Seeding Change

Astad Dhunjisha, CDO of Monsanto, talks to Diversity Woman about the challenges—and the advantages—of practicing D&I in the global agricultural industry

by Antonia Hernandez

When Astad Dhunjisha was 12, his family moved back to his native India from Bahrain, where his father held a position in finance. Returning to his homeland was a culture shock.

“Even though I am Indian, I didn’t know how to fit in,” says the global talent director for Monsanto. “I was unsure of myself, and it took a while to find a friend circle. That time of my life still stays with me, and I have thought a lot about that in terms of cross-country integration throughout my career.”

Dhunjisha was basically describing a childhood example of what we now call inclusion. Today, he is responsible for just that for more than 20,000 Monsanto employees in the United States and 69 countries. His childhood experience—and the tools and empathy it engendered—has proven to be valuable in his 15 years at the Fortune 500 agricultural and biotech giant.

After graduating from the London School of Economics with a master’s in industrial relations and then working in banking in India, Dhunjisha joined Monsanto India in 2005 as the company’s human resource lead for its business units there. He quickly moved up the human resources leadership chain, relocating to the United States in 2009 and taking on increasingly larger roles across different business units. He became the company’s chief diversity officer in 2015 and in 2017 was promoted to vice president of HR—global lead, talent acquisition. He continues to serve as chief diversity officer.

“I often think about my journey and how it relates to my work,” he says. “People approach D&I from multiple angles. I approach it from my personal experience. I think that my experience—feeling like an outsider when I was young—has helped me relate to all sorts of people and understand how important inclusion is in the business environment.”

Diversity Woman: What are some of the expectations and challenges around implementing D&I in an agricultural company?
Astad Dhunjisha: What is unique about Monsanto is that the field of agriculture is not generally seen as the most progressive area, particularly when it comes to diversity and inclusion. We do an exercise in our training in which we ask people to close their eyes and think of the image when they hear the word farmer. Most people think of a middle-aged white guy on a tractor. While that is true, there are farmers from all races and genders. But that initial impression of a farmer is very strong, and we are always working to expand the understanding of farming and agriculture and the people behind them.

DW: Is teaching your employees about unconscious bias key?
 Absolutely. Here’s a story illustrating that: When I first came to the United States, I was part of the company’s vegetable business. One day a field rep, a sales guy, drove into a vegetable field where there was a group of men, mainly Latino. He drove up to the group and greeted them politely. Then he turned to the only white gentleman in the group. The sales rep asked, “Can I have a couple minutes of your time? I’d like to talk about our product.” The white guy looked at him and said, pointing to one of the Latino men, “You need to talk to him. He is the owner of the field.”

That is an example of unconscious bias and how it exists in our organization. When you drive into a field, you expect the workers to be Latinos, but not the owners. That is a bias we are always working to overcome.

DW: How do you overcome it?
 Like many companies, we have employee networks, lots of training programs around unconscious bias, and programs for promoting women in leadership.
But we have found the one piece that really made a difference is consciously working with our senior leaders on diversity and inclusion in their business line. Fortunately, Monsanto is blessed with a unique set of senior leaders who automatically get D&I. Many have been influenced by their own experiences, as at some point in their career they have been expatriates working in India, China, Singapore, wherever. As a result, there is the determination here to have a diverse team. Our senior leaders own it.

DW: About a third of your workforce is female. How do you ensure that a significant percentage of women are on leadership tracks?
 The company very consciously makes appointments at the leadership level. If we feel we don’t have enough women in a certain business area, we change that.

Recently our chief information officer, Jim Swanson, went to Germany. He was sitting at a conference table with other team members and realized they were all male. Even though it was 6 a.m. St. Louis time, he called a woman on his team and said, “I need you to be in this call with me. I’m working at this table, and we’re all white men in our 50s.”

We are also intentional by making sure that women are not just in finance or HR, but also in more male-dominated areas like R&D and commercial roles. This process has been slow, even rocky at times. It will never be a smooth journey. [Following Monsanto’s recent acquisition by Bayer, Monsanto will be part of Bayer’s Crop Sciences division. The division’s new senior leadership team includes 12 men and one woman.] But as long as we continue to be conscious and aware, we will begin to see more and more women in those sorts of positions, and as people get used to it, the numbers will only increase.

DW: In your quest for diversity, is being situated in St. Louis, in the Midwest, a challenge?
Yes it is. Especially since we don’t think of ourselves as an agricultural company. We think of ourselves as a STEM company. I can’t emphasize enough the value of technology in what we do. Farming is a massively technological enterprise, from the development of the seeds to million-dollar tractors to digital apps that monitor conditions in the field. We are very dependent on scientists and other researchers. We’re not going to find all the talent we need in the Midwest. We’re competing with companies like Apple and Google and the other top companies in Silicon Valley for the best talent, which often means bringing in scientists from Latin America, China, or India.

That challenge aside, having such an internationally diverse company also makes diversity and inclusion easier. Many of our senior leaders have been globally exposed, so they get diversity and inclusion better than leaders at another company who have never worked outside the United States.

I would say our biggest challenge is in making changes at the middle-management level. Many of our middle managers have never left the United States. This is where our training and employee networks are putting their focus.

DW: Given that immigrants make up a significant percentage of the agricultural workforce in United States, and at Monsanto in particular, does that influence the company’s political position on immigration?
 I myself am an immigrant. I came to this country in 2009 and became a citizen in 2017. What I really appreciate about Monsanto, and this is true of Corporate America in general, is that we seek out the best talent and try to bring them in. Our success as companies depends on getting the best talent in STEM, and that often means people from outside the United States.

Monsanto supports legal immigration and recognizes the need for additional workers coming from a talent pool outside the United States. We, along with other companies, want to be able to access the best talent in the world. This is a solution-oriented position; it’s not about the politics. It [hiring and advocating for access to immigrant workers] is about having a strong, robust economy—and it strengthens the United States in general. DW

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