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Beth Ford wants to change the narrative about rural America

The CEO of Land O’Lakes is No. 3 on Fast Company’s third annual Queer 50 list.

Beth Ford wants to change the narrative about rural America

Millions of Americans don’t have access to high-speed internet, the majority of whom live in rural areas. To help the 4,000-plus member owners of its farmer cooperative, Land O’Lakes CEO Beth Ford has made it her mission to advocate for public and private investment in broadband access.

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Internet connectivity is necessary for quality education and healthcare. Without the right tools and technology, it’s harder for farmers and their families to be successful. “When farmers aren’t secure, it leaves us less secure as a nation,” says Ford. 

To help bridge the digital divide, Ford spearheaded Land O’Lakes’ American Connection Project. Advocating for private and public sector investment in rural internet infrastructure, the effort includes over 170 organizations.

Ford is working closely with U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, and was in D.C. for the signing of the $65 billion infrastructure bill that will ensure that every American has access to high-speed internet. “It’s not success to get the money if we don’t get the thing done right,” says Ford.

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An example of getting things done right can be found in Aberdeen, South Dakota, where Land O’Lakes and the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI) launched the first American Connection Community. The initiative provides residents and businesses with not only internet service; they can gain access to digital skills and training necessary to compete and gain jobs in today’s marketplace. 

“This is a job creation engine of innovation in Aberdeen,” says Ford. “We’re standing up in partnership with Microsoft and ISP providers, WiFi and broadband, assisting on this implementation from the Commerce Department.” 

Another of Ford’s missions is addressing food insecurity—an issue that hits close to home. While she’s the CEO of one of the largest food companies in the world, Ford actually grew up in Sioux City, Iowa, one of eight children in a family that didn’t always have enough food on the table. Her father was a truck driver and a car salesman. Her mother, who she calls her best role model, was an RN who went back to school to become a therapist and minister, counseling women experiencing domestic violence. Ford’s first job was detasseling corn for $2 an hour.

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Appearing on CNN’s Boss Files with Poppy Harlow, Ford shared that 78% of the counties in America that index as food insecure are in rural America. “Where I get most passionate is when I see how hard these families work to do the right thing,” she said in the interview. “To work to feed their own family and feed all of us. And they lack the appropriate investment. That’s just not right, and I don’t know why we see it as someone else’s problem.”

Ford says the purpose of Land O’Lakes is to change the narrative about the lack of vibrancy in rural America. “Yes, it’s to feed a growing world population, of course,” she says. “But I am laser-focused . . . on appropriate investment, on opportunity for everybody.”

In addition to being a voice for farmers, she uses her platform to speak out and raise awareness of the issues impacting members of the LGBTQ community. When Ford became Land O’Lakes’ CEO in 2018, she became the first openly gay female CEO of a Fortune 500 company—one that is an industry typically led by white males.

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“Visibility is what is critical,” says Ford, who is speaking at several Pride-related events in June. “I think it’s about showing up, doing your best work, being your best self, and being visible. That encourages authenticity, no matter whether you’re gay or not.”

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