AWN Chair Jen Christie on creating a network for the development of all women
In 2013 Jen Christie realized there was a gap in the Canadian agriculture sector for women’s professional growth and decided to do something about it by helping found the Ag Women’s Network. Jen shares about her own career path and lessons she has learned, as well as her hopes for AWN in the future.
Please tell us a bit about yourself and your career path.
I grew up as the 6th generation on our family’s dairy and grain farm in beautiful Bruce County. My 2 brothers operate the farm alongside my parents now and I spend spare time there when I’m not traveling. We were involved in 4-H growing up, and I studied Agricultural Business at the University of Guelph, where I had ambitions to do “ag marketing” and work in the dairy industry.
After graduation and several summer gigs at AI companies, I started at John Deere Canada ULC as a Marketing Rep. My only real responsibility was to learn. I worked for John Deere for 10 years in a variety of sales, marketing and most recently, dealer development roles. I traveled across Canada attending events on behalf of the company and realized I really liked industry relations and communications. I also learned a lot about brand management.
During that time, I was also still involved with 4-H at the national level as a Director for six years before taking on the volunteer role of Global 4-H Network Summit Chair. In October, I joined the 4-H Canada team to focus only on the Summit.
My role at 4-H is to oversee the Global 4-H Network Summit and also manage and deliver all the marketing and communications related to it. For the communications, I work with our agency but I am mostly on my own creating the plans, writing, editing images, coding emails, updating the website and posting on social media.
Who is (or has been) your biggest influencer/mentor? What have you learned from them?
My family has always been a big influence on me. My parents worked hard to build the farm we have today and I may only be starting to really appreciate how much work that was. They are all a sounding board to me and my brothers regularly inspire me with their innovative thinking and work ethic. Although our communication styles might not be textbook, we do communicate and watch out for one another.
My Oma & Opa came to Canada after the war and they frequently remind us how lucky we are to 1) have food and 2) be farmers who can produce our own food. My Grandma is yet another strong woman in my life, who has taught me to love unconditionally.
I also have a couple mentors in the industry, who I have turned to when there are big questions I want to talk through, about my career or an opportunity. Both are informal relationships, but I’ve come to really value their perspective and appreciate their willingness to entertain my ideas, no matter how crazy they might seem.
Learning from our mistakes is an important, but sometimes tough, part of life. In the spirit of these profiles helping others, are you willing to share a mistake you made but taught you something important?
I had an opportunity to lead a very neat project. It was based on an idea that was still pretty new and I was honoured to be hand-picked to lead it by an upper-level manager. Unfortunately, I believed so strongly in the idea I missed getting proper buy-in from the rest of the management team.
When upper management changed, no one was able to explain the project goals or intent, and it appeared the project was unsupported. Despite having stuck to the original, approved plan, I took for granted how much everyone else needed to fully understand the project. I learned how important it is to make sure everyone is “on the bus”, especially when you are trying something new, because you never know when you will need that vote of support.
What’s the most burning question for you right now in your career (that you think AWN members might be able to provide answers to or advice on)?
What do I do next? I’m on contract until the fall at 4-H. I am interested in so many different areas of agriculture - dairy, sustainability, marketing and communications, the role of women and food security. Deciding what path I will choose next is exciting but a little daunting! I’m planning to approach it the same way I did with my switch to 4-H. Evaluating the experience(s) I’d like to have and choosing this way.
What solutions, tools or processes do you think could be put in place to help advance Canadian women and specifically Canadian women in agriculture?
I’m a big believer that technology can give people a leg up, as long as they can access it. Affordable, high-speed internet in rural areas can give not only women but everyone in rural Canada, including northern Canada, access to better tools, like video-conferencing, webinars and online courses. I’m hopeful since the CRTC has deemed it an essential service that plans to extend coverage will be expedited.
As a founder of AWN, tell us a bit about what encouraged you to start the network?
The idea for AWN started when I was thinking about female mentorship outside my company. I didn’t know a lot of women in leadership in Canadian agriculture and those I knew of I didn’t feel comfortable reaching out too. At industry events, often a few of us would end up chatting about the opportunities and concerns we saw in our careers. The idea formed that we could connect solely for this purpose to share and learn from one another and at the Youth Ag Summit in 2013 I committed to holding an event.
That fall the first event was held in Guelph and the Facebook group was formed soon after. Initially, the audience was women in agri-business. As the group grew though, it became very apparent producers were interested in participating, and the opportunities for women in ag industry leadership was equally great.
The rest, as they say, is history!
What’s one of the biggest hurdles to overcome in helping build AWN?
We’re literally building from nothing so some days it feels like there are so many! Being volunteer-led we are constantly struggling to balance all the great ideas and the fast-paced growth with the time of our volunteers.
I’m super proud of our volunteers, especially our leadership team. As we grow and evolve, I think we’re getting our groove. We are all very proud of the AWN community and we have the members to thank for that. The support women have for one another is outstanding and we try very hard to encourage that even if we don’t always get it right all the time.
When we launched our new logo last year, we also defined our mission and vision. This was really important because it’s become our guideposts for what we will do going forward. We believe diversity in leadership is crucial for our industry’s future.
We want to lead this conversation in agriculture by continuing to provide opportunities for women, and men, to gain the skills and knowledge they need to take that “next leadership step”, whatever it is. It could be pursuing a promotion or running for a commodity board or maybe it’s just changing their farm business. If we can connect people to help make that happen, we are providing value.
Do you have a piece of advice for young women starting their career in agriculture?
Take pride in what you do. Even if you’re not passionate about the work, when you take pride in your role and what you’re doing, you will be motivated to do the best job you can do. That is how you can prove yourself and earn the opportunity to ask for opportunities better suited to your passion. It also is a good way to check whether your values are aligned to your organization. If you find yourself unable to be proud of what you’re doing, then it could be a sign something is wrong and you need to speak up or move onto a new organization that is a better fit for you.
What professional development resources have you found most helpful?
I’m a fan of the 4-H motto, “Learn to do by Doing”, because while there are so many awesome conferences and resources out there, you have to do and try and fail, often to really learn and develop from the experience. That’s why the MBA was such a good experience for me too. Using case studies and applied projects we tried to apply what we learned, and I took a lot away from that.
2 tools I found very good to better understand my natural strengths are Strengths Finder 2.0 and Kolbe A assessment.
As a marketing & communications professional working in digital a lot, there are a few other resources I use regularly: Unmarketing Podcast and Book by Scott Stratten & Alison Kramer; Everybody Writes by Ann Handley; Marketing Profs conference; Hubspot Blog