The Advancing Women in Agriculture Conference offers an opportunity for women to build skills, network and learn from each other’s experiences.
Imagine being in a room with approximately 500 people who all share the same interests and values as you.
That’s what awaits women at the Advancing Women in Agriculture Conference (AWC) East in Niagara Falls on October 30 and 31. Now in its fourth year, the AWC puts on an East and West conference each year to bring women from across the agriculture sector together for two days of speakers, networking and skill-building. AWC West was held earlier this year in Calgary.
“Both conferences follow the same template. The program emphasizes key leadership skills, communications, mentorship and networking,” says Iris Meck, owner of Iris Meck Communications and founder and host of the AWC. “We also talk about issues like health and life balance strategies; two very important issues on the personal side that can both affect the business side.”
Since its inception in 2014, the AWC has seen 3,000 women attend six conferences, with approximately 450 to 600 women at each conference.
According to Meck, it’s important for women in agriculture to have a space to come together and learn from each other’s experiences. Since agriculture is a predominantly male industry, there often aren’t many opportunities to connect with a large group of women at industry events.
“When they come together as a group of women, there is a huge opportunity for learning, motivation, inspiration, collaboration – and just realizing they’re not alone,” she says.
The AWC speaker lineup frequently includes women who are company owners, executives, authors and many others who hold leadership positions in the industry. The AWC aims to cover a wide variety of topics, and to provide
women with inspiration in their areas of interest.
Meck believes it’s important for businesses, including agri-retailers, to send their female staff to the AWC. By doing so, they can play a part in advancing women within the industry while also benefitting their own businesses.
“When you do the same job day after day, even if you love it, you can get stuck in a rut,” says Meck. “By sending their female employees to the AWC, businesses can reward and recognize them by giving them an opportunity to learn and grow in a refreshing environment.”
Dana Sachvie, senior administrative assistant at Cargill, is in the unique position of having attended two AWCs herself, and also arranges to send Cargill employees to the conference through her work as lead of the External Community Group under the Cargill Women’s Network. Sachvie has experienced the benefits of attending the conference first hand and seen its impact on others.
“I didn’t grow up on a farm, but I did marry into a farming family. Since then, I’ve always been on the lookout for opportunities to learn more about the industry,” she says. “After attending the AWC for the first time, I was
delighted to attend the conference again and I always look forward to planning and organizing for others to go. It’s exciting to be able to share that experience.”
Sachvie says Cargill has sent over a hundred employees to the AWC since 2014, and has received overwhelmingly positive feedback from the women who attended. She says their attitudes when they return to work is one of the biggest ways the AWC delivers value to attendees and their employers.
When I left both conferences, I felt refreshed, energized and ready to hit the ground running when I got back to work.
“Personally, when I left both conferences, I felt refreshed, energized and ready to hit the ground running when I got back to work,” she says. “I’ve seen so many others come back rejuvenated; they have innovative ideas and new industry connections which can be very valuable to both the individual and the company.”
The Confidence to “Just Say Yes”
For Sachvie, confidence is at the heart of one of the biggest takeaways she’s had from the AWC.
“Something I heard at my first conference that has stuck with me was, ‘Don’t be afraid to just say yes.’ If you don’t, you might miss out on amazing opportunities,” she says.
“By having the confidence to say ‘yes,’ I’ve become more of a leader at work and I’ve had many opportunities come my way.”
Meck agrees that confidence is crucial. In fact, she says it is the first step to breaking down barriers, both mental and physical.
“Confidence is a huge part of the battle when it comes to changing your mindset and overcoming mental barriers, barriers you may not even realize exist,” she says.
One of the ways the AWC seeks to build confidence is with their lineup of speakers who share their personal experiences of how they achieved their goals, and discuss the challenges and successes they faced along the way.
“Through our speaker program, we want to help the audience raise their level of expectations for themselves and help them say, ‘I can do this. I can pursue this goal, I can seize this opportunity.’ ”
The Future of Women in the Industry
After decades of slow change for women in the industry, Meck believes we’re now experiencing a growth spurt for women in agriculture.
“When I started in the industry in 1978, those were the days of the first cracks in the barriers that existed. Today, we are seeing tremendous change,” she says.
According to Meck, opportunities are growing across the industry for women, especially ones where they can pull up a seat at the table and share their perspectives.
“Having women involved builds a well-rounded company since they often bring different perspectives, characteristics and strengths,” says Meck. “I think there are going to be significant changes in the boardrooms and the corner offices of agri-businesses in the years to come.”
Beyond agri-business, Meck sees a future where women are increasingly active in all aspects of agriculture.
When I started in the industry in 1978, those were the days of the first cracks in the barriers that existed. Today, we are seeing tremendous change.
“I think we’ll see more women joining committees and boards at the community level, the national level and the international level,” she says.
The AWC will continue to support women and help them build skills, gain confidence and become inspired, so they can advance further in the agriculture industry.
“When you combine confidence with motivation and inspiration, the world is your oyster,” says Meck.
Nurturing the Next Generation
The AWC is dedicated to inspiring not just women currently in the agriculture industry, but also nurturing the next generation of young women.
Agriculture students are encouraged to apply to the AWC’s Student Program, which provides hotel accommodations and covers registration fees through the support of corporate sponsors.
Phyllis MacCallum, a sector analyst with the Canadian Pork Council, attended the AWC when she was in her third year at the University of
Lethbridge. She believes the AWC is highly beneficial for students, especially because of the networking opportunities it offers.
“It was an absolutely phenomenal experience,” she says. “As a student, networking is one of the most important things you can do as you prepare to enter the industry and search for jobs, and the conference really gives you the opportunity to expand your network.”
MacCallum says you never know where these connections and contacts will lead you.
“My roommate actually made a connection with a company that had a booth set up at the AWC, and later interviewed with them and got a job there,” she says. “A number of the companies do come with job opportunities, and as a student you should be there to take them.”
MacCallum says the conference is not only beneficial when it comes to landing jobs, but also helps women build well-rounded life skills.
It’s an industry-specific event, but not every conversation you have there is about agriculture,” she says. “They’re about women moving forward in the workplace, experiences that women specifically have in the workplace and experiences women have in our lives.
“Students – you have to go. Honestly, it’s an amazing experience you don’t want to pass up.”
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