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Creating a diverse workforce in agribusiness [PODCAST]

Diversity brings new ideas and expands hiring options for feed manufacturing and grain handling businesses

Steven Kilger, managing editor of Feed & Grain and host of the Feed & Grain Podcast, speaks with Ebony Webber, COO of MANRRS, about diversity in agribusiness.

They discuss why diversity is a benefit for any organization, what diversity is, and how to start practicing more diverse hiring practices.


Steven Kilger: Hello, everyone. Thanks for listening. My name is Steven Kilger. I'm the host of the Feed & Grain Podcast. And today, I'm speaking with Ebony Weber, COO of MANRRS. MANRRS is an organization that promotes agriculture sciences and related fields in a positive manner among ethnic minorities. We talk about expanding diversity in ag organizations, how it helps everyone, and how companies can start working towards having a more diverse workforce. It's a really fun conversation.

Before we get into it, just a little bit of housekeeping. If you have a topic or speaker you think would be a good fit for the Feed & Grain Podcast, I want to hear about it. Go to And you'll find a button that you can click and immediately send me all of your ideas. I hope I hear from you soon. With all that out of the way. Hi, Ebony.

Ebony Webber 00:54: Hi, Steven. How are you doing?

Kilger 00:56: I’m all right. How are you, Ebony?

Webber 00:57: I'm doing well. Thank you.

Kilger 00:59: Excellent. Well, thank you so much for agreeing to talk to me today.

Webber 01:02: Absolutely. Why wouldn’t I?

Kilger 01:05: Well, sometimes it's hard to get people to you to commit. I don't like talking to the media for whatever reason.

Webber 01:12: When you have nothing but positive things to share, you look forward to these opportunities.

Kilger 01:18: Excellent. So, your organization MANRRS came up on our radar when you partnered with NGFA, National Grain and Feed Association, to help with their diversity output. So, I just really was curious about kind of what you guys do. So, would you mind telling me a little bit more about what MANRRS does?

Webber 01:40: Sure. So, MANRRS is Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences. We're a national 501 c 3 professional membership organization. Membership is open to anyone and all people from all backgrounds. So, first, you don't have to be a minority to be a part of the organization. But the mission of the organization is to promote the inclusion and advancement of minority students and professionals in the food, agriculture, and natural resource industries. So really, what we do as an organization is not only do we provide career and leadership development for students who are in this space, who may not have the traditional networking relationships, and who are first-generation students in corporate America and into the agriculture industry as a whole, MANRRS serves as that safe space to help with that learning and development and that career exposure. So, taking students from never even thinking about agriculture to being an advocate of agriculture is what MANRRS has become very good at it.

Kilger 02:49: It's great, because of the awareness of agriculture as a career option, at least for me, a guy who lived in a pretty rural community. I still didn't think of it. I'm sure. For a lot of people, it's not even on the radar at all.

Webber 03:03 Yeah, absolutely. And that's exactly how I was. And I became so passionate about it because, like you said, being from a small rural community, you run away like there are no jobs, but there are actually plenty of jobs there. You just, it wasn't the ones that I guess resonated, or I didn’t look at like a real career. It was something like that. I’m not doing it.

Kilger 03:26: Yeah, no, I know exactly what you mean. So, can you tell me a little bit about how you guys how you do that? How do you get kids interested in agriculture as a career?

Webber 03:39: A lot of times, I think it really does just come down to exposure. Agriculture is STEM; it is everything science, technology, engineering, and math to make it come to life, to get it from seed to the store, it takes all of those things. And so, I think it's really just about exposure to, for me personally, is really identifying what people want to do, like, how do you want to change the world. And if you'd like, to be a doctor, I wanted to be a psychologist, or whatever is like, “did you know I can do this and agriculture and do this and this and this.”

So, I think a lot of times, it’s just really about connecting the dots and then talking about the opportunities that are there once you connect the dots. And that's what MANRRS does; not only do we expose the students to it to get them excited about what they can do in agriculture, but then we connect them to the program and into the universities and to the professional network. So, you can be a member for life with MANRRS. It's not just a collegiate organization or just a high school organization. It's an organization that stays with you throughout your entire career. So, it becomes a family, it becomes a community, or a self-nurturing community and provides that complete pathway forward. So, from exposure to guiding them through the majors, to the right universities, to the internships, to hopefully a full-time career opportunity at the end.

Kilger 05:11: Yeah, that's a great point. Many people think of agriculture, and they think of producers, farmers. But there are a lot of really highly scientific, driven jobs in agriculture. So that's really great to hear that you're out there, getting that information out. So, diversity in agriculture isn't … Agriculture is not known as the most diverse of industries. It's just not. But I truly believe it's really important to get different viewpoints out there. So, can you kind of give some of the benefits of getting people with different life experiences and choices? Really the advantage of bringing them in?

