Seald Sweet CEO Mayda Sotomayor-Kirk led a packed Global Trade Symposium session, part of the New York Produce Show and Conference. ( Photo by Amy Sowder )

NEW YORK — Mayda Sotomayor-Kirk was a baby when her family escaped the Castro communist regime on a freedom flight to the U.S.

“We left Cuba like so many other refugees, looking for a place to take us in, and luckily we found the U.S. For us, it was a haven,” Sotomayor told attendees of the Global Trade Symposium, part of the New York Produce Show and Convention Dec. 10-13 in Manhattan.

Growing up in Miami and then working in Pompano Beach, Fla., Sotomayor found a career in the produce business that keeps her traveling the world. Thirty-six years later, she’s CEO of Seald Sweet International, Vero Beach, Fla., a global grower, broker, importer, exporter, shipper and wholesaler of citrus and other produce.

“Either by coincidence or divine intervention, I started in the beginning of the global produce trade,” Sotomayor said. “(The U.S. Agency for International Development) was providing growers with funds to get them to grow fruits and vegetables instead of illegal crops.”

Sotomayor learned she could help farmers in Central and South American countries succeed, and that’s meant more varieties of fresh produce in the U.S. In the 1980s, there were 50-100 stock-keeping units in a U.S. grocer’s produce department, she said. In 2010, that number jumped to about 320 SKUs.

While U.S. trade branched out around the world, so did Sotomayor’s work world.

Seald Sweet formed with a group of growers and businessmen in Tampa, Fla., in 1909, and in 2004 it was purchased by UNIVEG, a constituent company under Brussels-based Greenyard, with 9,000 employees operating in 25 countries worldwide.

“Global trade not only enriches the grower itself, but the community where it’s grown at. I think we have a social responsibility in what we consume,” Sotomayor said.

The company is vertically integrated in order to manage fruit from seed to basket.

“You want to provide fruit and vegetables for the world, but you have to do it sustainably, or we won’t have a world. We have to be responsible as consumers,” Sotomayor said.