Agriculture Tech And Investing Need A Diversity Overhaul - Here's How

Originally from FORBES and written by Connie Bowen and Allison Kopf. Connie Bowen is the Director of Operations at the Yield Lab Institute. Allison Kopf is the founder and CEO of Agrilyst.

We’re tired of getting the pink ticket.

If you’ve never been to an agriculture-related conference, you’re probably wondering what a pink ticket is. It’s pretty common for guests to bring their spouse to agriculture shows and conferences have started selling programs specifically designed for those attendees. The spouse gets a pink ticket, and while conference attendees have the option to go golfing, spouses have a pedicure and Tiffany & Co. tour (this was a real option at a conference Allison attended.)

Agriculture, and agriculture technology (agtech), in particular, is operating in a unique space. Compiling the inequities in venture capital, high-growth tech companies, agribusiness, and agriculture production results in a complicated and somewhat discouraging set of social, economic and political factors. Looking, however, towards the future, there are several factors that lead one to feel optimism about a more inclusive future.

Inequity in VC, Tech, AgBiz,and Production

The gender imbalances in venture capital investment and in high-growth technology companies are well cited. Only 9% of decision makers in VC are women, and, consequently, only 15% of VC funding goes to teams with at least 1 female founder. New funds, NGOs, and social movements are (finally) popping up and provoking some level of change in the traditional VC industry. These groups, through KPI-driven goals, will have a huge impact in diversifying the demographics of tomorrow’s successful innovative companies. 

But these KPI driven strategies are met with some complications in agriculture technology. It’s easy enough for us, as VCs, to set diversity KPIs for our portfolio companies and mandate that they get with the program or get out, but complications arise when you begin to consider the necessary stakeholders in agriculture. Agtech solutions tend not to work very well without early and continuous farmer involvement and input.

In the US, over 88% of primary farm operators are men. 27% of farms have women as operators when accounting for both primary and secondary operators (typically spouses.) Today, only 61% of US farmland is owner-operated, and 90% of those owner-operators are men.  (The remaining 39% of US farmland is rented, by a closer-to-equal 46% of women operators.)

Farmer involvement is critical in the adoption and success of agtech solutions, both from as a user and potential purchaser of products, and in playing a direct role in commercial innovation.

The role of corporate agribusiness diversity

Global agribusinesses are playing a critical role in improving inclusivity in the industry. Monsanto consistently makes DiversityInc’s Top 50 Companies for Diversity, along with Eli Lilly & Co and BASF. Bayer was just recognized as Diversity and Inclusion Leader in America’s 2018 “Best of the Best” Corporations.

This is important for several reasons. First, agtech VC is largely driven by corporate demand – these are the companies that have the most in-depth knowledge in agriculture, and they are the companies that will ultimately be investing in new technologies as customers, collaborators and/or acquirers. Second, farmers around the world are looking to these giant global companies as a source of the best available technologies to optimize farm profitability.

It’s also about more than just demand and expertise. Women are leading the way when it comes to ag research. There’s a massive opportunity to pair up research with startups to create meaningful solutions to some of the world’s biggest problems. This pairing can lead to not just an increase of women-led companies and ideas, but also huge financial returns for corporate agribusinesses.

The role of agtech startups

Startups have a unique opportunity to build company values from the ground up. At Agrilyst, for example, we’ve publicly shared our Culture Deck and how we think about diversity. We’re proud that women make up 40% of our team and people of color also make up 40% of our team. Diverse teams produce better results and startups have an opportunity to build diverse teams from day one.

Cause for optimism

Women have earned the majority of doctoral degrees annually since 2008. Men continue to complete doctoral degrees at a higher rate in Engineering (77% in 2016), Business (54%) , Math & Computer Sciences (74%), and Physical and Earth Sciences (66%), but women have surpassed men in Biology and Agricultural Sciences, at 51%. Anyone following the agtech space right now will understand that crop and animal breeding is going to be incredibly disruptive over the next decade or two.

Additionally, women make up over 50% of the agricultural workforce in developing countries. As the world strives to meet the goals set forth in the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, a key component of equality will only be achieved through empowering agricultural women with access to technology, innovation, and education. If women are empowered, not only will the gender gap narrow, but yields in developing countries will increase by 2.5% to 4%.

A few weeks ago, co-author Allison finally reached her breaking point of man-els and male-dominated speaker line-ups, so she started an open-sourced list of female leaders in agtech. We’re psyched that this list is having real results, as Agfunder’s Emma Cosgrove noted in her coverage. This list is full of the leaders of today, and these leaders will to steer us towards a more effective and inclusive tomorrow.

What’s next

The tides are changing. Initiatives like AllRaise and FoundersForChange are going to produce results. Agriculture technology has the choice right now to be ahead of curve, with it, or behind it. Today, agriculture is still fighting a stigma of being “behind the times” (despite the fact that John Deere was selling self-driving tractors before the autonomous vehicle hype started.)

Do we want to perpetuate the  image of old men in cowboy hats and overalls, or are we as an industry ready to make the move into next generation, high efficiency, sustainable production?  If we are, we need to figure out how to include people from diverse backgrounds, genders, races, industries, ages; agtech venture capital needs to invest in all people.