Webber 05:56: Yeah, I think one of the things that I value about diversity is that having multiple perspectives allows you to think through a resolution. If my team all came from the same place or just had homogenous viewpoints, we were all going to approach the problem typically the same way. There could be some diversity of thought, but because we probably had similar experiences and backgrounds, we're probably going to approach the problem similarly. And so, having multiple perspectives and experiences pointing to an idea is almost like pressure testing; someone is going to poke holes in it because they are approaching it from an experience that you've never experienced before. And so, you can't discount what anybody brings to the table.

We're all diverse, you know, whether we're racially diverse or gender diverse or persons with different abilities. So, whatever that intersectionality may be, we're all diverse. But when you think of it that way, the more diverse you get, then, of course, the more you're prepared; you thought through multiple situations so that your solution is the best because you’ve had input from this side, and this side and this side. And guess what? You’re still passing the test. And so, if you only had one checkout point, how sure are you that your approach is the best if you haven't had a fully vetted one?

Kilger 07:35: Yeah, no, it's true. Everyone has, you know, their own experience. It’s important to just bring us all together, right? Coming up with solutions.

Webber 07:46: And also, with that, if you're thinking about what the world consists of and who makes up the world, the world is diverse. So how do you plan to appeal to different people if you don't have those people’s insights into what you need to do?

Kilger 08:06: Yeah, and that seems especially true in agriculture, where the people that are still in agriculture tend to have grown up in agriculture and don't seem to be able to understand, you know, viewpoints coming from outside the industry, which is now most people, right?

Webber 08:23: Now it’s most people, so now they're the new minority. More people have not come from where they do, so they're approaching things totally differently, and it's making them feel very uncomfortable. Because it's challenging everything that they know it always to be.

Kilger 08:40: Exactly. You have partnerships with the NGFA and other companies. Tell me a little bit about what your partnerships are like. What do companies give you? And what do you what do MANRRS tend to get back?

Webber 08:52: Like most nonprofits, of course, we live and die based off our donors and supporters of the organization. But we are very relationship-driven, of course. The work of diversity, I like to say, aside from us just doing great work and leadership and career development, really having a focus on minoritized and underrepresented individuals just puts another level of difficulty on what you're doing. And so, companies have to be really committed to diversity and inclusion in the career and leadership development of young people and new voices and new ways of thinking. And so, I think that's, that's first and foremost.

Also, supporting students in getting to the next level. So that's career exposure. So, they show they have sponsored students to different industry conferences and events that may be going on. So, I think the recipients of the scholarship with NGFA actually attended their annual conference this past spring as guests of the foundation. And so showing up to career events, talking about careers in your industry, and offering internships to students’ scholarships, is another way. So, it really is just about networking, career development and exposure, and then scholarship to support those students to ensure that they have their needs met and that they can continue on their academic journey.

Kilger 10:24: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, especially because, for whatever reason, some people get uncomfortable about, you know, the diversity talk. And when I say some people, I mean, you know, white dudes like me. But the idea that you're taking students, right, and you're giving them the training and the resources they need, ultimately, to be your future, your future leaders, which seems so important. Students of all types need, should have that kind of training and background when it comes to agriculture.

Webber 10:55: I understand the white dude’s perspective because a lot of times, they're made out to feel like the villain; the conversation is about everybody but them. So, I totally feel that, and I get that. And so, our approach is always trying to figure out a way to bring them along because the needle doesn't move unless the white dudes buy-in. It's just what it is. We need everybody. And they’re right. They are diverse, too.

So, of looking around the room, it's a bunch of white dudes, somewhere in the back of your mind should say, well, we need some of this, or we need some of this or that or that we need some more voices and perspectives. So, something should click. And if it doesn't, that's when you know that you have to be intentional because there are some biases that we all carry that we now need to dig deeper and explore. It’s not just by the circumstance that everybody in the room is a white dude. We’re all great and, you know, wonderful, but statistically speaking, they’re disproportionately represented everywhere you go. And so, we just have to sometimes think of the when in the whys, and it makes people uncomfortable. And I always say, if we're talking about, we want more diversity, and we more we want more people at the table, then who's gonna get up? It sounds great until someone says, “I'm gonna need your chair, sir.” Then it feels like something is being taken away from you.

Kilger 12:24: Yeah, and it's not that way, especially in agriculture, where all of our companies are so desperate for new blood, new people come in to fulfill these positions, or people are retiring, and no one is coming in. It really shouldn't be looked at by anybody taking anyone's space, right? We're just; we’re making a more diverse workforce for the future.

Webber 12:45: It's more sustainable. Like if that's what the whole purpose of sustainability is, we're trying to keep things around for the long haul. And so, we want companies to survive this next cycle, this next generation, then we're going to have to embrace those diverse voices because that's what the new workforce looks like. It's gonna be by force or by choice, but it's gonna happen.

Kilger 13:11: They say Gen Z, the one coming up, was the most diverse generation.

Webber 13:16: Exactly. So, the numbers don't lie.

