CHICAGO — Jan Berk’s path can be divided into two main careers: media and agriculture.
But before her first career began, she built a foundation of basic work skills as a waitress, bank clerk and office manager.
“For decades, women had support roles labeled as ‘women’s work.’ I know some companies who literally still see things this way today,” said Berk, chief operating officer of San Miguel Produce, Oxnard, Calif.
Berk was the honoree and featured speaker at the Women in Produce breakfast event at the United Fresh Produce Association’s Conference and Expo.
Standing before an audience of almost 600 people, Berk recalled being in a sales meeting a year ago with a wholesaler. There were 20 salesmen. The only other woman she saw that day was a receptionist.
“When I left the meeting, I thought to myself, ‘Did I just step back in time some 30 years?’” Berk said.
Regardless, those early jobs laid the foundation of basic work skills for her: teamwork, leadership, and creative and critical thinking.
There is still a need to recognize women in the industry, despite their success in the last century, said The Packer’s publisher, Shannon Shuman, who spoke before Berk. Women are awarded only 39% of manager jobs and 23% of C-suite jobs, he said.
“Until women are no longer making 80 cents to the dollar of what men earn, until women are free from harassment and micro-aggression at the workplace, we will continue to honor them,” Shuman said. “I know I’m a man up here speaking about what women already know. To the men: Most of us men are not oblivious ... Fellow men, we need to be accountable for developing, mentoring and sponsoring women.”
When Berk began her 25-year career in media and newspapers, she was grateful for a publisher who mentored her in sales, marketing, promotions and public affairs.
“Forty years ago, mentors were pretty hard to find,” she said.
Berk worked at several media companies, married and had a son, consulted for the City of Oxnard’s first strawberry festival and helped with the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. When running her own boutique marketing firm, she consulted with San Miguel Produce on a couple small projects.
Along the way, Berk became a single mom.
“It is always difficult to find a good balance between work and family. One side always gets shortchanged. Family has to come first, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way,” Berk said. “I know I struggled with this for many years.”
Two newspapers were sold, and another newspaper closed. Berk realized she had no good reason to be living so far from family.
She thought of a John Wayne quote: “Life is tough. But it’s even tougher if you’re stupid.”
So Berk began her second career, in the agriculture industry, consulting for San Miguel Produce and eventually joining the staff full-time. After a long journey of learning an entirely new industry for the last 20 years, she’s earned a chief-level role.
“I always say we never stop learning,” Berk said. Volunteering at organizations like United Fresh helps her continual education.
The company culture still needs to change, she said, and that includes placing more qualified women in leadership roles.
“I strongly believe that a good balance of men and women in leadership roles in any workplace will significantly enhance any operation,” Berk said.
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