Sep 16 2012
AESC: On behalf of the AESC and BlueSteps, thank you for taking the time to answer our questions today. First of all, can you outline the steps that led you to your first board seat and where you are today?
Sara Faivre-Davis: I was appointed to the board of Farmer Mac (the Federal Agricultural Mortgage Corporation) by President Obama. I had submitted my qualifications to the White House as willing to serve in the administration through Change.gov when Obama was elected. The White House was looking for diversity on a number of levels for this position; not only gender, but also agricultural sector diversity and business background diversity. I have started and served as an executive of two biotech start-ups, then started and ran a pastured beef business. With a degree in agricultural business, as well as biotechnology, and having been an executive member of the start-up boards, I must have provided them with the requisite diversity without sacrificing business qualifications.
AESC: What do you enjoy most about serving on a board?
Sara Faivre-Davis: The intellectual challenges of learning a new business and profession are very satisfying. However, the most enjoyable part of the job is interfacing with my fellow board members, who are people of high values and intelligence.
AESC: What are the greatest challenges that come with serving on a board?
Sara Faivre-Davis: Coming from a biotech and agricultural business background, the greatest challenge has been to get up to speed with the business of banking and finance. On a personal level, learning to trust and value my viewpoint and to speak up in board meetings (where I am the only woman on a 15-member board) has been both a challenge and a rewarding experience.
AESC: EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding has been quoted widely recently with her comment that there are 7,000 “board ready” women in Europe i.e. it is not a question of supply. Do you agree with this globally or do you think it is a “demand” issue as well.
Sara Faivre-Davis: I believe demand is driving the bus at the moment. There is a bit of chicken-and-egg issue, however, until more companies will place a woman in her first board position, there will be a dearth of women who have prior board experience.
AESC: Diversity has been on the corporate agenda for many years now and yet as one example of diversity we still see only a small percentage of women on today’s corporate boards? Why do you feel that this is the case?
Sara Faivre-Davis: At its most basic level, I think it comes down to a comfort issue. Boards are often rather intimate groups. Members need to trust and rely on each other. At some level, we all tend to be most comfortable with people who are like us. I saw a statement by a search firm that they have no trouble supplying “diversity candidates” in the mix of finalists for board positions, but almost invariably, the candidate who is most like the existing board members is who is selected.
AESC: Why does gender diversity in the boardroom matter?
Sara Faivre-Davis: Two reasons: First, it is critical to have different experiences, perspectives and personalities in the boardroom to facilitate adaptability and a broad base for evaluating and directing the company. My favorite Darwinian tenet is that the organism most adaptable to change is fittest to survive. Secondly, a board that more closely resembles its shareholder base should be better able to represent shareholders’ interests.
AESC: How do you feel about quotas and legislated measures adopted by some nations to increase women on boards? Is there a model you feel is more effective?
Sara Faivre-Davis: Regulatory measures to increase women on boards can do more harm than good. Regulations can help to get the ball rolling, but it leaves the regulated class with a taint of being there only because of their class status. Grass-roots (i.e. shareholder-driven) mandates are more effective. Education, research and time-proven examples are what will ultimately drive more gender-equity in the boardroom.
AESC: How have women’s leadership roles evolved in the past couple of decades and what challenges remain?
Sara Faivre-Davis: In executive and management roles, I believe we are seeing faster evolution than in the boardroom. Gender is no longer a primary issue in candidate selection, in most business sectors. The challenge remains on a more subtle level; women succeeding in getting to management and executive levels on their own terms and not by changing to fit into the existing system.
AESC: What can organizations do to prepare high-achieving women in their companies for senior roles and board positions?
Sara Faivre-Davis: Encourage continuing education for executive and board-type responsibilities in particular. Mentoring is also an excellent tool.
AESC: What can female candidates who are interested in serving on a corporate board do to increase their visibility? What skills do they need to cultivate to obtain a board seat?
Sara Faivre-Davis: Increase visibility by networking at board-oriented events (such as through NACD or other professional programs). Executive education or certification programs can document the business skills needed. On a personal skill level, it is important to be visible.
AESC: For women seeking board seats, how important would you say is having a career plan? When should that career plan begin?
Sara Faivre-Davis: More important that a specific A-B-C career plan is to be very clear on your values and priorities. I believe more in general career goals than say, “I want to be on the board of a public company in XXX business sector by 2014”. Develop your skills, network and interact, stay open to new information and opportunities. If you can envision the shape of your future in terms of your values and priorities without tying yourself to specifics, the right opportunities will present themselves.
AESC: Is there any advice you can give to women who want to advance as leaders? Any key points to focus on?
Sara Faivre-Davis: Don’t be afraid to dream big. Build faith in yourself first by being honest about your own limitations and then do something about them. If you know yourself and believe in yourself, you’ve got a base from which to grow without compromising who you are.
About Sara Faivre-Davis
Dr. Sara L. Faivre-Davis was appointed by President Obama to the Board of Directors of the Federal Agricultural Mortgage Corporation (Farmer Mac) in 2010. She is a member of the Audit and Compensation Committees and chairs the Marketing Committee. Dr. Faivre-Davis co-founded two private equity agricultural biotech companies (GenomicFX and ViaGen, Inc.) serving in various capacities including President, Chief Scientific Officer, VP of Bioinformatics and VP of Swine Business Development.
Dr. Faivre-Davis was one of the first scientist to join the USDA’s Bovine Genome Project and managed a laboratory for the Human Genome Project at the University of Iowa. Her academic career also includes teaching and research programs as a faculty member of the University of Illinois and Texas A&M University. She holds a BS in Agricultural Business and Animal Science from Iowa State, and a Ph.D. in Genetics from Texas A&M.
Dr. Faivre-Davis is currently co-owner and managing partner of Wild Type Ranch in Central Texas. Are you interested in being considered for a board of directors position?
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