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Mentors in the Making: Elena Hernandez

As Marketing Manager for Duda Farm Fresh Foods, Elena Hernandez’s friendliness, work ethic, creativity, and dedication to detail are well-known to friends in our industry. With what friends and colleagues—her network or “Produce Posse” as Elena calls them—describe as an almost-unrivalled enthusiasm, it’s easy to forget that Elena is a more-than-15-year veteran produce marketer.

Elena has been involved in marketing fresh produce since her freshman year in college—when, upon arriving home for summer vacation from California State University, Chico (CSUC) where she was studying Ag Business, Elena heard a refrain all too familiar to many students.

“My dad pretty much told me I had to get a summer job, and that was where I fell into the industry,” Elena jokes. “It turned out to be a great opportunity for me. I interned that summer at Sakata Seed…and that next summer I had an internship in new product development at Earthbound Farms. That’s when I really was bit by the produce bug.”

Though Elena grew up in Hollister, California, near the Salinas Valley, and developed a love of agriculture at a young age, it wasn’t until her first college internships that she realized she could pair her professional interest in marketing with her love of the Central California growing region.

After interning with Driscoll’s in her final year at CSUC, Elena embarked on a career that would land her at Mann Packing. It was there that Elena met, and had the opportunity to learn from, Chairman and CEO Lorri Koster. The relationship would prove formative for the young marketing professional. Elena tells me it would be difficult to overestimate the impact Lorri had on her as a mentor in Elena’s five years with the company.

“To this day, Lorri is still a person that I talk to often. I look up to her,” Elena tells me. “I met her applying for a job at Mann. I was really fortunate; here was this woman that was the owner of a company and has great involvement in the industry, and I was able to work with her every day. I was intimidated at first, but I think that intimidation made me evolve; it made me thrive and keep pushing myself and my career forward. I owe so much to her. If she was going to a meeting and it was appropriate, she took me with her. I learned so much very early on in my career because of that exposure.”

“My ‘Produce Posse’—my network of colleagues and friends in the industry, that I’ve built through the years; they are extremely important to me—both personally and professionally." 
– Elena Hernandez

Another formative relationship that Elena cultivated not long after was with Melissa “Missy” McDill of McDill Associates. With her background in produce and the scope of her creative influences, Elena saw a kindred spirit in Melissa and a model for the kind of creative marketer she wanted to be.

“I met Missy when I came on at Duda. Missy is someone that has shown me how to keep my roots in produce, but to look ‘outside’ for inspiration, and to keep growing,” Elena notes. “Missy comes from a produce background; her family was very involved in produce, and she was born and raised in Salinas, but she also looks outside of produce for different inspiration. She’s a big thinker. She thinks outside of the box, and I love that.”

Around this time, as well, Elena met another produce mentor in Mark Bassetti, Senior Vice President, Customer Development, for Duda. For Elena, Mark offered another kind of professional role model, one whose leadership, fairness, and his ability to build and foster camaraderie in a team environment was exceptional.           

“Mark has so many people on his team, and he is fair to everyone,“ Elena explains. “Mark is one of the most genuine produce guys you will meet. He treats everyone the same, and leads by example. I strive to be that type of leader.”

And Elena tells me that relationships like these are of paramount importance to her and to the continued success of our industry, as colleagues forge enduring friendships that spur creativity and enrich the lives of those in our industry.

“My ‘Produce Posse’—my network of colleagues and friends in the industry, that I’ve built through the years; they are extremely important to me—both personally and professionally,” Elena explains. “To be able to pool our expertise and bounce ideas off each other has been invaluable. We rely on each other, and we’ve cultivated these great, enduring friendships. It’s really special.”

Now, with a set of skills honed by her experience in the industry and sharpened by her peers and mentors, Elena is inspiring the next generation entering produce—perhaps reluctantly as summer interns—to succeed, thrive, and shape the future of fresh.

Here is what they have to say about Elena Hernandez... 

Lorri Koster, Chairman and CEO, Mann Packing"We like to say at Mann that ‘enthusiasm is contagious’ so I was impressed with Elena from the start, because she showed such enthusiasm and dedication to detail on every project she worked on. She is creative and understands consumer needs and trends. It was bittersweet to see her move on in her career, but I am very proud of her and how she is continuing to grow and contribute her talents to the produce industry. I continue to be one of her biggest fans.

On a personal note, Elena and I both graduated from Cal State University, Chico, so we clicked immediately! She accomplished a lot at a very young age such as home ownership which impressed me. We also both come from tightly-knit families. I’ve always admired her love for her family. Did I mention she’s a ‘foodie’ just like me? She is always researching the latest and best restaurants just like me. I fondly remember one dinner at Fearing’s in Dallas. That was one for the record books." 

Melissa McDill, Owner, McDill Associates"Elena is one of those strong and impressive young women in produce that make me very proud to be in this industry. She’s not afraid to speak up and share ideas—yet she also appreciates insight from someone like me who can offer knowledge and ideas​ based on past and current experience. The nature of our business is ever-changing and some might say unpredictable. Elena is great at staying decisive, calm, and solution-oriented in situations that would rattle most others. That is a critical skill in this industry​. By nature, she’s a problem solver and the first one to do whatever needs to be done to get it right. And as a marketer, she understands the value of paying attention to trends outside of our industry, such as natural foods and CPG​."

Mark Bassetti, Senior VP, Customer Development, Duda Farm Fresh Foods"Elena…her passion, patience, and perseverance is a gift to Duda Farm Fresh Foods. Her passion for our industry and, more importantly, the impact we have on consumers and their healthy lifestyle, is on 24/7. She has practiced patience with our team as we progress down the road of change. Elena has brought clarity and commitment to our team in our ongoing quest to create healthy snacking options for consumers today and into the future. Her perseverance is demonstrated daily as we push past the obstacles that are part of being a progressive innovator. I have seen her grow over the past several years, taking on additional responsibilities, which include additional pressures of meeting expectations, with the same passion and commitment that have earned her the respect from our team and our industry.

Elena is also a great networker, building her industry contacts not only from a business perspective, but also because she genuinely enjoys those she comes in contact with, which fuels her passion for learning and progressing. In my opinion, this approach of living the business and enjoying the ride is what keeps us focused, relevant, and young!"