The Context Network is pleased to announce its commitment as a diamond sponsor of the Women in Agribusiness Summit on September 24-26 in Denver, Colorado.
Sometimes three minutes is all you need.
Priyamvadha “Priya” Sivakumar made the most of her three minutes when she met Context Principal Asha Lundal in passing at the Women in Agribusiness (WIA) Summit two years ago. Sivakumar was working toward her master’s degree in agribusiness when she was invited to work as a student volunteer at the summit, where she met a number of female agribusiness professionals.
While brief, her conversation with Lundal stood out. “I hadn’t realized an organization like Context existed. It seemed too good to be true, a place where I could merge my consulting experience with my passion for food and agriculture,” Sivakumar says.
Returning to the WIA Summit the following year on a coveted student scholarship, Sivakumar had already done her homework. Throughout the year, she had reached out to others at Context; at the summit, she reconnected with Lundal. That led to interviews with Context executives and an offer to join the firm as a senior business analyst. “It worked out perfectly,” Sivakumar says. “Before I even finished my graduate work, I had the perfect job.”
Sivakumar’s passion for food and agriculture has deep roots. As a child in India, she would sneak into her mother’s “forbidden” kitchen to concoct snacks, experimenting with spices. While studying food process engineering as an undergraduate, she developed a commercial product (now under patent) that shaved hours off the preparation of a traditional gravy, while preserving its taste and nutritional value.
But it wasn’t until she worked for several years as a project management analyst in telecommunications for one of the world’s largest consulting firms that she realized she wouldn’t be satisfied until she merged her professional expertise with her interest in food and agriculture. This led her to move to the United States and enroll in Texas A&M University’s graduate program in agribusiness.
Sivakumar credits the WIA Summit with providing a collegial forum where women in the industry can connect and learn from one another. “Walking into a room filled with 500 executives could feel intimidating, but it doesn’t. Everyone is friendly and wants to see you advance in the industry,” she says.
She’s thrilled that Context, a WIA sponsor for three years, has stepped up to diamond-level sponsorship of this year’s event, scheduled for September 24-26 in Denver, Colorado.
Lundal also cheers Context’s increased investment. She notes that the firm has long recognized the power of assembling project teams with diverse perspectives to solve clients’ toughest problems — whether that diversity stems from gender, ethnicity, age, education, or geography. “What WIA stands for is consistent with Context’s values,” Lundal says. “It is meaningful to me personally – and it also makes good business sense.”
The sponsorship is a natural fit, says Lauren Chupp, associate principal at The Context Network. The WIA Summit highlights networking, the foundation of Context’s business model. “It’s something we’re really good at – relationships and focusing on people,” she says. “I have seen, and experienced myself, that core strength we have as a company.”
Chupp says she has benefitted from strong mentors within Context, including a principal who has provided professional help and advice for more than a decade. She calls that generosity of spirit a “critical piece” of Context’s business success.
Photo: Gloria Basse, Lauren Chupp and Jessica Langley of The Context Network
Strength in numbers
The need for women in agribusiness is widely acknowledged but hard to quantify accurately, notes Joy O’Shaughnessy, managing director of HighQuest Partners, which initiated WIA. While nearly equal numbers of men and women in the United States earn agribusiness-related college degrees,  they do not equally share employment in agribusiness companies.
Recognition of this gap, however, can help close it. O’Shaughnessy says the WIA was born after her colleagues noticed “a distinct lack of women” at a major industry conference in 2011. She says women were being overlooked when companies chose someone to send to industry conferences – leaving them a step behind their male colleagues in continuing professional education.
“We want women to be informed and educated… If you were to take the word women out of our title, WIA would be a fantastic industry conference,” O’Shaughnessy says. “But putting women in the title helps companies recognize that they can’t just send the same person to this conference they send to all the others.”
In 2012, 212 people attended the WIA Summit. That number grew to 450 in 2013. This year, the seventh, the conference sold out in August; more than 765 women are registered to attend.
In addition to providing professional development opportunities, the WIA Summit helps attendees build leadership skills and increase their presence in the business community. This year Marianne Smith Edge, Context senior associate, will help provide training in a session titled “Landing a Board Position.” A former senior vice president for the International Food Information Council and former president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Smith Edge draws on her many years of board engagement, including her current role on the Board of Editors for Nutrition Today and previous terms on the USDA National Research, Extension, Education, & Economics Advisory Board, among other boards.
Gloria Basse, Context senior associate and WIA board member, calls such training critical. “We need to develop and grow women leaders,” she says.
Basse stepped into WIA leadership after attending one of the early conferences. She noticed that no presentations dealt specifically with livestock, her specialty. “The question for me was, how do I find, in a sea of people, the people with whom I really want to network?”
Her answer was to initiate a dinner the next year for women in protein, an event that has become increasingly popular each year, drawing together women with similar professional interests. She also joined the WIA board four years ago. “It has given me a terrific opportunity to meet other senior women leaders,” she says. “If I would have had exposure to WIA early in my career, I would have had a much different experience.”
It’s important, Basse says, for every professional woman to build a strategic network of women and men, inside and outside her company, who can help her advance her career. The connections a woman can make through WIA enhance that network, she says.
Networking toward an evolving future
As agribusiness has evolved, Lundal and Chupp note, Context has grown from its origins into a global strategy and management consulting firm working for clients across the entire food system and across geographies. “We’re playing in a much broader space,” Lundal says. “It’s business-critical for us to have and leverage a variety of perspectives in unique and valued ways for our clients. There are legitimate drivers for thinking about the makeup of our team.”
Chupp notes that the changing nature of Context’s work has attracted increasingly diverse individuals, with more women and people of varied backgrounds making important contributions. “We’re in an evolution, right alongside our clients who are experiencing parallel changes to their workforces and their customers. Ultimately, we’re taking steps to ensure our teams reflect the world we live in and do business in,” she says.
Among those steps, Lundal says, are progressive approaches to employment that attract today’s agribusiness and food industry professionals, including millennials and Generation Zs. For instance, Context was an early adopter of virtual teams. Such teams enable the company to leverage key talent around the globe regardless of physical location and encourage its team members to live where they wish and to engage in projects about which they are passionate. She admits such flexibility is key to her own relationship with Context.
She also notes that, in the changing environment, some of the strongest contributors are women.
“I personally want everyone to understand Context’s commitment to diversity and the value we see in it,” she says, calling the WIA venue “very aligned … to what we think it takes for us and our clients to be successful.”
Sivakumar spread the word early about the upcoming conference. “I am interested in making sure other women get the benefit of this,” she says. Lundal sees a payoff in the future. “Today I am the only female principal among 12 at Context,” she says. “But with the talented women in our organization, it’s clear I won’t be alone for long.”
The Women in Agribusiness Summit brings together women who are passionate about agribusiness and the need to recruit, retain, and advance women in the industry. It provides an opportunity to network, learn about industry outlooks and trends, and develop valuable professional skills.