Meet the Leading Women in Agribusiness and Crop Insurance
An Interview With ProAg Executives by the ProAg Marketing Team (September 7, 2021)
As female leaders in the crop insurance industry, Kendall Jones and Becky Piechowski are uniquely positioned to offer women in agribusiness valuable insight. Jones, president and CEO of ProAg and chair of the National Crop Insurance Services (NCIS), started out as a budget analyst for the state of South Dakota, which helped her immediately understand the impact agriculture has on the state’s economy. Piechowski, chief strategy officer of ProAg, has been involved with insurance since 1993, starting as a claims adjuster with State Farm. From those just beginning their careers to those in leadership positions, all women in agriculture can learn a lot from each other — and from Jones and Piechowski.
1). How did your upbringing influence your life, career path, and ascent into leadership?
Jones: I was the only girl in my family. I had three brothers and the only special treatment I got was my own bedroom; they didn’t want me to be the princess. It doesn’t come naturally to me to see myself as the only female in the room. It doesn’t even come into my head to count the females in the room. Only in retrospect, when someone asks who attended, I realize there were no other women there.
Piechowski: My dad ran a farmer’s coop. In the fall, he often worked overnights so his team could go home to sleep. If my brothers and I wanted to see him, we brought snacks late at night to the elevator while he was weighing and dumping grain. We saw him in a professional atmosphere and also at home, which led to the understanding that leaders still put on their pants one leg at a time. They are human; they don’t have all the answers. That has shaped me into the leader I am today.
2). As a female leader in an industry dominated by men, how does that change your approach?
Jones: It’s a mindset — you need to go into a room as a person, co-worker, peer, leader. Everyone has their perspectives; being a female leads some of my perspective but doesn’t drive it solely.
Piechowski: I never really think of myself as a female leader. It’s more about: “How do I succeed in this with the skills I have? What can I add to the conversation?” More importantly, “What can I learn from those around me?”
3). What opportunities have you found beneficial throughout your career as women in agribusiness?
Jones: Serving on the NCIS Board, I always felt like I had an equal seat, despite often being the only female in the room. I never felt excluded from a conversation because I’m a woman, which is a testament to the gentlemen serving with me. However, to add to that point: it’s important to involve yourself early and be confident to insert your expertise into opportunities.
Piechowski: I’ve worked for really strong female leaders who have the same philosophy I do. It’s not about being female; it’s about having your voice heard, having the right instincts, adding value, and stretching your goals. There are jobs I never imagined myself doing, but somewhere along the road, a leader said, “I believe in you. You’ll ask the right questions and figure it out.”
4). What excites you about the future of agriculture, specifically in crop insurance?
Jones: As agricultural risk management continues to evolve, it’s important to challenge the status quo. We’re in a unique position to bring innovation to an industry that is ripe for change — the insurance industry as a whole, but crop insurance particularly, and we intend to be at the forefront of those changes. We have an opportunity to come alongside the American farmer and rancher. We need to leverage our knowledge and risk management tools to help with conservation compliance and initiatives that protect farmers as they grow food, fuel, and fiber.
Piechowski: Farmers are the biggest gamblers out there. Every single year, they’re banking on two things they absolutely can’t control: weather and prices. These farmers depend on us, which is why I’m so passionate about crop insurance. Mitigating exposure through risk management is what gets me up each morning. Another exciting challenge: the human population continues to grow, but farmland doesn’t — there’s a finite number of acres. There are creative solutions out there around technology, innovation, and data. Farmers need to ask themselves, “How do we manage differently? How do we become more efficient? How do we produce more with less?”
5). What advice would you give to women in agribusiness insurance or those considering joining?
Jones: Turn challenges into opportunities. Be curious and take risks. Mistakes are inevitable, but with mistakes come successes that will build your confidence.
Piechowski: Do it! Why wouldn’t you? The industry is on the verge of change – and lots of change — which means amazing opportunities to be innovative. There are opportunities for women in all aspects of the industry – everything from boots on the ground with adjusting to strategy, technology, and leadership. Plus, you get to help people sustain their living. It’s an exciting time to join the industry!
About Kendall Jones
Kendall Jones has served as the president and CEO of ProAg since July 2017. Prior to that, she was executive VP and COO for eight years. Since coming to ProAg in May of 2006, she has been responsible for standard reinsurance agreement implementation and maintenance; training, reinsurance, named peril and crop hail products; underwriting procedures and controls; and the day-to-day operations of the regional offices and their support teams. Jones currently serves on the boards of directors for the Producers Ag Insurance Group and NCIS. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of South Dakota.
About Becky Piechowski
Becky Piechowski, ProAg chief strategy officer, has been in the insurance industry her entire career. Her experience ranges from personal to commercial lines within the property and casualty field, as well as crop insurance. She has worked at State Farm, Travelers, CUNA Mutual, John Deere and most recently Farmers Mutual Hail. Her career experience includes claims, product management, strategic development, business transformation and implementation to operations. Piechowski was impacted by farming from an early age since her father ran the local coop. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of St. Thomas.