Kilger 13:20: So say you're at a company and you're like, we really need a branch out and start working on our diversity. Do you have any tips for people or companies that kind of want to start but don't really know where to?

Webber 13:32: Yeah, I think there's there definitely some 123 steps that you can do. I think the first thing that I will always caution any organization, is to assess its capacity for diversity. So, meaning, it is great that our senior leadership team thinks diversity is great, but how do we socialize this throughout the organization so that when we start outreaching out to diverse communities, so when they come in, they feel welcomed? Know our practices aren't unintentionally creating barriers for people. And so, I think a lot of times. I just will caution organizations to make sure that they've done the work internally first.

It's always great to just pay a speaker to come in. Or think how we can change our website? How can we send our message out to more diverse people? But we oftentimes don't ever examine, like, why are we diverse in the first place. And so that takes us maybe doing some climate surveys and audits internally to kind of just get an assessment of what people think about diversity here. Maybe there are some training, we need to do, some unconscious bias training. Or thinking about how do we recruit from diverse communities? I definitely think everyone needs training because it's changing; language is changing. You know the context of language. The introduction of pronouns, we weren't even talking about that when we were talking about diversity, even 5-10 years ago. And so you, you have to consistently champion it. How do you get there? You never get there because you're always learning how to make people feel valued and respected. And there can't be anything wrong with that if you're intentionally trying to figure out how to include more people and make everyone feel valued and respected.

Kilger 15:31: Yeah, it's, it's a good point. Well, it's, it's that we want it to be easy, right? We want to. We want to flip a switch and like, oh, here, we did it. Now we can be diverse and stuff.

Webber 15:43: It challenges you individually because it's not something that you can just do nine to five. Like, if you're not really a person that's a proponent of diversity and inclusion. You can't fake it. That’s why I think it hasn't moved a lot. Because it really challenges a lot of people personally on what they value, what they believe and how they show up.

Kilger 16:10: Yeah, that another really good point. It's, it's always weird because any conversation about diversity, well, it should make you think right, should make you think about your own life and your own organization and how they do the things they do so if a company wants to get involved with MANRRS, which I personally would encourage them to do because you guys seem to be doing really great work. How do they go about that?

Webber 16:39: Definitely. So, we have a way of they can contact the National Office, which our headquarters is here in Atlanta, Georgia, and I'm COO over that office. And it just starts with the conversation; just want to reach out to the MANRRS and inquire about what your objectives are for partnering with MANRRS. So, it could be recruitment, or it could be working with high school students for career exposure. So just us learning more about the needs of the partner. And then, from there, designing a partnership package that really meets their objectives so that we both know what success looks like at the end of the year.

Kilger 17:14: Yeah, that's, I mean, that sounds good. But really, that's, that's the thing, too, right? It's, you guys do so much recruitment, which is great, especially in an environment where everyone in agriculture is like, hey, we can't find employees. Well, they're there. They’re just maybe not the exact spot where you thought they were going to be.

Webber 17:34: And it's also, I think, that's also part of where examining some of our recruiting strategies, a lot of organizations go to the same schools and have the same investors they reach out to, and so they approach everyone the same. You can't approach a small school in Alabama the same way you approach Purdue. It’s like two different beasts in terms of resources, staff, school structure, etc., etc. Understanding those differences matters. And also, having those relationships on the campus matter, too, because it's another thing when being an organization and being an ag, and you had invested in Purdue when you came from Purdue, and everyone on your staff went Purdue, so Purdue may know who you are. But if you've never been to Alabama A&M University, and you show up on campus for the first time, and no one comes to your booth, it can't be that those students aren't interested in agriculture; it’s just you know, we have to be more intentional about realizing how long we've invested in showing up at some of these institutions. And how far of a divide that is on where, to your point, where we haven't shown up. It's about looking at recruiting in a different way and building those relationships where we traditionally haven't had relationships before. It's gonna take a couple of years to see that investment, that return on investment. So I always tell organizations it's a marathon and not a sprint. You may commit whatever amount of money and may not get your internship until year two or three, but it takes that brand awareness and relationship and trust building in order for you to get there.

Kilger 19:25: Yeah, it’s about building awareness, right? I always see people like investing a lot in FFA, and FFA is great, but it also usually requires you to be from an agricultural background to be in that organization. And as someone who wasn't, I mean, there are lots of good candidates out there that just haven't had that same experience. Those are all the questions I have for you. If I missed anything important, is there anything you'd like to say?

Webber 19:54: No, I think it was a great conversation and thank you so much for the opportunity.

Kilger 20:00: Yeah, any time, I've gone into a kind of a deep dive on your organization. So, I hope that we can continue to have partnerships and continue to get your word out to our industry, which is it's important and like you said, it's, it's the future, so we might as well start working on it now, right?

Webber 20:20: Don't wait till we get there.

Kilger 20:23: Thank you so much. It was great talking to you. Reach out anytime, and I hope to speak to you soon.

Webber 20:29 Okay, take care, you too. Bye by.

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