What It Will Take to Get More Women at the Agtech Table
Where are the women at the table? In recent years, the agtech sector has been growing by leaps and bounds, in part driven by growing attention placed on food access during the pandemic. Case in point, 2021 is another record year for venture capital investments in agtech, according to CropLife. As of mid-2021, some $4.3 billion was invested in the sector in 263 deals compared to $5.15 billion in 2020. Anecdotally, there appear to be more women founders and leaders in what is still considered a young sector.
Within the vast landscape of agtech companies, many of them startups as defined by the stage of funding they have achieved, the gender ratio on boards remains male dominant. While to date there is no comprehensive dataset that confirms numbers, in our self-analysis we took a sample of companies in agtech curated from top searches for prominent agtech companies and examined gender ratio on boards. Our review of 16 companies with public information regarding its leadership shows that 24 percent of leadership positions are held by women and only 3.6 percent are held by women of color.
While one might assume that companies founded by women would have a healthy balance of men and women on their boards, the reality is quite the opposite. A sampling of companies profiled in my new book, From Farms to Incubators: Women Innovators Revolutionizing How Our Food is Grown (in which most of the companies were founded by women), points to a dearth of women at the table. The sample was taken by going to the companies’ websites and reviewing the board members listed.
Already women are a minority when it comes to company boards across all sectors. Bloomberg reported in May that more than 1 in 10 of the 3,000 companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange have no female directors.
While disparity isn’t a surprise, it begs a deeper dive into the factors behind the gap.
There is already a scarcity of women investors in venture capital, a funding oasis for startups. In 2020, women made up 5 percent of venture capitalists, a 1 percent increase from the previous year. The number of VCs that focus on agriculture and agtech is a sliver of the whole pie, fueled by a relatively new sector and the fact that agriculture driven by the growing season has a longer return on investment. Venture firms run by women that focus on agtech are a minority. Sarah Nolet was inspired to cofound Tenacious Ventures, an agtech investment firm based in Australia, in part due to the lack of female investors. The Tenacious investment team is led by women.
“There are a lot fewer venture capitalists that are female, and one way that you end up on high tech startup boards is because you are an investor and that’s how you get a board seat,” says Nolet, who is also the founder of AgThentic, an agtech consulting firm. “There are just fewer female investors and investing in a company is a common way to get on a board.”
The imbalance often comes down to what the industry and those in the industry are accustomed to. In examining private agrifoodtech companies, there is a bias in board recruitment. “Often it is men founders and investors whose networks are men, so that is who they invite,” says Vonnie Estes, who has sat on six boards, two representing the investor and four as an independent. “They don’t make the effort to look outside the network they have built through university and careers to find women outside their group.” Board members are overwhelmingly people in their mid-careers or later and tend to be middle-aged white men.
The lack of women on boards is also due to the fact that many agtech companies are “early-stage and the industry is still relatively immature so there are relatively fewer later-stage companies that could do things like pay director fees,” Nolet says, noting that the directors are working for equity as opposed to being paid in cash.
Early-stage startups are not necessarily focused on boards and are more focused on customer research and financing, says Dennis Donohue, the executive director of the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology (WGCIT), a business incubator for agtech startups, based in Salinas, Calif. A clear demarcation needs to be made between publicly traded companies and startups, he notes. “Board development is not a major focus as I see, and if it is, it’s mostly for the purpose of financial access or market access,” Donohue says. When it comes to gender disparity on boards Donohue says he doesn’t see it when it comes to the startups that he has worked with.
Donohue continues: “My general observation is there are no glass ceilings per say that I see or that I encounter, I think people as a rule are very focused on getting financed, how to get financed, who will finance them and what they are trying to accomplish.”
At the same time startups do not face the pressure of diversifying their boards as public companies or those about to go public do.
“Startups don’t have the pressures of ESG investment to the extent of public corporations. So, diversity is less urgent to them,” says Jaleh Daie, a partner at Aurora Equity and a gender and diversity advocate for boards in tech and STEM.
A Brighter Future
The good news is there are solutions being explored including policy. It was uplifting to see that the Nasdaq recently implemented new guidelines that most companies listed on the exchange must have at least one woman on the board and one member who is an underrepresented minority or who is LGBTQ. While the policy is specifically for corporate boards it sends a strong message that boards need more diversity. This is not an option but a necessity.
And the women founders and investors interviewed for this article collectively share positive sentiments about the future. Daie forecasts more gender-balanced boards in the future. In order for this to be achieved, boards need to look beyond the usual checklist, such as years of experience and titles in the C-suite.
When it comes to agriculture, whether it be at large agribusinesses or farms, there are more women in decision-making positions and getting promoted.
“The number of women CEOs and investors is slowly growing. When you have women in those roles, you will have more women on boards,” Estes says. “Two of the four independent board seats I have had have been with women CEOs. That isn’t a coincidence.”
Estes points out that there is a “pool of amazing women board members” out there who didn’t come through the route of big companies as that path is not readily available. “If you look, you will find accomplished women who have had a big impact on the industry through different routes,” she says. “We need to shine a light on them.”
Dahlia Isabella Bolt contributed to this article.
Amy Wu is an award-winning journalist who writes about the agtech movement. She is the founder of From Farms to Incubators.
Dahlia Isabella Bolt is a chemical and biomolecular engineering student at New York University and an NYU Wasserman Center-funded intern at From Farms to Incubators.