Empowering Women

Words: Mitch Lies
photos: bylaurastewart.com

Four years ago, Karla Chambers, co-owner of Stahlbush Island Farms, noticed some of the young women she hired in management were not speaking up in meetings.

“They are just very bright minds,” Chambers says, “but they would typically sit in the back of the room or wait to be called on before they would voice their opinion or offer influence in a meeting.”

Chambers, who has long hired women in leadership roles and mentored young women on a one-on-one basis, decided to start a formal mentoring program for women at the Corvallis, Oregon, company. Today, eight young women participate in the program, including an environmental engineer, a chemical engineer, a soil scientist, an agribusiness salesperson and other professionals.

“One of the reasons I run this mentoring program is I want to empower them early in their career to be able to stand up and participate,” Chambers says. “I want them as equals at the table, not waiting to be called on.”

“We hired them because we saw that potential,” she says, “and I want to make sure they see that potential in themselves.”

Stahlbush Island Farms deliberately seeks out diversity for its management team, Chambers says, and over half of the company’s managers are women.

“I think bringing that diversity at the top of this organization has been key to our growth since day one,” Chambers says. “Women have predominately been the decision makers on food purchases throughout my career, and we want to be sure that our management team, and our organization really reflects that so you look a lot like your customer and you think a lot like your customer.”

“I feel that way with diversity in general,” Chambers says. “I think the more diverse we are, the more languages we speak, the more balanced we are, the richer we are in really meeting the needs of our customers.”

Chambers, who, with her husband, Bill Chambers, have built one of the most successful farm and food processing companies in Oregon, says she and Bill grew up around successful women.

Bill’s mother, Carolyn Chambers, was a successful business woman, says Chambers, who grew up on a wheat farm in Oregon’s Sherman County that continues

operating today. Chambers described her grandmother (Mildred von Borstel) as an astute business woman.

“There were all these German farmers that I grew up with that settled up there over 130 years ago, and today they are all in business, growing soft white wheat, which is a low-margin business, but they have survived because of good business skills and a lot of strong women that came with those equations,” Chambers says.

Today, all four of the Chambers’ children, including daughters Ellen Johnson and Katie Chambers, work in managerial positions for the company and are expected to take over the company when Bill and Karla retire.

Katie believes the siblings are well positioned to take over when that day arrives.

“Our education began very early on,” Katie says. “Every dinner, we would sit down at the table and the conversation wasn’t about, ‘What did your teacher say today?’ We heard who was hired today,

who was fired and why. We heard about the business every night at dinner, and we listened, and it was high level economics and business every night as our parent

s would talk about what new project they should take on, what new building they should build, what new piece of acreage they should invest in and why.”

“I think that is where the mentoring started for us,” Katie says.

Karla, who holds a master’s degree in agricultural economics and finance and who served 16 years on the Federal Reserve Board, including two terms on the Federal Reserve Board of San Francisco under Board President and CEO Janet Yellen, believes educating the next generation and empowering them to make good decisions is what will keep Stahlbush Island Farms successful well into the future.

“When Bill and I were growing this business, we didn’t have someone saying, ‘You can’t do this, and you can’t do that,’” Chambers says. “And so, for the next thirty years, I don’t want a leash on my children in terms of where this business needs to go.”

“And I feel they have to learn the whole business, not just the operating part of the business, but the banking, the estate planning, everything,” Chambers says. “And the earlier they learn that, the stronger they will be as leaders.”