By Pam Marrone, CEO at Marrone Bio Innovations
I knew I wanted to be an entomologist at the age of seven after my father used a toxic chemical to control caterpillars on a prized dogwood tree, against my mother’s wishes. At my mother’s insistence, my father went back to the store to find something safer to spray, and found a product based on the caterpillar-killing bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). I was fascinated that there was a natural product that could control pests like this, and it was like an epiphany: At that point, I knew I wanted a career in pest management developing more products like Bt.
In the library at their woodsy, Connecticut home were entomology books, including “Pond Entomology,” which I used to identify the insects in the wildlife and bass fishing pond. My mother helped me write a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture about careers in entomology, and the USDA sent us some grainy black and white pamphlets about integrated pest management. Little did I know, IPM was a completely new science at the time – to integrate multiple tools like crop varieties that resist pests, enhance the soil, grow cover crops to manage pests and only need to be sprayed when necessary when the pests get above a defined threshold.
I pursued a Bachelor of Science degree in entomology from Cornell University and a doctorate from North Carolina State University. I picked NCSU because they had a large NSF-funded project on the soybean agroecosystem and were very welcoming of women. Other university professors did not want women because “they just have babies and drop out.”
A Woman in Corporate America: My Early Days
When I was looking for a job, the NCSU internship center facilitated meetings at two chemical companies, Ciba-Geigy and Monsanto. The contrast between the two companies was stark. Ciba-Geigy was all about chemical pesticides and asked us women, “How many babies are you going to have before you are thirty?” Monsanto was trying to distance itself from its toxic legacy of parathion and Agent Orange, and was looking for a creative entomologist to start up a new unit looking for innovative ways to control pests without traditional chemical pesticides. It was my dream job!
I took the job at Monsanto in 1983 where I was given free rein to help the company develop a program discovering and developing natural products for pest management, including looking for insect-killing proteins (from the same type of bacteria my father used) that could be engineered into crops to control pests.
Monsanto had an initiative to promote women into management; they started a training program just for women (we called it “charm school” because it included modules on how to dress, put on makeup and coif your hair). It was controversial and some (both men and women) derided because it was for women-only. “Why did only women get the training?” was asked by both the men and the women.
Because there were so few women at Monsanto, I stood out and got a lot of attention, which opened up opportunities to learn, grow and gain exposure to the commercial side of the business, which I was keenly interested in. I was invited to a formal, black-tie dinner for top management and I was one of only two women compared to 300 men!
As a woman, being heard is always a challenge. My female colleagues and students still report the same today. In meetings, I would try to speak, but would be interrupted frequently, or my ideas were not embraced by everyone in the meeting until they’d been appropriated by a male colleague. I adopted and took on male behaviors – speaking loudly and occasionally interrupting. Today, I cannot do this often without getting called on it, so I’ve found it’s better to let my CFO/president deliver the message. He will get more air time than I will.
Throughout my corporate career, I was not welcome at some meetings because I would be a “wet blanket” on the strip club excursions, joke telling, etc. The laws against sexual harassment in the United States were passed in 1991, but really did not take hold until years after that in international companies, so a lot of “stuff” happened including strip poker nights and horribly offensive jokes at the start of company meetings. That ended when my colleagues – male and female – complained.
While companies at the time had many overt initiatives to help women advance, there was still subtle, unconscious bias that women encountered. My academic and government colleagues at the Association for Women in Science say this is still true today, and that deep seated institutional bias still exists for women in STEM. AWIS is actively working to change that.
Another difficulty was being hired at a lower salary than a similarly qualified male colleague. I was told it was because I did not negotiate well enough (a common problem for women even today) or because my male colleague had a non-working spouse and three children, unlike me.
Striking Out on My Own
Eventually, I contemplated what I wanted to do and decided it was time to go out completely on my own and start a natural pest management company. In 2006, I founded Marrone Bio Innovations, a company that provides biologically-based products for pest management and plant health (the second venture-capital backed company I started; the other was AgraQuest (1995-2006).
The biggest problem women have, and I have it too, is that there are a different set of behaviors that are acceptable for women. You have to be very careful as a woman, and I have had to constantly check my style. If you raise your voice or get highly animated, people will never forget and bring up an incident that occurred three years ago. Whereas a guy can bang his fist on the table, make demands and be celebrated for being strong.
But at the end of the day, most of my experiences have been good. Farmer-customers don’t care whether I am male or female – they want the information about the products that can help them on the farm.
With investors, especially in my early entrepreneurial years, the credibility questions I faced interestingly had nothing to do with me being a male or female—they were about me having a PhD and no MBA. When I started MBI, our first employee was Julie Morris, who had a Harvard MBA. We made a good team: Julie’s Harvard MBA gave instant credibility with VCs who had Harvard or Stanford MBA degrees. Our gender did not seem to matter in the money raising process.
But when not talking to investors, there are still challenges. I have experienced, throughout my entire career, as have other women leaders I know, the very sad phenomenon that female employees and board members can be much tougher on women leaders than male leaders. There are many studies showing this to be true not just in STEM, but in many other fields, such as music, (orchestra auditions, for example), film and more.
It’s challenging to be a founder no matter what. It is very difficult for any person – male or female – to start a business and even more challenging to get products out the door, and predict and grow revenues. Many founders I network with, male and female, have horror stories, yet most do not talk about the issues or failures they have had.
The biggest challenge I’ve faced as a CEO and leader had little to do with gender: It’s simply been hiring and associating with the people who share my values and vision. This surprised me, and went against my initial assumptions. I thought the biggest challenges would be technical ones, but they pale in comparison to the difficulty of getting the right people on our team and having them all aligned.
What Might I Do Differently?
If I had to do it all over again, I would have gotten an MBA. I think at some point it would have provided me greater credibility—the PhD I have was actually a noose around my neck at times. It’s a moot point now, since I got the business experience I needed by taking business courses and earning the equivalent of an MBA, as well as, of course, starting and running more than one successful company. But in retrospect, I think it might have helped early on.
The other piece of advice for women starting businesses involves culture, vision and values: Define a mission for your company upfront, and take time to carefully describe the culture you want your company to have, and how you’ll go about building and maintaining that. Keeping the culture you want as the company grows in scale is very challenging for any CEO, so start from Day One by documenting standards and procedures that will reinforce your mission, vision, and values throughout the hiring process.
And for anyone still trying to choose a field to specialize in?
Let me make this pitch: This is the most exciting time to be in agriculture! There is a wave of innovation driven by data, digitization, robotics, and understanding and applying genetics and biology.
Jobs are plentiful, and there are more women starting companies in agtech than ever before.
Go for it!