Why investing in women in agriculture makes sense

A Canadian woman aims to create new routes to venture capital for agriculture and female startups

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Mentorship, capital venture funding and technology are three key areas that have shaped Alison Sunstrum’s life.

The CNSRV-X (Conserve-X) founder and CEO shared some of her insights into building ethical agriculture based businesses during the recent virtual Advancing Women in Agriculture conference .

Why it matters: Mentorship can be critical for new businesspeople in order to help them avoid mistakes already experienced by others.

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“I’m very passionate about agriculture, I’m passionate the recent virtual Advancing women in STEM and a number of different areas,” said Sunstrum, adding her company is focused on investing in research and development of emerging solutions in agriculture.

Sunstrum started out her career as an accountant, but in the mid-1980s she branched out into technology and was fortunate enough to find a mentor, Joe Howard, who taught her how to run a successful company.

“He basically helped me get me to where I am today. He gave me a true leg-up in terms of teaching me how to run a company and how to succeed,” she said.

Sunstrum, who developed one of the first electronic data-exchanges, invested in a female-driven start-up for livestock industry data collection operation being run out of a garage in Airdrie, Alberta, called GrowSafe.

She not only invested in the company, she joined it and spent the next two decades growing its customer base with early adopters who were invested in changing the status quo and developing programs around genetics.

“A good part of the research and development related to feed efficiency in livestock occurred in Alberta,” she said. “We had some phenomenal programs with colleges, Olds College, Lakeland College, University of Alberta, University of Calgary and it spread to universities all over the world.”

Sunstrum said after nearly two decades of scrabbling for money and cash flow the company secured capital investment funding in order to reach its full potential.

Feeling like it was time for a change and armed with the knowledge of how difficult it is to secure venture capital, especially for female-led businesses, Sunstrum struck out on her own and started a new company.

She invested in extending her technology education and began a deep dive into machine learning and block chain specialization at MIT.

“It’s awesome for us to continue skilling-up. If women want to get ahead they have to be skilled, they have to be the best of their game and they generally are,” she said.

The entrepreneurial environment at MIT taught her the mechanics behind being an entrepreneur and revealed a truth about herself.

“All the things that pissed me off about being a female entrepreneur kind of drilled down to funding,” she said.

Every woman has the potential to drive capacity within agricultural but they account for only 12 per cent of venture capital funding and Sunstrum wants to change that.

She’s a venture mentor and an active member of the investment committee of The51 which looks for female founders, but she wants to push the envelope further.

She wants people to invest in Canada and double down on agricultural tech, alternative proteins and traditional animal agriculture in hand with diversity and inclusion.

“If we don’t change how we look at equality in our country, and look at equality globally, we are not going to build a better society,” she said.

In North America, a majority of farmers are men but in the developing worlds the farmers are women.

Additionally Sunstrum said the Canadian financing ecosystem is broke but there are a lot of champions and mentors who want to participate in fixing it.

To that end, Sunstrum helped launch an agriculture based Creative Destruction Program (CDP), which links accelerators with actual mentors and universities. It provides legal support, IP creation support and long-term mentorship over a year.

“If I had had a mentor in agriculture like I had with Joe Howard back in the day of tech, I thought I could have done a lot different,” she said. “If I had the capacity, if I could hire the engineers, if I could hire the specialists, I could have done much better.”

To date Sunstrum said the ag CDP has collected a number of impressive mentors and she’s optimistic that it will assist burgeoning agriculture companies. It already has eight labs worldwide, each with at least one connection to a business school.

Another point of frustration in the sector is the lack of funding for research and development as well as financing programs related to agriculture.

Sunstrum said research scientists are forced to spend an inordinate amount of time to secure funding for their projects, and there needs to be solid funding support for universities to facilitate that fact.

The Netherlands is the second largest exporter of agriculture or agri-business products behind the United States.

“That’s a country that is the size of Banff,” Sunstrum said. “Why is Canada not the greatest powerhouse of agriculture?”

About the author

Reporter

Diana Martin

Diana Martin has spent more than two decades in the media sector, first as a photojournalist and then evolving into a multi-media journalist. Five years ago she left mainstream media and brought her skills to the agriculture sector. She owns a small farm in Amaranth, Ont.

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