Firsts

Beth Ford

First openly gay woman to become CEO of a Fortune 500 company

‘Whether I was a female, gay — that wasn’t part of the conversation.’

As one of eight children raised in Iowa, it was a busy household. My siblings were sometimes competitive, but as I reflect back on it, it was a blessing. We went to work at 11 or 12 and worked hard in the fields. My parents certainly never told me that I couldn’t do anything that I set my mind to.

When I went into undergrad at Iowa State I thought, Let’s be pragmatic. You’ve got to do something that you can make a living of. So I decided to go over to the business school, and I liked it. It hit all of the different areas like marketing, finance and operations that excited me.

I’ve been in fairly conservative organizations. I worked for Mobil Oil Corporation as my first job in my 20s. When you’re in your in your first job, you’re trying to figure out who you are as a professional. In my late 20s, I met my wife, Jill. One time, while I was in publishing and living in New York City, I was on a jog up the West Side Highway with Jill. We ran into the CEO of the company I was working for, and he said, “Oh, who is that?” And I said, “This is Jill. Jill’s my partner.” From a professional perspective, I wasn’t going to say, “Oh, this is a good friend of mine.” That’s silly. She and I have been together for over two decades now, and that’s the biggest blessing for me.

Now as CEO of Land O’Lakes, it’s meaningful work. It’s a very big business, but there is an intimacy to it. When trying to answer important questions — like, how do you feed a growing world population in a sustainable way? I think all diverse voices are absolutely critical. Leadership is a team sport. It’s about enabling and empowering the team to succeed.

I am very fortunate that the board recognized that based on the criteria they were assessing, the view and the vision for the future and the strategic issues, they felt that I was the best match for the job. Whether I was a female, gay — that wasn’t part of the conversation. When you’re put in this position, what you want to be valued for is your ability to lead and to do the work that you’re being asked to do. I’m a whole person and happen to have this responsibility — and I am blessed with it.

When Ford took the CEO role in August 2018, she became one of 25 women leading Fortune 500 companies at the time.

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