Winner of the first-ever Women's Catalyst Award by Center of Growing Talent
Gray was the first to accept the award that honors one leader annually from the fresh produce and floral industry who is cultivating women’s potential
On October 20th, 2018, I had the great honour and delight to accept the first-ever Women’s Catalyst Award, presented by the Center for Growing Talent by PMA. I owe huge thanks to Don Goodwin from Golden Sun Marketing and Kristen Reid from Mixtec Group for the nomination — receiving this award was a humbling moment for me, and really got me thinking about my life in this industry.
This award means a lot for me, for a number of reasons. First, I love the very WORD “catalyst.” A catalyst incites activity and prompts change, and it spurs on action. When I think about my career alongside the word “catalyst,” it brings to mind the experiences I’ve had over the years, the people who have supported me along the way, and the opportunities I’ve had to make an impact on the industry.
One of the first times I truly felt like a catalyst was when I received a different award, back in 1984. I was working at Sunkist, and had been there since about 1979. Back then it was definitely a male dominated industry, but I had this amazing manager, Mark Tompkins, who stuck his neck out to support and really mentor me.
In 1984, I was the first—and only—woman ever to be nominated for the company’s “Man of the Year Award.” As I understand it, Mark, along with some other great mentors of mine — Larry Beston and Russ Hanlin — had a few choices: give the award to one of the men nominated and not worry about it; change the name of the award to “Person of the Year;” or reinvent the award and make it inclusive to both genders. That’s exactly what they did, and I’m proud to say I was the first ever recipient of the “President’s Award for Marketing Excellence.” I can’t thank Mark, Larry and Russ enough for giving me the space and the opportunity to be a catalyst for change so early on in my career
My next “catalyst” moment came when I worked with Robert Autenreith at The Autenreith Company, who gave me some incredible opportunities. During my time there, I proved to myself and the industry that a woman CAN do business in Japan and Southeast Asia—something that was fairly rare at the time. I remember walking through a warehouse and one of the workers looked at me and told me that I “worked like a man.” It was a funny moment, because back in those days we did most of our business by phone or fax—there was no Skype or FaceTime—and because of my deep voice and my non-gender specific name, many of our Japanese and Asian customers assumed I was a man. When I was planning my first trip over, we got lots of faxes saying things like, “We are so excited to welcome Mr. Gray…” I remember thinking “oh, oh…I’d better let them know before I arrive!”
I then worked for a group of catalysts in the 1990s, when I was lucky enough to join Frieda's Inc. Frieda's is a specialty produce company that was founded, owned and operated since 1962 by smart, caring, and inspirational business owners, who happened to be women. Frieda Caplan, Karen Caplan and Jackie Caplan-Wiggens blazed many trails on their own and always inspired me to do the same.
Fred LoBue and the board at the Central California Orange Growers Cooperative were the next catalysts in my life, as they brought me on as President—my first time with that job title. David Smith at BC Hot House Foods soon followed, and forever seared into my brain the mantra: “know thy numbers.”
The opportunity to work with Alistair Petrie, Jeff Wesley and Tony Gibbs was the next catalyst in my life. These three brought me "down under" as General Manager of Enza, part of the Turners and Growers group. There’s nothing like being 12,000 miles away from home and driving on the "wrong side of the road" to scare you into excellence. It’s funny how we do some of our best work while terrified.
And it was John Anderson at Oppy who offered me another catalyst moment. He brought me back to North America and afforded me the opportunity to once again work with some truly marvelous teammates.
Two more catalysts in my life—Craig Stauffer and Guy Kisling, the founders of Vanguard International—taught me that, sometimes, you can return home. I worked with these two in 1999 and 2000, and they brought me back into the roster of Vanguardians in 2015 on a consulting basis. They have allowed and continue to allow me to feel very much a part of their team, and to participate at the highest levels in their company’s marketing, communications and strategy.
Brenda Thomas at Orchard View Farms let me play the part of catalyst and invited me to be an “outside director” on their Board in 2012. And Don Goodwin, who supported me in my journey of becoming a “accidental consultant” back in 2012, convinced me that I could be a catalyst for other companies, and I’ve been doing it ever since. Dawn Gray Global might not be the success it is today without his push.
Looking back at all of these names, I realize that the story of my career reads a bit like a character list from War and Peace, but I truly owe each of these people my deepest gratitude. They’ve shown me the power of being a catalyst and given me the opportunity to be one for my own career.
If being a catalyst means bringing action and change, for me it also means bringing humanity to everything you do. Whether this is as simple as saying good morning to everyone—not just the people on your team, or handing out apple slices when everyone’s having their 3:00pm sugar crash, or keeping those farmers and producers in mind when you’re making business decisions—it’s about trusting yourself, believing in yourself, and never turning your back on who you are.
I’ve had people ask me whether I ever felt like being a woman in this industry meant that I had to overcome barriers, and here’s what I can tell you about that: Absolutely not. In fact, I’ve always found it to be a great advantage. Being a woman in a boardroom or in a warehouse meant that I was very visible. So visible, in fact, that I often got recognition that a male counterpart may not have received. I also think that I often got through doors because of the “curiosity factor.”
I saw it then, and I see it now as a great advantage if you approach it with the right attitude, the right confidence, and have the receipts to back up what you’re saying, if you know what I mean.
I’ve been so fortunate to be able to live and work in countries around the globe over my 40 plus years in the fresh produce industry, and I wouldn’t trade a minute of it. It's a fast paced, ever changing, often humbling industry but it is never dull. I’ve always said that the fresh produce industry is not a career, it’s a disease. And once you contract it...well, just enjoy it.
I can’t wait to see what the next generation of catalysts will do. I hope our paths cross and we can tackle the next challenges in this industry together. I’d love to add you to my cast of characters.