The founder of a new global professional network for women in the food industry says the response to Females in Food’s launch shows exactly why there needs to be more platforms to raise up female entrepreneurs.
After a “pre-launch” on social media in July, the Females in Food network officially opened this week as a membership service connecting women in all parts of the food and beverage industry to share knowledge and build stronger networks.
Chelsea Ford decided to start the network after 25 years in the food industry working for big players like Nestle. While she has had many mentors over the years, all have been male.
“This time around I really looked for a female mentor – I wanted something with business savvy and creative savvy,” she says.
“I don’t think women in the industry are very good at saying yes and being seen.” Between all the other responsibilities that take up time, “it’s really bloody hard” to work your way up, says Ford.
“There’s really just not a lot of role models.”
The aim of the collective is to connect entrepreneurs across different parts of the hospitality industry and help answer questions that would otherwise be the domain of expensive business advisors.
Ford is spending her time connecting women in different spaces to further both their interests – like a Perth-based curry paste producer and a professional in the airline industry.
“The airline person was looking for boutique food stuff, the curry paste person was looking for expansion, and they wouldn’t normally meet,” Ford says.
The idea of networking and mentoring that leads to concrete business growth is taking hold in parts of the Australian business community, with organisations like Business Chicks featuring big, in-person conferences and networking events for up and coming business owners.
Then there’s research on the power of weak ties – that is, acquaintances and associates on the outer edges of your social circle – for finding new opportunities in the first place. Those not in direct contact with you everyday might be able to provide brand new projects and work in new locations.
Some of the biggest advocates for increasing visibility of women in corporate life have highlighted that even when women ask for assistance at work, they can face backlash. Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg wrote in The Wall Street Journal this week that women who ask for what they deserve in business still face the label of “aggressive”.
“The people who have helped me over the years have been really approachable and have taken risks,” says Ford.
For small business owners looking for their own connections, there’s only one thing to really do, she believes – ask.
“Find out who’s actually been there and done it and has more experience than you – who has really done it – and approach them,” she says.
“And referrals – I’m not afraid when I see somebody knows somebody to ask for an introduction.”
The payoff could be gaining the experience of somebody with a big picture view of a business.
“I have a vision and I have the passion, and [my mentors] just make me focused on the long term,” says Ford.
Females in Food is shooting for a membership of 20,000 hospitality professionals over the next five years. Demand has so far been strong, and from all corners of the globe, says Ford.
“So far I’ve had enquiries from the US, from Far North Queensland, from Perth and my home of Sydney. I’m so pleased we’ve hit on a need – it’s really beautiful.”