of the top students in my classes; but, on the late September day Rob complimented me, no one at school knew that information yet. Fast forward to November when first term first report cards were passed around and that same boy, sitting next to me where he could see my grades, observed unsmilingly that my marks were ‘bitchin’ high’ (forgive the slang, it was the 80’s).

At the time, I didn’t have the maturity to articulate how I felt about his changed tone; but today I look back and clearly hear his message: I was a valuable addition to his friend group because I was pleasing to be around not because I was smart and had ideas to share.

I tell you this story to provide insight into why only 19.5% of board members at Canada’s top 500 companies are female. One rebalancing tactic popular with women’s advocacy groups is to develop aspirational targets for female leadership representation in private and public organizations. While many programs report making modest progress toward these goals, why aren’t big organizations able to tip the balance and elevate more women into leadership positions quickly?

While acute policy issues such as access to affordable, high-quality child care need be considered as factors in why women aren’t rising to higher management levels, less obvious issues need to be considered as well. With 82% of Canadian women aged 25 to 54 employed, they are present and experienced participants in our work force. And, although more women than men in the workforce have university credentials, even when the two genders have similar work experience women are 60% less likely to move from middle management to executive teams. Clearly something significant is holding women back.

Are they just too nice to succeed? I don’t think so. Compassion, empathy and good nature are qualities essential in good leaders. Instead the problem is one of balance. According to a 2017 fact sheet published by the Canadian Women’s Foundation, 86% of women remember being taught to be nice to others growing up, but only 44% remember being taught to be a good leader and a mere 34% recall being taught to share their point of view. In fact, three in four (76%) women state that they wish they had not only learned more about leadership when they were growing up, but also that they had been presented with more opportunities to learn how to lead. It seems to follow that as parents, teachers and bosses we must try to reward girls and women for being leaders and critical thinkers more often.

Likewise, we should showcase successful female leaders as role models. In the highly competitive food manufacturing sector where I have the most experience, role models do exist. At Canadian branches of international corporations, women are landing prominent roles; Ana Dominguez was CEO of Campbell’s Canada for 3 years and Shelley Martin headed up Nestle Canada until she retired in 2018. While their careers are inspiring, as the stats above reveal, Shelley and Ana are outliers. Where real progress is being made is at entrepreneurial food companies. Led by women who are smart, strategic and – in most cases – nice, these leaders are creating corporate frameworks where they and other women can succeed without having to wait for established male leaders to invite them to join the management team. In many cases, these CEO’s have risen to upper management in corporate roles but left to develop new concepts on their own. As role models they are setting a powerful example for the other women in their companies as well as for their daughters and sons alike.

Looking for inspiration? Here’s a list of just three of the many flourishing food companies lead by nice women who left the corporate track to open and run businesses where they can lead their way: 

Good Food for Good: Founded and lead by former marketing executive Richa Gupta, Good Food for Good has gone from start-up to national distribution in 6 short years by creating a line of parent-pleasing ketchups and sauces. As a Certified B Corp, Richa’s company meets rigorous standards of social and environmental performance while also striving to be a profitable and sustainable business. 

Mother Raw: When investors purchased a fledgling raw food company, they knew they needed a strategic leader to transform a line of niche products into a powerhouse brand. Enter CEO Kristi Knowles, a former innovation executive at one of Canada’s largest beer companies. From supply chain to name, Kristi reshaped the company into Mother Raw, which makes a nutrient rich line of plant-based sauces and dips for their quickly growing North American customer base. 

Switch Grocery: When accountant Neha Charnalia made the ‘go’ decision to start Switch Grocery, she knew that attracting customers to an online grocery store specializing in keto and paleo friendly food products was not going to be easy. To build awareness and loyalty, she invested heavily in creating and maintaining a community where those who follow the low carb lifestyle can learn from one another and find information from a trusted source. Just two years in, the result is a thriving business with thousands of ambassadors spreading the word about Switch Grocery products and service.

Statistical data source: https://www.canadianwomen.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Facts-About-Women-and-Leadership.pdf