Aspire to Grow 2019

Cultivating Tomorrow’s Leaders: Diversity and Innovation in Food and Agriculture

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There are more than 21 million jobs associated with food and agriculture in the U.S., and related industries contribute nearly a trillion dollars to the nation’s GDP. The Aspire to Grow Conference aims to inform and empower students from across campus about the many and varied career opportunities in these industries. It will also create a forum for students to learn from and network with companies for which diversity and inclusion are an essential part of their visions, and that have recognized that workplace diversity increases productivity, innovation, and other factors that provide a competitive edge

2019 Conference

The 2019 Aspire to Grow Conference explores innovation in the food and agriculture sectors. The symposium will focus on new technologies and developments, and the role diversity of thought and experience plays in achieving these.


Friday, March 1, 2019, 1 – 6:30 p.m. 
Cal Poly Campus: Philips Hall (Bldg. 6, Rm. 124)




12:30 p.m.

Registration and check-in

1 p.m.   

Welcome: Karen Watts, Nutrien

1:10 p.m.

Overview: Patrick Dotsy, Agribusiness student

1:15 p.m.          


Ebony Webber, MBA: COO, Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences (MANRRS)

2 p.m.   

Panel discussion #1: How a diverse workforce leads to increased innovation

  • Dr. Katherine Soule: Director of Cooperative Extension, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties; Youth, Families and Communities Advisor
  • Grant Ermis: Instructor, Oregon State University 
  • Gabriella Coughlin: Soil Scientist, USDA-NRCS
  • Heather Hammack: President, Famous Software

3 p.m.   

Foods from Around the World: Sample foods from around the world created by Cal Poly Food Science and Nutrition students

3:30 p.m.          

Panel discussion #2: How Do Today’s Companies Foster Innovation?

  • Jazmin Lopez: Compliance and Special Projects Manager, Pisoni Farms
  • Salvador Hurtado: Marketing and Customer Service Manager for the Americas, VoloAgri Group, Inc.
  • Megan Nunes: Founder and CEO, Vinsight
  • Yvonne Sams: Director, Customer Development, Logistics Division, G3 Enterprises, Inc.

4:30 p.m.

Closing remarks: Patrick Dotsy

5 – 6:30 p.m.    

Networking reception 




Keynote Speaker

EBONY WEBBER  Chief Operations Officer // MANRRS 

Hailing from a rural town in the Mississippi Delta, Ebony Webber serves as the chief officer of operations for the National Society for Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences (MANRRS), where she’s worked for the last 15 years. Ms. Webber strives daily to transform MANRRS into a nationally recognized name as well as developing young, minority students into future leaders. Focused on developing strategic partnerships and building collaborative teams, she drives innovation and growth at MANRRS through programs connecting students and professionals in academia, government, nonprofit, and private industry. Graduating at the top of the Computer Science and Mathematics Department, Ebony received her Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from Stillman College and also holds a certification in Technology Management and a Master’s degree in Business Administration, both from the University of Phoenix. Ms. Webber is an alum of the United Way of Greater Atlanta Volunteer Involvement Program and the Georgia Center for Nonprofits High Potential Diverse Leaders Cohort. She is a member of the National Black MBA Association and Delta Sigma.


Panel Discussion Speakers


Gabriella Coughlin began her work in natural resources as an Americorps volunteer for the Great Basin Institute’s Nevada Conservation Corps (NCC) program where she helped build trails and implement habitat restoration projects statewide. After completing her service with the NCC, Coughlin relocated to pursue a degree in Crop and Soil Science at Oregon State University and was accepted into the Pathways Program as a Soil Conservationist Trainee for the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service. Through this program Coughlin gained valuable on-the-job training that lead to her placement as a Soil Scientist in the Redmond Initial Soil Survey after graduation in 2014. Coughlin uses her background in landscape pedology, ecohydrology, and remote sensing to field map soils and ecological site information. During the winter months she inventories Oregon snowpack for the Snow Survey Program. This fall, Coughlin accepted a three-year position on Oregon USDA’s Interagency Civil Rights Committee where she is the LGBT Special Emphasis Program Manager for Rural Development, Farm Service Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Coughlin has further developed her interdisciplinary approach to resource management and problem-solving through involvement in the Pacific Northwest Section of the Society of Range Management and her (recently completed) term as President of the Oregon Society of Soil Scientists. For the entirety of her career, Coughlin continues to use her professional skill-set and deep commitment to public service to foster meaningful partnerships with organizations that promote the representation of socially disadvantaged groups in science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics


GRANT ERMIS  Instructor // Oregon State University 

A California native, Ermis was raised in the Central Valley where most of his family still resides. His involvement in agriculture began in high school with courses in agriculture education and participation in National FFA. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Agriculture Education at California State University, Chico in 2007. During this time, Ermis became most notable for his time as USA Mr. Gay 2007 and the International Mr. Gay Runner Up. He has since completed a master’s degree at UC Davis, and has spent more than 20 years of involvement in agriculture education at, and above, the secondary level in California. Ermis is currently teaching in the College of Agriculture at Oregon State University and serving as the administrator of the California Agricultural Teachers’ Induction Program. Upon completion of his doctorate degree he plans to continue his career in education, focusing efforts on meaningful and equitable policy and program development for educators and students.


HEATHER HAMMACK  President // Famous Software

As the president of Famous Software, Heather directs a management team focused on providing customer value. Utilizing strategic planning to effectively identify opportunities for growth and improvement, Hammack is intimately involved in all aspects of the business including customer service, sales and marketing, product development and employee capital. As a servant leader, Hammack recognizes the importance of supporting her team and is focused on achieving results through the efforts of others.

