For some, going into the produce industry is a given. For others, it is a passion they discover and cultivate for themselves. LeighAnne Thomsen has come a long way in her produce journey. She became infatuated with the industry at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and it led her to the role she holds now: Account Manager for Calavo Growers.
“I took a horticulture class at Cal Poly where we learned about plant biology, but also went out into the fields and learned about pruning and the hands-on aspects of it,” LeighAnne begins, explaining to me how her love for produce first started. “I thought it was just so beautiful to be out in the orchard. I learned about the supply chain and thought it was incredible that this was something that has affected my life—my whole life—and I had never known anything about it.”
After a few horticulture and agriculture courses, LeighAnne phoned her parents and announced her plans to switch her major. From there, LeighAnne felt emboldened to indulge her agricultural passion and make the most of her time at university. At Cal Poly, LeighAnne played lacrosse, captained the Ag Marketing team, and led the Ag Business Management Club, through which she met Tonya Antle of the Organic Produce Network.
“As the President of the Ag Business Management Club, it was my job to organize our annual career fair,” LeighAnne says, reflecting on the moment when Tonya became an integral part of her career. “Tonya was a guest lecturer and industry ambassador for the agribusiness department; I was running around trying to get everything organized. She literally took me by the shoulders and steered me toward Keith Barnard, who was doing recruitment for Mission Produce. I’m so grateful for that moment because I was flowing through the event, not thinking about myself, trying to make everything ready and available for connections to be made between other people. I just really did not think about what I was going to do or how I was going to get a job. But she saw me.”
"I thought it was just so beautiful to be out in the orchard. I learned about the supply chain and thought it was incredible that this was something that has affected my life—my whole life—and I had never known anything about it."
—LeighAnne Thomsen, Account Manager, Calavo Growers
Starting out as an intern for Mission, LeighAnne quickly rose through the ranks, working her way into the Sales and Marketing Department and then on to managing Mission’s retail business in the U.S. Northeast and Midwest. From there, she moved back to California as a Brand Marketing Manager, where she dug her heels into learning classical marketing and working on new product development.
“Mission was a wonderful place to begin a career,” LeighAnne comments. “Mission’s fast-paced and entrepreneurial culture was empowering and encouraged me to learn on my feet. I will always be grateful for the unique and varied experiences I had while working for Mission.”
LeighAnne met another of her mentors, Joe Caldwell of Giorgio Mushrooms, through the Center for Growing Talent by PMA’s Career Pathways Program.
“Joe would try to figure out what made me tick—what motivated me—because, at the time, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do in the industry,” LeighAnne says. “Joe really tailored my Career Pathways experience and gave me a great introduction to the larger produce industry. He continues to be a good friend who checks in with me often.”
As her produce journey continues, LeighAnne is embarking on the next chapter in her life with Calavo Growers.
“My experience had been mostly in marketing, but I began to feel that I could really sink my teeth into sales,” LeighAnne shares with me, clueing me in to how she began this latest career step. “It seemed like a slightly challenging task to make this switch, so I turned to my mentors for their take. I have never been so grateful to have such a network of intelligent and thoughtful people. They strongly encouraged me to go after a sales role, which gave me confidence not only in my ability, but also in my instincts.”
Another one of LeighAnne’s mentors, Julie Krivanek of Krivanek Consulting, has continued to push her to be the best as she’s made these transitions in her career.
“I value Julie as a mentor for so many reasons, but one of the best things I get from her is that she tells it exactly how it is,” LeighAnne shares. “She does not sugar-coat anything, and she gives me constructive advice that, from others, could be difficult to hear. She’s so good at what she does that every bit of advice or observance feels like a gift, and I know that as I work to apply it, it’s all going to make me a more strategic and stronger business person.”
LeighAnne’s affinity for her mentors comes from a similar impulse to the one that led her to her career. She’s seen qualities in them—like helpfulness, excitement, and passion—and wants to emulate these in herself.
“They are hardworking,” says LeighAnne of her peers and mentors, “and they’re light-hearted, and they do what they say they are going to do. They’re passionate about their companies and the products they’re providing.”
Seeing her own determination and passion reflected in her mentors, it’s no wonder LeighAnne has made a name for herself in the industry.
As a guest lecturer at Cal Poly, School of Ag Business since 2010, I have had the opportunity to work with well over 200 Ag Business students. During this tenure, there have been a few stand-out students that were clearly going to do great things with their lives and careers. LeighAnne was certainly one of those bright lights that shined above and beyond her fellow classmates. Her can-do attitude and willingness to step out of her comfort zone, coupled with her intelligence and grace, made her the perfect candidate for our industry. I contacted my friends at Mission Produce and made this connection for LeighAnne and, as I suspected, she did the rest. During her tenure at Mission she was a fantastic contributor to the company and to the industry at-large.
Over these past few years, it has been such a pleasure watching LeighAnne grow and develop her confidence and her leadership skills. I am proud to have the opportunity to mentor and help guide LeighAnne in her career and know that the future of our industry looks bright because of talent like LeighAnne and other young dynamic members of our produce community.
I met LeighAnne as a Jay and Ruthie Pack Scholarship recipient at the PMA Fresh Summit, and we also met briefly the year before when I gave a presentation to the Ag Marketing students at Cal Poly. While she was obviously outgoing and confident from her leadership positions in school and the National Agri-Marketing Association (NAMA) competitions, her early desire to work in the fresh produce industry was remarkable. The Fresh Summit is a brief view of the breadth of the industry and my advice to her was to take it all in.
LeighAnne is an inquisitive person who sought out information, experiences, and advice. She was full of thoughtful questions. We discussed the wealth of contacts, information, and readily available help from so many people across the industry. While she had set personal goals, I suggested staying open to what she could learn about the business and all the possibilities that she may not have considered before. The most important point I emphasized was to have full confidence that she was going to succeed, whatever decisions she might make.
It has been a delight to watch LeighAnne grow, contribute to her profession, and give back to the industry. She has provided wise counsel to other students I have brought to meet her in successive years. Her contributing leadership in the development of the Women’s Leadership Conference is a perfect example of the professionalism she exhibits in all she does.
I’ve worked with LeighAnne on building strategy for the PMA’s Women’s Fresh Perspectives brand, teaching her as a Fellow in the United Fresh Leadership Program, and now as a mentor watching her bright star rise.
LeighAnne has all the hallmarks of an impressive leader. Here are just a few:
First, she actively seeks feedback and advice. It’s not unusual for her to call and ask questions like ‘Where do I need to develop?’ or ‘How would you approach this?’ But it’s one thing to ask for advice and another thing entirely to act on it. For those who know me, I am a tough critic. LeighAnne absorbs, reflects, and takes action—never defensive and always with an eye toward her next step. It’s inspiring.
LeighAnne is a deep thinker and a deep listener. She won’t be the loudest voice in the room, but I guarantee she will be one of the smartest. She listens to others carefully, collaborates easily, and speaks thoughtfully. Again, a hallmark of the best leaders who can combine their natural brain power with the tricky dynamics of a team.
LeighAnne journeys within an industry that she loves enough to dedicate her many gifts and talents for years to come. Aren’t we the lucky ones? I can’t wait to see where it all takes her.