I recently had the privilege of attending the American Farm Bureau Annual Meeting held in sunny Orlando, Florida. If you have never attended the AFBF Annual Meeting, you need to add it to your bucket list. Workshops led by experts, a huge trade show area and the opportunity to network with leaders from across the country are only a few of the reasons to attend. The convention culminates with a final general session which features the YF&A award winners and a big name keynote speaker – which is where my run in with the “Shark with a Heart” began.
This year’s “big name” speaker was Barbara Corcoran, a real estate mogul from New York City. She is best known for her role as a “shark” on the show “Shark Tank.” If you are not familiar with the premise of the show, here is the short version… successful entrepreneurs critique and potentially buy-in to aspiring entrepreneurial businesses. The “sharks” are usually aggressive, demanding and show very little tolerance for business strategies that lack precision, detail and a guaranteed pay-out.
Now, as farmers and agriculturists, we run businesses and operations that are dictated by things like the weather and ever changing government regulations. There is rarely an instance in which our businesses go according to carefully laid out plans. So, needless to say, I was more than intrigued to see what message Ms. Corcoran was going to share that was going to truly strike a chord with a room full of farmers and ranchers.
As the lights dimmed in the convention hall and the session got under way, Barbara was introduced with a dynamic video highlighting her career successes, books and of course, her role on the “Shark Tank”. When the video finished, on to the stage walked a petite woman dressed in a bright yellow dress – one thing was very clear, this woman knew how to make an entrance. The first thing that she said was “I don’t know much about agriculture” – off to a real great start, right? She shared that her image of agriculture was that of big, cold corporations that operated factory-like facilities, with the bottom line trumping animal care. She went to say, that she did some research on her audience. She was truly surprised to learn that 95% of American farms are owned by families and that her perception of agriculture was wrong.
As she began her thirty minute message, she shared her story of struggle to the top in a career in real estate. She began with a $1,000 loan and the belief that hard work and her imagination and creativity would yield success.
As Barbara shared her story, and I found a piece that really resonated with me. As a struggling real estate agent in New York City, she faced an uphill battle with the image of real estate agents in New York City. At that time, realtors had a very bad image. The public perceived them as cheats, money fiends and untrustworthy. Ms. Corcoran quickly realized that she needed to do something about this image, but what? She needed the image of real estate agents to get better, but how? That is when she began “The Corcoran Report” – a note to every single writer at the New York Times that briefly educated the reporters on the current real estate market in New York City. As she found success with educating the media on her industry, she began to not only build connections with newspapers, television and media, she became recognized as the expert in her field of real estate. No one did this for her; only she had the power to change the public perception of her industry from that of a negative perception to a positive reality.
She proceeded to share that as she began her role on “Shark Tank” her image was once again unfairly under attack. The show’s producers wanted the sharks to be perceived as aggressive, cut throat and cold. This was not the image that she wanted millions of Americans to perceive Barbara Corcoran as. Once again, she set to the task of rebuilding an image, only this time it was truly personal. She succeeded in slowly, and with small actions, to change her image to that of “the Shark with a Heart.” She has found peace with her image as a “shark” by taking control, yet again.
It got me to thinking, as farmers, we find ourselves in a very similar situation. The image of our industry is being attacked by those who are uneducated about agricultural practices. This should be no surprise due to the fact that only two percent of the population is directly involved in production agriculture. We have let our good image, our great brand, and established role as the experts come under the control to be of third parties such as the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Why is this happening? When is it going to change? What have we done to deserve this? The truth is, that just like that New York Real Estate Agent, only we have the power change the perception of agriculture. No one is going to do it for us – not our neighbors, not the next generation, it must be us, and it must be now.
As I focused back on the speaker, I couldn’t help but think, “Barbara Corcoran had the New York Times, but how and where do I even begin to rebuild our agriculture brand?”
As the session came to a close, we filed out of the convention hall and began our trek back to the hotel. As we chatted about the awards, and Barbara Corcoran’s story, our footsteps led us to cross paths with the Barbara Corcoran.
She was quickly headed out the door to what I am sure was a tight connection. Before I could rationalize what I was doing, I found myself chasing after her like the paparazzi. As I caught up to the entourage, I boldly asked the Barbara Corcoran if I could take a selfie with her. I was expecting her assistant to shoe me off, but to my surprise, Barbara said, “Walk with me.”
I had mere seconds to thank her for researching her audience and finding a way to connect her New York entrepreneurial experience with that of farmers and ranchers that fill rural communities across the country. I shared the impact that her message of image had made with me and how it mirrored that of the image crisis that farmers in our country are currently facing. She thanked me for my words, paused for a moment, and instructed me on how to take a great selfie. She thanked me before she was quickly hustled into a meeting room. Just as quickly as I had begun my walk with her, it had come to an end.
Though not a great amount of time was shared – time was shared. A woman who is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, took time to greet me, an ordinary fan, and oblige a request for a picture. In just a few short moments, Barbara Corcoran proved to me, a mere viewer of her show, that she was indeed a “shark with a heart.” Her actions not only supported her words, but it solidified her genuine interest in people; her consumers.
Reflecting on his chance encounter has forced me to really think about how I treat those people that support me. Do I freely give of my time, even if I don’t have very much to spare? Do I open myself up for questions? Do I allow myself the opportunity to learn and grow from those around me, even if they are a complete stranger?
As Farm Bureau members, we task ourselves with being a “Voice for Agriculture”. Should we not also be the eyes and ears? My thirty-second meeting with “the Shark with a Heart” reminded me of the value of taking time to listen to consumer concerns and of the importance of observing what is happening around me. I might very well be missing opportunities to build our agriculture brand and tell our story, my story of how food is grown and raised on our Wisconsin farms.
Our days are often filled with planned, and often not, unplanned chaos. Our minds are filled with the “what’s next” and it is easy to miss the small opportunities to share our agriculture story, and build our brand with consumers.
Barbara Corcoran may be a New York City real estate mogul, but she employed some very simplistic strategies to make it big. Take control of your brand – tell your story, educate those around you on what you do and why you do it. You do not need to be an expert or social media savvy to change the image of agriculture. It might just be as simple as taking 30 seconds out of your busy schedule to share your story and share your passion for feeding people and caring for your land and animals in a way that is more intimate than any blog, post or Tweet could ever capture. It may just change in just the tiniest way, the image of agriculture and show that you are the farmer with a heart.