Bringing Tech-Savvy Talent Into One of the World’s Oldest Industries

May 7, 2018


Vice President of Talent and Inclusion & Diversity



eople typically don’t associate agriculture—one of the world’s oldest industries—with the Amazons, Googles, and Apples of the world. But when it comes to attracting and retaining top-tier tech talent, agriculture companies like Monsanto are head to head with digital companies.

As we move further into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the speed of disruption—driven by transparency and digitalization—will propel rapid change. It’s my belief that no matter one’s core industry, companies will need to be well positioned to be a digital first industry. Our company has been undergoing a digital transformation that requires leaders to rethink customer experiences as well as workforce drivers. Disruption in inclusion, culture and talent practices will be the winning differentiator for companies to not only survive – but thrive in the future world of work.

Agriculture is at the forefront of cutting-edge digital innovations. Today, the industry is driven by data. Drones, machine learning, and automation are helping farmers produce more while using fewer resources. Our subsidiary, The Climate Corporation, is developing Facebook-style photo recognition using artificial intelligence (AI) to identify and diagnose diseases in corn, soybeans and wheat in real time. Disruptive digital innovations are making it feasible for agriculture to feed a growing population set to reach 10 billion people by 2050.

Of the more than 54,000 jobs available in agriculture each year, up to 25,000 are left unfilled.

But the industry faces a perception issue.

Images in children’s books, and even textbooks, portray farming as old-fashioned, when—in reality—Silicon Valley has come to the farm gate across the world. Agriculture is no longer just for farmers, it’s for data scientists, plant breeders, computer programmers, and engineers. About 70 percent of our workforce at Monsanto is in a STEM field and more often than not we aren’t seeing enough qualified applicants to fill open roles. This is something that the greater industry is seeing as well. Of the more than 54,000 jobs available in agriculture each year, up to 25,000 are left unfilled.

As we face global challenges like hunger, climate change and shrinking natural resources, there’s never been a more important time to develop a strong, sustainable STEM-centric workforce. The race to feed 10 billion people by 2050 puts Monsanto and other agriculture companies in the race for the highest-caliber STEM talent. To access and grow the STEM-centric workforce needed today and in the future, my team has disrupted our talent processes. We are becoming more innovative, agile and competitive than ever before.

Here are four ways our company has used out-of-the-box thinking to attract, develop and retain the world’s best innovators.


1. Engaging Diverse Perspectives to Disrupt Innovation

A recent study out of North Carolina State University showed that taking steps to foster inclusion makes a company more innovative. The mission to foster diversity and a culture of inclusion must start at the top, with corporate leaders. In the past three years, nearly 5,000 company leaders at Monsanto have gone through Unconscious Bias Training, a workshop designed for all employees to recognize unconscious and conscious bias while developing tools to be more inclusive. All U.S. Talent Acquisition team members have completed this training to ensure that we not only have a diverse slate of candidates for every position, but also that we are selecting the most qualified candidate for every position by eliminating barriers caused by bias.

2. Supporting the STEM Talent Pipeline at the Collegiate Level

Beyond the STEM talent gap, there is also a STEM readiness gap. The material college freshmen learn is quickly outdated by the time they reach their junior year. We can fill the readiness gap by reaching out, identifying and developing talent proactively. Monsanto’s new Innovation Center at the University of Illinois employs students studying disciplines such as electrical, mechanical, and software engineering, UX design, and imaging sensor science to explore and help solve real world scientific challenges in areas like advanced analytics, operations research, phenomics, genomics, plant science and precision breeding technologies. By creating a space for cutting-edge innovation in agriculture, we are introducing the next generation of STEM talent to the impactful and meaningful job opportunities that exist in agriculture.

“The STEM professionals I work with every day collaborate to solve interesting and complex problems that have a meaningful impact on our planet.”


3. Turning Your Top Talent into Leaders of Tomorrow

By bridging STEM and leadership skillsets, we can prepare top talent to lead the way in agricultural innovation. At Monsanto, we’ve hired more than 30 scientists into our Emerging Leaders in Science Program in the US and Brazil. The cross-functional, rotational program offers scientists an opportunity to expand their global knowledge, diversity of thought and understanding of Monsanto’s business and strategy to hone their leadership potential. We have also established a Data Science Community that connects the 500 data scientists working across our company. Our data science community has developed career architectures for every data scientist role at Monsanto and implemented people reviews to increase visibility of talent, pinpoint opportunities for development and mentoring and better understand the needs of the company.

4. Empowering Current Employees with New Skills

Technology changes fast! And it requires companies to promote and support continuous learning for employees to keep pace. This month, we launched a digital fluency program to advance Monsanto’s digital transformation by developing and equipping leaders to lead in a digital world. Interactive sessions teach leaders more about the characteristics of a digital mindset, introduce them to the perspectives of external industry experts, and offer an opportunity to develop the digital skills needed to adapt and thrive.

The STEM professionals I work with every day collaborate to solve interesting and complex problems that have a meaningful impact on our planet. We are finding new ways to show STEM talent how they can use their skills to make a difference in a transformed agricultural industry. By creating a culture of inclusion that engages diverse, disruptive innovators, we can sustainably feed an ever-expanding population.

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Melissa Harper

Melissa Harper

Vice President of Talent and Inclusion & Diversity, Monsanto

In this leadership role, Melissa is responsible for developing, transforming and executing talent strategies that drives a high-performance culture of innovation and inclusion globally.

During her 8 years with Monsanto, Melissa has developed a global function responsible for attracting talent, development, ensuring an inclusive environment, shaping a digital culture, and delivering talent needs that align to strategic business goals and preparedness for the future workforce.  Through best in class operational capabilities and analytics, she has led enterprise wide talent transformation.  This includes leading the following Centers of Excellence areas of Human Resources:  Talent Acquisition, Talent Management and Organizational Capabilities, Analytics/Operations, Inclusion & Diversity, University Relations, Employment Branding, Talent Pipeline/Sourcing, HR Compliance, Contingent Workforce, and HR Shared Services.

Melissa has been recognized as a Diverse Business Leader with the St. Louis Business Journal and most recently named to Black Enterprise Magazine’s 2016 List of Top Executives in Corporate Diversity. Her team’s efforts have led to Monsanto’s brand recognition of an employer of choice across the world, including amongst the Top 25 World’s Best Multinational Workplaces, and Top Diversity Company.

She began her career at Spencer Stuart Executive Search and later served as a Senior Vice President of Talent Acquisition at Whirlpool Corporation and Wachovia. Melissa’s expertise includes executive search, inclusion as linked to business strategies, global transformation of talent strategies, assessment, development, and culture design.

Melissa is from Chicago, IL, and received her BA in Psychology from Roosevelt University, and her MBA from the Keller Graduate School of Management.  She is on the Boards of the St. Louis YMCA, Diversity Awareness Partnership, and, St. Louis Mosaic.

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