Sometimes when I'm exchanging emails or phone calls with Joan Wickham, I forget I am talking to someone who is still a relative newcomer to the produce industry. Having spent just about eight years in produce marketing and PR, when you speak to the Director of Communications for Sunkist, you immediately pick up a sense of confident wisdom that transcends her comparatively short time navigating these ropes. To Joan, communications, public relations, and marketing are both a passion and an expertise.
Having found a love of produce during her early days out of college, Joan has been eager to hone her craft and learn the skills it takes to become a leader in our crowded industry, where it is easy to fade into the background. Always one to seek out new trends, while keeping an attentive ear to those who came before her, it’s no surprise to learn that mentorship has been an important part of her produce journey.
This is where we discover some of those influences who have helped to foster the leadership qualities that make Joan stand out among her peers: Debbie Himsel, Academic Director for the Center for Talent by PMA’s Emerging Leaders Program; Jill Overdorf, Director of Business Development for Naturipe Farms; and Roger Pepperl, Director of Marketing at Stemilt Growers.
“Debbie facilitated the PMA Emerging Leader’s Program that I was a part of, and I have been fortunate enough to stay connected with her through other industry events,” Joan shares. “She has always made herself approachable, and she also is an incredible listener. I value every conversation that Debbie and I have had, because she is so knowledgeable about leadership, but also, her ability to listen and understand allows her to give advice that is not only smart, but thoughtful. As all of us juggle busy lives, Debbie’s approachable nature is a reminder to me to try to open myself up to others in that way, as it has truly felt like a gift to me.”
This PMA Emerging Leader’s Program, which Joan was a part of in 2016, turned out to be a more foundational part of her produce career than she would expect, as it was also where she would meet the next mentor on her list—Jill Overdorf.
“I also had the pleasure of meeting Jill as part of the PMA Emerging Leaders Program. Realizing we were on the same flight back to Los Angeles, Jill didn’t hesitate to offer to drive me to the airport following the program and I revisit our conversation during that trip often,” Joan recalls of their first meeting. “Jill has the most incredible energy—and it’s infectious. As a powerful woman in the industry and world, Jill’s background and way of being inspires me to dream big, be the best version of myself that I can be, and share my ideas and energy with others through not just volunteer opportunities, but also every day as opportunities arise—just as she did for me.”
This lands me on the last mentor Joan shares during our chat, but certainly not the least—Roger Pepperl. Joan was able to create a connection with the longtime marketer through her work on the Lil Snappers® program, which includes both Stemilt’s small-sized apples and pears, as well as Sunkist’s Cara Cara and Navel oranges.
“Roger Pepperl is known throughout the industry for his incredible knowledge and experience, of course, but also for his straightforward commentary, integrity, and generosity of spirit,” Joan explains to me. “I’ve had the pleasure of working with Roger in a few different capacities and greatly admire the leadership, perspective, and also presence that he brings to every meeting or working group. Roger inspires me to be present, genuine, and engaged—in work and in life.”
While these industry standouts have helped to foster Joan into the consummate produce professional she is known for being today, anyone you ask will be quick to mention it was her natural drive to work hard and her receptiveness to new ideas that really made her a force to be reckoned with in our industry. With these qualities and three of our best and brightest by her side, I see the trajectory of her career continuing—and no signs of slowing down.
Academic Director, Center for Talent by PMA’s Emerging Leaders Program
"When I met Joan, my confidence in the next generation of leaders in the produce industry grew exponentially. I am the Eller Executive Education’s Academic Director for the Center for Talent by PMA’s Emerging Leaders Program, and that’s where I first met Joan. During these types of programs, you can only hope for participants as eager to learn and as curious as Joan. In addition, the faculty always say that they are there to help, but few ever take you up on the offer. This was not the case with Joan, as she sought me out to talk through workplace challenges, get feedback on her executive presence, and challenge me on some concepts. We’ve had a virtual relationship ever since—sharing articles and thoughts. Joan is an individual that you naturally want to spend time with. She is inquisitive, engaging—a true learner at heart, with an intense passion for the industry and her work. Mentorship does not have to happen on a regular basis or have a structured agenda of topics to discuss. Joan seized an opportunity to learn and grow at an educational program and took advantage of it."
Director of Business Development, Naturipe Farms
"Joan is a breath of fresh air in her approach to people, situations, and learning. When we met, she was working through some professional transitions, and her thoughtful approach to problem-solving and solution-providing were inspiring. We found through conversation that we connected on a number of different levels, and it was fun to have restaurant life, start-ups, life choices, and the produce industry in common. Joan is a wonderful, rich, and warm reminder for me that one never knows the importance of their words to those who hear them. It has been a delight to see her continue to grow and excel in the produce industry, as she is one of the people I am cheering for from across the proverbial field!"
Director of Marketing, Stemilt Growers
"Joan is a person that represents the future of a successful and changing produce industry. When I first met Joan, I was impressed instantly by the way she carried herself, both professionally and socially. She had a sense of confidence in what she said and also in how she heard things. However, she also had a humble side to her that projected that she needed to learn and was carefully listening and observing those around her—good listening is a sign of a leader.
I am a firm believer in doing everything possible to remove commoditizing types of promotion and marketing. Fighting commoditization with strong brands, storytelling, and transparency to the farm are passions that I shared with Joan. I believe we bonded on our shared beliefs, and the thought of doing much of this work internally with our own people resonated with Joan—no one can tell the story as well as someone who works at the company. Joan has taught me many things also, such as her organized approach to her workload and goals. I am a freethinker and can be a risk-taker, especially with my strong gut feel from experience. This can allow us to market without being in a box. So, our two different qualities can be an interesting blend. I have been able to work with Joan on some collaborative projects between our two companies, and I also worked with Joan at Produce for Better Health (PBH) in my board days—PBH will prosper with her involved. I have enjoyed what she continues to bring to Sunkist, as well as to our industry. I am very flattered to be considered a mentor by her, to say the least. The learning and sharing goes both ways in this case. The produce industry better watch out for Joan, as much more is coming our way."