One of the unique beauties of the produce industry is interconnectedness. Competitors become coworkers, employers become peers, and there is always more to learn. Throughout all of it, though, as Kyla Oberman has learned from growing up surrounded by produce and its purveyors, are the relationships that tie it all together.
“Our trade is relationship-based,” Tanimura & Antle’s new Director of Marketing tells me as we take a verbal stroll through her fresh produce past. “Throughout the entire industry, whether it’s a clamshell manufacturer, lettuce box printer, or even the competition, that network is not just my network—they are friends.”
Those friendships have blossomed into work relationships and vice-versa. Kyla weaves for me a tapestry showing her successful and still-rising career shaped by who she knows, including lifelong ties with the produce business, starting from her childhood.
“My mom, Kathy Garnett, worked for the California Strawberry Commission. Having grown up in Watsonville, California, surrounded by agriculture, and knowing people will always have to eat, I had a conversation about my future with her,” Kyla begins.
Her produce career came from, quite literally, a fork in the road. With a 50 percent chance one way or the other, Kyla tells me she might have gone into the Silicon Valley instead of Salinas Valley.
“I was living in Santa Cruz, California, at the time, where you literally go left or you go right,” Kyla laughs, while my mind reels. Knowing the life she leads includes not only professional success, but a husband (Jeff Oberman) and beautiful daughter (Harper Rose), that came of working in fresh produce, I can’t imagine her having gone another way. I also learn that the voices of her childhood became her colleagues and mentors, helping to guide her within the industry.
Some of the many in produce who have been, and continue to be, essential in Kyla’s professional and personal milestones are Janis McIntosh, Packaging and Product Manager for Naturipe® Farms; Robert Verloop, Chief Operating Officer and General Manager of Coastline Family Farms; and Mark Munger, Vice President of Sales and Marketing at 4Earth Farms.
“I have known Janis since I was a teenager. She worked in the strawberry world with my mom and brought me to my very first PMA Fresh Summit as a helper in the Coastal Berry booth,” Kyla recalls as the start of her and Janis’ work relationship. After kick-starting her career at McDill Associates and learning so much, Kyla had begun to look toward further growth. “She has always been a friend, and when I worked at McDill, she was my contact for Naturipe. So we not only had our friendship from our past, but also a working relationship. When we worked together, she showed me the ropes, and she was not only my immediate supervisor, but my partner and friend.”
“Throughout the entire industry, whether it’s a clamshell manufacturer, lettuce box printer, or even the competition, that network is not just my network—they are friends.”
—Kyla Oberman, Director of Marketing, Tanimura & Antle
Kyla says that she arrived at Naturipe answering to Janis as her junior, but left having come into her own and knowing Janis was always there to support and have Kyla’s back.
Another mentor she was reunited with at Naturipe from pre-professional days was Robert, who at the time was the company’s Executive Vice President of Marketing.
“Robert will forever be my mentor; I told him he’s stuck with me,” she laughs, but Kyla’s respect for Robert’s words is evident. “He has been responsible for the growth in my career over the last seven years. He has challenged me at the work level, knowing I might fail—I can even think of a handful of scenarios where I turned to him and realized he had just set me up! And he would have that signature smile of his and say, ‘Yes I did.’ I have grown mountains because of him and cherish his advice.”
Her impression is an uncanny recall of Robert’s character and leadership style, and a complement to the other strong voice she turns to in our industry: Mark.
“Mark and my mom worked together at Driscoll’s in the early 90s. He had known me as his coworker’s daughter, then I babysat his children!” I can hear Kyla’s smile over the phone as she recalls the evolution of her friendship with Mark. “We later developed into produce colleagues when I worked at McDill—he, in addition to Janis, is one of the key people to help me into that grower/marketer hat I wear.”
That hat she speaks of serves her well, especially in her new role with Tanimura & Antle.
“I think many people will agree that when you work in a marketing role with a grower, you have to wear both hats. Mark and Janis both had always taken the time to impart any wisdom they could—always the educators to help me understand why they work on each project. I still carry with me Mark’s need to be aware of why we do anything—what is the takeaway for the audience? He has always been there to take value in me and my success,” Kyla says.
I can’t help but notice that, even though she has grown into the epitome of a “mentor in the making,” Kyla still listens to the sage advice of those who watched her grow up and into this industry. Now, she is already helping return that favor in working with the next generation of fresh produce purveyors, serving as a career ambassador in PMA’s Career Pathways.
“I consider it a privilege to participate in this program; being partnered with a student by Center for Growing Talent with PMA, I get excited when given the chance to walk a show floor with a student, to show them this world, and to have the opportunity to open that door for those fresh out of college,” she shares.
So, what is Kyla’s biggest piece of advice for those looking to further themselves in our niche world?
“Embrace the relationships you have with your contacts. There is rarely someone I have come across in produce who has made me feel like we ‘just work together,’” she says. “Remember that and know that the community you build in this industry is that of valuable relationships: it’s friendly competition—we all have each others’ backs.”
Because, as Kyla has said and I’m sure we have all experienced, produce is more than work—it’s a passion.
Kyla grew up in the produce industry with her mom working in the berry business, and her home literally surrounded by berry fields. It was only natural that she joined the industry that was so much a part of her life. I met Kyla early in her 20s when she would help out at our Coastal Berry booth at Fresh Summit. She was a hard worker then, and years later when she joined Naturipe Farms she proved that you get better with age. Kyla as a mentee was a quick study and determined to learn everything. She has her own style, which is very efficient, and honestly, she can learn any job you put in front of her. She would be an excellent mentor to someone who wanted to learn to take the initiative on projects, get involved, build great work habits, promote the industry, and become an asset to their employer.
I have known Kyla since she was a teenager. She was my two children’s favorite babysitter. They loved her because of her energy, her playfulness, and her creativity. My wife and I loved her because she was responsible, mature, a great communicator, and incredibly reliable. Even as a teenager, I could tell that Kyla was going to be a superstar. It has been such a pleasure and privilege watching Kyla develop into an industry leader and a marketing trailblazer. Kyla has worked hard for everything she has achieved, and infuses that same creativity, passion, and energy that I recognized long ago into everything she does. She has made some solid career choices and worked with some of the most innovative and creative companies in the industry, a real testament to her talent and her superb judgement. It has always been an honor to be Kyla’s friend and, especially, to be considered one of her mentors. I can’t express how proud I am of Kyla’s career path and her accomplishments, and look forward to watching her grow and continue to lead our industry!
It has been a real pleasure to have worked with Kyla not only as a mentor, but as a colleague. During her tenure at Naturipe Farms, I saw her evolve into a well-rounded, driven, passionate member of the produce industry. Starting her career under the guidance of Missy McDill, Kyla learned the tactical skills for successful marketing, advertising, and communications, but also the crucial skills of project management and the understanding needed to translate strategy into actionable programs.
Kyla was the proverbial "sponge" and worked hard to learn and excel in all aspects of promoting Naturipe, from the strong heritage of the family farmers to understanding the needs of our clients, helping promote the berry category and expanding communications. As a mentee, she knew when to take control and when to ask for guidance—not just from me, but from others throughout the organization and industry. As her mentor, my role ranged from providing guidance to being a sounding board and introducing her to new opportunities, helping her stretch beyond her comfort zone. I believe one of the many values a mentor can provide is to serve as a career development coach, encouraging exploration beyond the obvious. Kyla accepted these opportunities with passion and determination, which will serve her well as she continues to evolve and contribute to the produce industry.