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Beth Ford on what it’s like to be the only openly gay female CEO of a Fortune 500 company

Ford, who is No. 2 on Fast Company’s inaugural Queer 50 list, was appointed CEO of Land O’Lakes in 2018.

Beth Ford on what it’s like to be the only openly gay female CEO of a Fortune 500 company

This story is part of Fast Company‘s first-ever Queer 50 List. Click here to see the full list.

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When Beth Ford was appointed president and CEO of Land O’Lakes in 2018, she knew she would be thrust into the spotlight. Ford, who is the only openly gay woman at the helm of a Fortune 500 company, said she was ambitious from an early age. But she says she didn’t aspire to such an achievement until she was in her 40s, in part because of the lack of available role models. “Think about the trajectory for female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies,” Ford says. “It has taken us a climb to get to [36 women].” 

But the other reasons were more indicative of different stages of life. “In my 20s I was asking where the party was and can I afford my rent,” she quips. In her 30s, Ford was focused on gaining the broadest possible array of professional experiences and worked in a variety of industries from oil and gas to publishing to food and consumer packaged goods. After she got further along in her career and earned her MBA from Columbia, Ford started to see a path to the C-suite. 

In 2012, she was hired by Land O’Lakes to lead its supply chain and operations. From there, Ford quickly ascended to chief operating officer of the nearly century-old company. (Land O’Lakes recently made headlines after deciding to remove the illustration of a Native American woman from its logo ahead of the company’s 100-year anniversary.)

Three years later, Ford was appointed CEO by an all-male board. “This board looked holistically [at me],” Ford says, to determine she was the right candidate to drive strategy and investment in communities and farms. 

According to Ford, those results are inexorably tied to the health and well-being of American citizens and the U.S. economy. Her work with Land O’Lakes—which raked in $13.9 billion net sales in 2019—has aimed to improve agricultural technology and investment in that sector to lift up farmers. “One of the pillars of our [national] security,” Ford says, “is a safe and affordable food supply.” Part of her job is to remind people of the shared destiny of both rural and urban America, says Ford.

That’s never been more important than it is now, as the COVID-19 pandemic threatens supply chains and the farmers who rely on them not breaking down. Already, many dairy farmers have resorted to dumping thousands of gallons of milk as demand dwindled when hotels, restaurants, and schools shuttered. “As a farmer-owned cooperative, we are deeply aware of the ways COVID-19 is impacting rural communities, where critical infrastructure—ranging from broadband connection to healthcare facilities—can be lacking,” says Ford.

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Right now Land O’Lakes is offering a short-term solution by offering free Wi-Fi, from its own facilities and those of its member-owners, in rural communities so people can do work, keep up with school, and meet with their doctors remotely. Long term, Ford has bigger plans: “As our nation heals from this pandemic, we will continue our efforts to advocate for better investment in these communities where our food is grown.”

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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