Hammack is the proud parent of two young children and enjoys spending quality time with her family mixed in with travel in her spare time. Hammack is involved with various local charities and community organizations including the Pacific Legal Foundation. As an advocate for agriculture, Hammack and her family support the Pacific Legal Foundation’s fight to defend the water rights of California Farmers.


SALVADOR HURTADO  Marketing and Customer Service Manager for the Americas // VoloAgri Group, Inc.

Born and raised on the tip of the U.S. and Mexico border in Calexico, California, Hurtado currently works at VoloAgri Group as the marketing and customer service manager for the Americas. Within this role, Hurtado helped develop the Central and South American markets by bringing new produce seed varieties to farmers across Latin America. VoloAgri Group prides itself on their innovative, non-GMO seeds that help in cultivating global health. Hurtado is at the forefront of those efforts, and has traveled to more than 24 countries to ensure that VoloAgri Group is providing seeds that meet the needs of each culture. He is an alumnus of Cal Poly’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences, and served as the president of the Latinos in Agriculture Club. Hurtado is passionate about how innovation within the global seed market will help tackle the problems of food insecurity with a growing population. 


JAZMIN LOPEZ  Compliance and Special Projects Manager // Pisoni Farms

Jazmin Lopez is the compliance and special projects manager at Pisoni Farms. She manages and implements the farming operation’s programs and policies to ensure compliance with all local, state and federal laws and regulations. She also assists with various projects that focus on sustainability. Prior to moving to the Salinas Valley, Lopez worked in the strawberry industry and was based out of Watsonville. She focused on implementing food safety programs, overseeing organic certifications, and assisting in the coordination of educational programs for strawberry growers and farmworkers. Lopez first found her interest in agriculture when she did a year of public service for AmeriCorps and was placed at a non-profit that provided legal services to the immigrant farmworker communities of Santa Cruz County. As the daughter of Mexican immigrants, she’s always had an interest in working with immigrant communities so the placement was an ideal fit. Lopez prides herself on always striving towards a more inclusive workplace and believes that an inclusive work environment is not only good for employees, but businesses as well. Lopez graduated from Pomona College with a double major in international relations and Spanish. She is also a recent graduate of Class 48 of the California Agricultural Leadership Program.


MEGAN NUNES Founder and CEO // Vinsight

As the founder and CEO of Vinsight, Megan Nunes provides a unique outlook spanning several industries. With over a decade of experience in the aerospace industry, Nunes has held various levels of leadership roles such as COO and CEO of small satellite startups. As a Cal Poly College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences alumnus, Megan also brings a strong agriculture background from her family’s farming business in California’s Central Valley. This background has allowed Nunes to lead Vinsight to use public satellite imagery data to measure the vegetation of land and then compare that data with 10 years of weather records and harvest reports to detect patterns and identify correlations. Nunes is passionate about technology, entrepreneurship and being a strong leader in a very male-dominated field. She has made positive change in both the almond and vineyard industries by providing analytics and leveraging technology and methods from aerospace and tech as a whole.


YVONNE SAMS Director, Customer Development, Logistics Division // G3 Enterprises, Inc.

Yvonne Sams manages one of the largest G3 line of businesses, Harvest Hauling, with 50 employees working with wineries and growers on transportation. As the director of logistics in customer development, she is also responsible for business development, customer relations and full P&L responsibility working with warehousing, transportation and distribution services.

Sams has been defined by a series of firsts. A first-generation college student from Watsonville, California, she attended Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, determined to pursue a path in engineering. She was the first woman to major in agricultural engineering technology. Despite naysayers who voiced concern that a woman would struggle in the then typically male-dominated major, Sams spent her college years learning to weld, mill, lathe, rebuild engines and trailers, and mastered the technology behind complex agricultural systems – the only woman in each of her classes. She was determined to succeed and graduate with the degree that she set out to obtain – which she successfully did. 

In addition to her full-time job and a being a mother of three children, Sams serves as an advisory board member for the Cal Poly BioResource and Agricultural Engineering Department and as an alumni advisory board member representing the Cal Poly College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences. She’s also given back to her sorority, Alpha Omicron Pi Fraternity, for the past 20 years, volunteering at the chapter, regional and international level, including as director for Network 8, comprised of 15 collegiate chapters, 33 alumnae chapters, 11 western states and two western Canadian provinces.

Yvonne was selected as a fellow for the prestigious Class 45 of the California Ag Leadership Program.


DR. KATHERINE SOULE  Youth, Families & Communities Advisor // San Luis Obispo & Santa Barbara Counties Agriculture & Natural Resources, University of California

Dr. Katherine Soule is the Director for the University of California Cooperative in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties Extension and youth, families, and communities advisor. In this capacity, Soule oversees youth, family, and community development programs that reach thousands of youth, individuals, and families each year. Soule chairs a National 4-H Vulnerable Populations Workgroup and serves as the Superintendent of Research & Development for the national Cultivating Change Summit, focusing on supporting individuals who identify as members of LGBTQ+ communities in the agricultural industry. She is working to help others around the nation increase the inclusivity of their cooperative extension programs for individuals who identify as members of LGBTQ+ communities through related work with universities, USDA/NIFA, and other youth-serving organizations. Locally, she is involved in research and advocacy for transgender residents and offers related workshops for professionals, volunteers, and community residents. A two-time alumna of Cal Poly, she obtained her doctorate degree from the Counseling and Human Development Services Department at the University of Georgia.


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