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Mentors in the Making: Leslie Simmons

One thing I think we can all agree on is the beauty that can be found in relationships cultivated within our close-knit industry, promoting and supporting each other’s growth. Once people get a taste of it, few are able to escape the pull of produce, as Dave’s Specialty Imports’ Leslie Simmons can tell you herself.

From bright lights in New York City as an advertising and marketing executive to bright beginnings at the company started by her grandfather, Leslie’s journey to Dave’s is a story of homecoming—and, now, of perpetual growth. While many have helped Leslie along the way, a few mentors truly stand out in her journey home, including her father and Dave’s President Mike Bowe, DMA Solutions President and CEO Dan’l Mackey Almy, and Naturipe® Farms Director of Business Development Jill Overdorf.

Five years after joining the company in 2011, Leslie stepped into her role as Vice President at Dave’s in 2016. Leslie then utilized the tools she gained from her time in the Big Apple to start a rebrand that consisted of a new logo, new website, and new marketing plan—a path that has grown the company and the family legacy.

“Growing up, my dad coached many of the sports teams that my sisters and I played on, and I feel like that coach role carried over into our working relationship. He lays out ideas, redirects, and shows me new moves, but doesn’t try to play my game for me,” Leslie tells me. “Smart, sensitive, and always ready to laugh, he is one of the most hardworking and humble people I know. While the spotlight often shines on my grandfather as Founder of our company, my dad is truly a silent star guiding us all forward.”

"Own where you are. Step out of your comfort zone and meet new people whenever you can. Move beyond small talk. It’s a waste if you don’t tap into people’s knowledge and experience—they have so much to offer, and you have something interesting to share with them."

—Leslie Simmons, Vice President, Dave's Specialty Imports

Leslie readily welcomes the authenticity of our industry and down-to-earth professionals who push it forward—and Dan’l is one who left a special mark on her career path.

“She really is a force,” Leslie laughs, explaining Dan’l’s unique infusion of fun and passion for the industry. “I met Dan’l socially at the United Public Policy Conference, and we connected over Patsy Cline. I was really impressed when I learned more about her story. Dan’l was being honored at United’s Honoring Women in Produce reception and, further, spoke on the She Speaks Panel at the first Women’s Fresh Perspectives Conference. She is incredibly passionate, candid, and authentic. I’m grateful for the insights she’s given me on everything from strengthening myself as a leader and building strong teams to balancing life as a working mom.”

While Leslie gained her footing, she was struck by the powerful voices within the industry. Jill, for example, motivated her to pursue different avenues that could lead to success—to trust that the answers lie within her.

“I met Jill when I first became involved with the Women’s Fresh Perspectives advisory board. The first thing that struck me about her was her manner of speaking—calm, articulate, reassuring. She’s shown me how you can have a strong, powerful voice without even raising it,” Leslie tells me, sharing the characteristics that helped strengthen her own stance. “She’s smart, passionate, and enormously committed to taking our industry to the next level. Her encouraging words and insights have helped me replace question marks with periods—to find confidence in my thoughts and ideas.”

Knowing what she knows now, I ask her for some insight she would have shared with herself upon entering the produce realm.

“Own where you are. Step out of your comfort zone and meet new people whenever you can. Move beyond small talk. It’s a waste if you don’t tap into people’s knowledge and experience—they have so much to offer, and you have something interesting to share with them,” she says. “Keep learning. Stay open, passionate, and hungry. This keeps me engaged and helps me find new ways to push the efforts and vision of my grandfather, and my father, even further.”

With a mindset and a determination like that, I can’t imagine otherwise.

Jill Overdorf, Director of Business Development, Naturipe® FarmsFun, smart, beautiful, gracious, generous, and a lover of live music and family, Leslie Simmons is a remarkable example of the next generation of women in the produce industry. Once she made the choice to join the company that her grandfather founded, she has been a positive force. Leslie and I met at a Women’s Fresh Perspectives conference where I first noticed her ability to objectively and cheerfully assess situations and move forward with purpose, integrity, and positive energy. One of her most endearing qualities is the humility to ask questions and research answers. Her ability to balance family, her daughter, and her demanding professional commitments is admirable.

Leslie’s boundless energy makes her a force to be reckoned with, not only through negotiations and long meetings, but also when scouting live music and jazz halls late into the evening. Since she started at Dave’s, her sharp sense of business and her desire for creating best practices have helped to escalate her to Vice President in her family company and while working in close partnership with her dad. Leslie’s professionalism shines through in every situation. BUT, don’t let that intelligent side outshine her ability to have fun… Leslie is the first to dress in costume for an occasion—like Elvis or any other designated character! Leslie is also one of the first to be on a dance floor, or to encourage her team to sign up for a spirited and silly contest. A delightful and inspired woman, I am honored and lucky to be able to also call her my friend.

Dan’l Mackey Almy, President & CEO, DMA SolutionsLeslie and I first met at an industry event—during which we shared a microphone and the stage—and I have had the great privilege of calling her a friend and colleague ever since. Part of what sets Leslie apart, both as a person and as a professional, is her relentless hunger for learning and improvement. Truthfully, I don’t even view our time together as a typical ‘mentorship’—I consistently learn a great deal from our conversations, which speaks to how wonderful she is as a mentee. Leslie is a tremendous talent, and I strongly believe that marketing minds like hers are exactly what we need to advance our industry.

Mike Bowe, Father and President, Dave’s Specialty ImportsAs a father of six, it doesn’t take long to realize that each of your children has their own special gifts to offer. Leslie has always had the ability to strike up a meaningful conversation with those around her and put them at ease like she’s known them forever. Like her grandfather, Dave, the Founder of our company, she is a friend to everyone she meets and is always very social at all events. She has that eagerness and enthusiasm to make things happen for those people she comes in contact with and loves the produce business!

She loves being part of the Women in Produce program and wants to share that passion with other women in the industry! She recognizes that our industry has a huge amount of growth, and she would love to be a part of that growth while promoting healthier choices for the next generation of produce consumers, like her own daughter! She has the gift of sharing a message with other people, problem solving, and being a very active part of the industry.

She sees the hard work that her grandfather put in when forming the family company and is working to continue that each and every day! It’s great to see in her the passion of the next generation of our industry and for our family business—as her father, it makes me a proud dad.