Mentorship and leadership, siblings but not synonyms, often get layered in a way that can misplace the value each brings to our lives and careers.
“Leaders motivate, influence, and inspire groups of people or organizations to innovate or act toward a common goal. Mentors have a concerted and intentional relationship that is a two-way street,” Raina Nelson explained. While she has been coming into her own as a leader, she is also on her way to becoming a mentor. “Both mentors and leaders can change lives, drive personal and professional development, and—ultimately—life performance, but mentorship is a very special and personalized experience.”
Now President and Chief Executive Officer of Westfalia Fruit USA, it’s nearly impossible to fathom Raina on a different path. But, when she came to the produce industry, it was not to be a business operations leader.
Studying pre-med at the University of Florida, Raina realized she could blend her past as the daughter of a citrus grower with her present passion to help save lives in food safety. “I can make the supply chain safer, save people, and make a positive contribution to an industry that feeds our nation?” she recalled. “Check!”
“Both mentors and leaders can change lives, drive personal and professional development, and—ultimately—life performance, but mentorship is a very special and personalized experience.”
Raina Nelson, President and Chief Executive Officer, Westfalia Fruit USA
With the guidance of a wise professor—Dr. Keith R. Schneider, Ph.D.—who said she could make a great impact, Raina left academia and entered the industry.
“I initially took a job at Fresh Del Monte Produce, where I learned a lot before I found an opportunity with Rosemont Farms in food safety and quality systems, and that was when I met Andrew Schwartz,” she told me.
The Co-Founder of Rosemont Farms gave Raina a defining moment that was, she shared, the catalyst for both her present career and her journey with mentorship.
“I certainly looked up to and respected him—he could enter a room and command it, convey himself so well—but when I handed in my two weeks notice and he said, ‘No,’ is when he became my mentor,” Raina laughed. “He asked if I’d consider stepping into and learning how to manage the import piece of our business. I thought he was crazy—I don’t have an MBA and had no experience. But Andrew had watched me and trusted I was going to figure it out.”
While this third option may seem natural to Raina now, she quickly clarified it was not a fairytale, saying, “There were times when I messed up and he had to have some very hard conversations with me. But those were some of the most significant teaching moments in my career. So for that, I was really thankful for him.”
Ultimately, Andrew’s third door not only transitioned him to a mentor for Raina, but set her onto a path that would see her become that changemaker her professor initially saw.
Raina’s next chapter would be forging a new channel of business for rising value-added label Renaissance Food Group (RFG), a primarily West Coast company seeking her rapidly acquired business acumen to build its presence on the East Coast.
While she introduced the company to a new market, it would introduce her to a mentor who is the metaphorical right brain to Andrew’s left.
“I think the key is the chemistry of the mentor-mentee relationship, no matter how it evolves or begins, and the final output of its success is joy.”
“I reported directly to Jim Catchot, President of RFG at the time. Andrew taught me to look at everything from a 360-degree view to anticipate how I might mitigate any possible issues. So, I came to Jim with a 360-degree evaluation, and that was not his style,” Raina burst out laughing at memories of her transition. “He was so great in mentoring me about the gut, the retail feel of the business, and the relationship aspect. I really loved Jim’s perspective and his zest for the people. We would call RFG our family, and it truly was that. He had our best interests in mind and really just poured into us from a very familial manner.”
If Jim and Andrew are complementary sides of the mind, Raina’s third voice of wisdom, Rick Estess, is the heart.
“I call Rick my produce dad. He’s a lovely person with the biggest heart,” Raina told me, explaining that Rick’s wisdom came as she was becoming more involved in the Southeast Produce Council (SEPC). “He was the catalyst to my involvement in STARS—Southeast Top Agricultural Recruits Scholarship—which is now so near and dear to my heart. He truly is a visionary who was there at the beginning of SEPC’s Southern Roots and advocating for something like it long before. Rick was and is one of the major supporters of women in the industry.”
With such different yet equally impactful voices to help guide her, Raina said it was the variation in her mentors’ styles that helped teach her about the beauty of diversity, with no set formula to success.
Looking ahead to her own mentoring potential, Raina’s advice is to remember the whole point: to help grow and develop on this journey that is life.
“I think the key is the chemistry of the mentor-mentee relationship, no matter how it evolves or begins, and the final output of its success is joy,” she concluded. “Of course, you use your own instincts and listen to your own heart and soul, but, I’m just so thankful for Andrew, for Rick, for Jim to always take that time. And to Dr. Schneider for starting it all.”
To take the lead is to make the final call. A mentor sees the decision is not theirs to make, entrusting the mentee to take that risk; to be willing to step through door number three. I cannot wait to see what doors Raina discovers for herself and those she will lead.
Here is what they have to say about Raina…
Chief Commercial Officer, FreshRealm
"Raina Nelson is someone I thought had great potential, so I hired her. At that time, women in the produce industry were working hard to move into leadership roles, and I wanted to give Raina every opportunity to maximize her potential. I put on my mentor hat, and Raina did the rest. Today, I look at Raina’s accomplishments, personal growth, and achievements and see an industry leader making a difference. Proud mentor."
Manager, JAL Agro
"Raina came into the organization to run food safety as it was becoming clear companies had to formalize their processes. Raina did a wonderful job; she was engaged, completely committed, and successful in putting our organization in a strong position. I saw how people were responding to her—authenticity is very important to her, and others recognize that. It became apparent even customers were following and looking to Raina for guidance, and it clicked for me then that, if she wanted, she was destined for different things. She did have to learn, but, in true form to a leadership role, she jumped in and was willing to take risks. The wonderful thing about mentorship is, if you are present and effectively do your job, you are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to affect people’s lives, and I’m grateful I could do that for Raina. It has to be within that person to pursue a new path, and Raina has always wanted to excel and be the best she can be; she’s a mentor by example."
Business Development Manager, RPE
"A good mentor is a person who has seen the value of mentorship firsthand. They are willing to give back and pass on their experiences and knowledge by mentoring others. Some nine years ago, I met Raina Nelson and had the opportunity to mentor her early on in her career. Raina was always asking questions, she was starving for more information, and looked for different opinions. Bottom line, Raina is willing to learn from the people around her. Seeing her today and watching her mentor others in the produce industry shows me that our time together was well spent, and I am very proud of her."