As I scrolled through tweets about a panel on agricultural entrepreneurs at the SXSW Eco conference earlier this month, one caught my eye. The sender was Vance Crowe, Monsanto’s director of millennial engagement.
Corporate America is currently caught up in a torrid infatuation with millennials, who befuddle and torment the companies who want their dollars.
For New Boom, NPR’s series on the darling demographic of the day, The Salt called up Crowe to find out a bit more about why and how Monsanto is courting this group of youngsters, who now outnumber boomers. Here’s our conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.
You have an interesting job title. How did the job come about, and when did you start?
It’s been pretty clear for a long time that Monsanto has been really good at talking to and selling seeds to farmers and talking to Wall Street about our progress and growth.
But in between those two poles are consumers, and the company didn’t have a robust strategy for talking to them. It’s clear consumers have some strong feelings about how food should be produced and what sustainability is. And the tenor has gotten kind of loud.
If you are a big company, you can’t take a piece of poster board and say, “We’re open to talking!” You have to have a plan for where the conversation is going on, and how to engage. The company decided it would find somebody to join the conversation in ways it might not naturally think of. I started in June.
Why exclusively millennials? Is there a director of boomer engagement, too?
Millennials are looking to how they’re going to fit into the economy and culture, and they have a new set of ideas that need to be incorporated into all aspects of global life. We use the term “millennial,” but it really has to do with new ideas out there, and listening to them.
How is Monsanto’s conversation with millennials different from how it might engage with other groups?
In the U.S., many people living in cities are several generations away from farms. Monsanto is clear that millennials in cities are paying attention to where food comes from, but that they don’t have a direct connection to farming the way that generations in the past did.
One of the things we have a connection with is farmers. We are trying to invite farmer customers to come to places and actually meet people and talk about their stories and how Monsanto is helping them solve some of their challenges.
Are you a millennial?
Yes, I am 32.
Here’s a recent quote from your colleague Janice Person [Monsanto’s director of online engagement] in the Washington Post: “I think what’s really been interesting over the past few years is, people can put Big Ag as a logo on a building, but when you personalize it, and you’re part of agriculture, that’s where barriers get broken. I don’t think millennials are that interested in the labels. They’re interested in understanding.”
Is part of your job to personalize Monsanto for millennials? How do you do that?
Monsanto is a place, just like many companies, where if you don’t actually know someone from the company, the only thing you see is the brand. Before I started working here, I thought everyone would be wearing dark suits and Matrix-style sunglasses. When I came for my job interview, I was greeted at the door by a woman in a sweater and ponytail (who eventually became my boss).
But is my goal to personalize the company? Not really.
Your CEO has said that Monsanto needs to do more to win the debate around genetically modified organisms. And a recent study by researchers at Murray State found that overall, millennials have slightly unfavorable views toward GM foods.
Are you charged with trying to change millennials’ perceptions of GMOs? If so, how will you do it?
We are listening and making sure the concerns we are trying to address are the ones people have. To me the science on GMOs is very clear, so why do people have trouble with this?
You and I met at SXSW Eco, a conference in Austin in early October. What was your takeaway from that conference?
SXSW Eco is a good way to illustrate how some people have really strong views against GMOs and some people are very comfortable with them. There were over 100 hours of programming, but people got worked up over GMOs. The challenge with something like SXSW Eco is that it doesn’t do anybody any good if people are so passionate that they’re yelling. The challenge is how can we enter the conversation so that people don’t feel like they have to yell to be heard?
My colleague Ryan Richt, who worked on the Human Genome Project and has a brilliant mind for genetics and computing, is also really into fashion and part of the LGBT community. At SXSW Eco, he and I went to a panel on sustainable fashion. Afterward, a huge group wanted to talk with him and how it was that he came to work at Monsanto. They invited us to go to a party, and by the end of it they were saying, “You need to get out and make sure people know your side of that story.”
Which story were they talking about and how do you tell it?
A lot of people believe Monsanto is in the habit of suing farmers. But it’s not true. We have sued farmers who violated contracts, but it’s something we hate to do.
So one of the ways Monsanto has tried to demonstrate this is by explaining that all the money that’s adjudicated to us in a settlement is donated to the communities where the former customers are. We’ve taken 0 dollars in profit from the cases that we win.
Are you doing any engagement with millennial farmers?
One of the first things I did on the job was ride along with a Monsanto seed salesman. He is in his 30s, and has a big handlebar mustache and college education on breeding corn. He took me around and introduced me to farmers he’s been selling to. Many of the farmers were 50-plus years old, but they had a son or nephew learning from them. These are the millennial farmers who grew up on the farm and went away to school. When they come back to the farm, they’re pushing limits with more technology, and different ideas about cover crops.