In August, Beth Ford became the first openly lesbian woman to be named CEO of a company in the Fortune 500 when she took the helm at Land O’Lakes. In conversation at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in Laguna Niguel, California on Tuesday, Ford focused on the road that led her to that milestone. “I believe careers are a journey,” Ford told the audience.
Ford’s first job was detasseling corn as a pre-teen in Iowa, and she returned to the food industry only after roles at seven companies in six different industries.
She’s worked in sectors ranging from oil production to book publishing, and she says working in “people-intensive” areas has been the common thread: “I love the mess of it. People are just so much fun,” she said.
Finding meaning in her work is another theme throughout her career. Ford says she enjoyed her role in publishing, for example, because of the focus on children’s literacy.
When the opportunity at Land O’Lakes presented itself, it was the mission that convinced her she would be a good fit. The company, which is farmer-owned, is focused on the challenge of feeding a growing global population with less land and less water.
Land O’Lakes’s business operations “go all the way—from the acre all the way to the store shelves,” Ford said, and the company tracks data across the entire process. Gathering all that information gives the company an advantage, she says, not just in solving the problem of feeding people but also in satiating the growing demand from consumers for transparency about where their food comes from.
The structure of the $14 billion cooperative also keeps Ford’s focus on the farmers. The company has developed models for planet-friendly dairy production, helping its farmers learn techniques that ensure “they are producing in a sustainable model for the future,” she said.
In August, as Ford realized a career goal of many years—becoming a CEO—more people than she was accustomed to became focused on her. “The reaction has been quite overwhelming in some ways and emotional,” she said of the response to her advancement.
She received messages from parents who had shared her inspirational story with their queer children and notes from strangers thanking her for openly living her truth.
“It wasn’t a barrier,” she said. “You can lead your life authentically, and you want to be valued, as we all want to be valued, on the quality of our work and our relationships.”