When Denise Cahill graduated from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, in 1985 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Dairy Science, women with leadership roles in AgriBusiness were fairly rare. Today she’s Executive Vice President and Director of Food and Agribusiness Industry Advisors for Wells Fargo — and she’s rarely the only woman in the room. We asked her about the changes she’s experienced.
Q: How did you get your start in agriculture?
Cahill: I grew up working on my grandfather’s dairy farm. My after-school and summer jobs were things like changing irrigation pipes, feeding calves, hauling hay, harvesting potatoes and weeding rutabagas. I was in 4-H (a STEM program for youth), and we were able to show at county and state fairs. Everything was agriculture.
Q: So your family encouraged you to go into farming?
Cahill: Absolutely not. I remember running into my Grandfather after completing chores. Apparently he was impressed by the quality of my work because he said, “Too bad you’re not a boy. You’d make a good dairy farmer.”
When I was applying to college, my uncle who taught Agriculture at the local community college told me I should definitely do something, anything, else. I considered architecture but I didn’t like the drafting courses I took. So, against my uncle’s guidance, I ended up studying Dairy Science at Cal Poly. That degree landed me my first job in the Dairy Lending Group of a large bank.
Q: Did you have a mentor or role model?
Cahill: There was a woman who was on the California Milk Advisory Board who was very outspoken and influential. I had an opportunity to meet her a few times and was so impressed with how she wasn’t afraid to speak up when she was the only woman in the room. There weren’t many women senior leaders involved in ag lending at the bank to serve as mentors. I was constantly told I needed to diversify out of agriculture to become a better-rounded leader. At that time, I was among few women in the industry.
Q: What about industry peers?
Cahill: Wells Fargo has been sponsor of the annual Women in Agriculture conference for several years. When I find myself sitting in a room with 700 women representing agribusinesses from across the nation, I’m struck by how much the business has changed. I can assure you, we didn’t have that when I was starting out.
Today there’s Women in Agriculture, Women of the Vine, and other national and local groups – with more being started. Women are definitely connecting and networking in a way that wasn’t possible back then.
Q: Did you encounter challenges because of your gender?
Cahill: There was one instance that was notable. We had a dairyman who was a difficult customer at best. He’d decided he wanted a new Relationship Manager. His current RM and the managers were all talking about who they were going to assign — and never considered me. Now part of that might have been because of my youth and inexperience and part because the customer had another female RM he hadn’t liked. Yet my name never even came up.
So everyone, including me, was shocked when the customer walked in and said, “I know who I want. My son says Denise does a good job.” Apparently his son, Bob, had liked the work I was doing for him. He remained a customer for many, many years and remained just as difficult as he’d always been, showing no favoritism for a male vs female RM.
Q: So, in your case, gender hasn’t been a disadvantage?
Cahill: When women were relatively rare, it might have been an advantage. When you’re different, you’re memorable. In addition, I just worked as hard I could, sometimes harder than anyone else, to be the best. Not the best woman but the best at what I’m doing.
Q: Any regrets?
Cahill: Sometimes I wish my grandfather could have lived to see me as a partner in a dairy farm, which I was for five years, but also where I am today, firmly entrenched in the ag world. I think he’d have been proud. Extremely surprised but very proud.
Q: What advice would you offer to other women interested in pursuing agriculture?
Cahill: Follow your passion – you spend one half of your waking hours at work, so do something you love with people you like and respect. Know your strengths and use them. Don’t play the gender card – differentiate yourself by being the best instead. Be confident in your abilities, know your stuff, work hard (and smart), and you’ll succeed. Develop a support system around you (your own board of directors) for encouragement when times are tough, when you need a different perspective, or even just when you need someone to make you laugh on a tough day.