As I think back to my first produce convention, which I attended while I was in college (in the late 1970s), I realized that there were only 3 women at that convention in San Francisco.
My mother, Frieda Caplan; Sybil Henderson (who wrote mini cookbooks on veggies and did TV segments promoting fresh produce), and me. When I joined my mom’s business after college, I’m pretty sure I was the only twenty-something girl coming to the LA produce market at 4:00am each morning.
Very slowly, I started to notice more women getting involved in the industry. But I found most women were in support roles. HR, Accounting, Marketing and Public Relations. There were very few women in sales, and definitely no women who owned a company (except for my mom). That’s probably why mom stood out in the industry. Being the first woman to own a wholesale produce company.
And interestingly, she would tell me if a woman wanted to get into the produce business (in sales, for example), other produce companies would refer them to my mom. Because women couldn’t get jobs in produce sales. I know that is hard to believe. Ask Tonya Antle. She was from a produce family, lived in Southern California and wanted to get into the business. Every company she approached referred her to Frieda’s. And I’m so glad they did, as we hired her on the spot!
About 25 years ago, you could see momentum building. There were more and more women in sales. And I’ll never forget meeting Conchita Espinosa from Fru-Veg in Miami and Gloria Polanco of Frutesa in Guatemala– they both founded and ran their own companies. That was amazing back then! And it was women like them who were my inspiration for launching Women in Produce in 1993, a reception to be held at both United’s and PMA’s annual convention to provide a place for women to network with each other.
Probably the slowest part of the produce industry to transition to including women in key roles has been the retail segment. It was a long time before there were any women as Directors of Produce. Now, in 2019 it is exciting to see Caitlin Tierney (of 99 Cents Stores), Kelly Davis (of Allegiant/Foodtown) and Sheryl Salazar of Albertson’s Southern California. They are joining other front runners like Marnette Perry (of Kroger) and Karen Stout (of Harris Teeter). Marnette and Karen were considered so unusual at that time when they were promoted to their positions in produce (in the 1980s).
Produce and agriculture are not the only male dominated industries. I think for many years, almost every industry was male dominated. But what is so unique to produce sales, is that if you have a product of value, that a buyer can make money on, they don’t care if you are male or female. Black or white. Young or old. If you’re smart and can show them how they can make money selling your product, you can make the sale. Smarts is what counts.
And that’s what women have brought to our industry. Without sounding cliché or generalizing, women tend to be detailed, relationship oriented and they still represent the vast majority of consumers: women. It always made the most sense to me that a woman sales person, buyer or retailer, chef or wholesaler would think like a consumer. And what a competitive edge that would be.
So, thank you to the men who had the foresight in our industry to give opportunities to the women who applied for positions in our industry. Their foresight opened doors and windows. And now we have balanced teams and working groups.
And I think you will agree, that it’s a lot more fun working in our industry now. And what a great example we are setting for Millenials and Gen Zs who are looking to get into the food and agriculture business. Our little old Ag business is looking pretty progressive!
--- Karen Caplan is CEO and President of Frieda’s Specialty Produce, based in Los Alamitos, CA. She is the second generation owner of Frieda’s (along with her sister and business partner, Jackie Caplan Wiggins). They bought the company form their mother, Frieda Rapoport Caplan. And now, Karen’s daughter Alex Berkley is Director of Sales at the company, making it a third generation, woman and family owned business. Karen was the first female Chair of the United Fresh Produce Association and the Fresh Produce and Floral Council. She proudly says that her company hires both women and men in all positions, as a balanced team is the best team.
Three major trends that moved the produce industry