Women In Horticulture Should Celebrate Their Differences And Focus On Their Strengths, Says Maria Costa-Smith
Maria Costa-Smith, executive vice president at Costa Farms in Miami, Fla., says she believes in equal treatment for equal work. She encourages women in horticulture to work hard, be team players, perform beyond expectations and add value to their organizations.
Fulfilling Her Dreams
Maria Costa-Smith grew up in the horticulture industry, and never doubted that she wanted a career in ornamental horticulture. Part of a family with a history steeped in agriculture, her grandfather, Jose Costa, was a farmer in Cuba, who sent her father, Tony Costa, to the University of Florida just before the Cuban Revolution to study agriculture. When the family uprooted in 1961 and fled to the U.S., they began growing tomatoes and citrus on a 30-acre plot of land in Miami, and soon after expanded into ornamentals. Thus, Costa Farms was established.
Working on the farm with her father and grandfather, Costa-Smith says she was always sure about two things – studying ornamental horticulture, and going to the University of Florida, her dad’s alma mater, to do it. When she announced to her family that this was her plan, she says her grandfather chuckled and said that it was a waste of time because women couldn’t work in agriculture. She didn’t let that hold her back – and she says she remembers it more fondly than it sounds.
“I think in retrospect, he was doing it more to motivate me than to actually tell me that I couldn’t do it, because I know he was very proud of everything that I was doing,” she says.
Today, Costa Farms is the second largest greenhouse operation in the United States, with more than 15 million square feet of greenhouse space, 750 acres of shade houses and nearly 1,400 field acres, plus a farm in the Dominican Republic, where it propagates all of its young plants. The company grows more than 1,500 varieties of houseplants, as well as a wide range of annuals and perennials, and sells its plants to home improvement stores, mass merchandisers, grocery stores, home décor retailers, wholesale clubs, garden centers and many other retailers. Costa-Smith says the operation’s mission revolves around three words: Team, Solutions and Growth.
“We are very focused on building the best team in the industry, delivering solutions for our customers – including everything from marketing to logistics to information technology – and growing so we can continue to recruit the best talent, not just in our industry but in the world,” she says. “We feel very strongly about continuing to develop this company, so we can attract more talent and develop more solutions for our customers.”
IT And R&D
Part of that growth and development of the team is certainly attributed to the efforts of Costa-Smith, executive vice president of the operation’s Color Division, though she is quick to remind that the operation’s success is thanks to the whole team. Costa Farms is run by a leadership team that includes Costa-Smith, as well as her husband, CEO and President Jose Smith, and her brother, Jose Costa III, executive vice president – Foliage Division.
One of the areas she has directly affected includes the company’s commitment to information technology (IT). After completing her B.S. in ornamental horticulture at University of Florida, she says something seemed like it was missing. She went back to school and completed a masters’ degree in agricultural engineering, which she says provided her with a focus on business and efficiency.
Costa Farms has since developed an in-house IT team of 15 people, and its own home-grown ERP system that she says is “the guts of our business.”
“That’s a little bit different than other agriculture businesses, in that early on – about 15 years ago – we committed a significant part of our revenue to having a very robust information technology department, where we do our own programming, so we have very good information to make good decisions for ourselves and our customers.”
Costa-Smith is also passionate about research and development (R&D), and the farm has various objectives for its extensive R&D department, including developing new products for consumers that will also work for retailers.
“That’s important,” she says. “You can come up with a great product that would perform wonderfully for the end consumer, but it won’t hold up necessarily, or look good on the retailer end. So we take a long-term approach to developing products that will work well for all of our customers.”
Another key area in R&D is focusing on improving profits, and the operation continuously challenges itself to find the best and most efficient way to grow its products, she says. As part of this effort, Costa Farms has been working to become more vertically integrated, and opened offices in China to source products worldwide.
Costa Farms is well-known for its dynamic marketing team, and Costa-Smith says she is immensely proud of the work the department has done.
“It is really through our marketing efforts that we have been able to reach and understand the end consumer,” she says. “It ties in with R&D – to understand their needs and concerns, understand the challenges for our consumers to deal with our products, so we can develop great marketing programs that address those end user concerns – and also address our retailers’ needs and concerns.”
Since she got into the business, a key area of change has been the industry’s evolution of service to the mass merchants, which has made plants more accessible – and more affordable – to consumers from all walks of life.
“I think it’s pretty exciting that we played our part to color the world – or at least our country,” she says. “And I use the term ‘we’ in the sense that it takes a village, right? It takes everything from R&D to the breeding companies that come up with these wonderful products to the distributors to the growers and then the retailers. Our industry, at least during my career, has shifted in that people can now afford to have certain blooming and indoor plants that they couldn’t afford to have in their homes years ago.”
Another part of that, however, is that the added price pressure from the mass market has also increased pressure on growers to be more efficient, and ultimately has led to industry consolidation.
“There are a lot fewer nurseries today than when I started, so that’s a big shift,” she says. “Because of the pressure to be efficient, we’ve gotten a tremendous amount of pressure to be more and more cutting edge, and to be able to produce plants at prices that are affordable to consumers. So we have really had to work hard to understand our costs and understand where automation adds value and where it doesn’t.”
Investing In The Extended Costa Family
The most important part of her job, Costa-Smith says, is to make sure that Costa Farms has the right team and that everyone on the team is motivated and happy.
“One of our fundamental values is how much we believe in the team,” she says. “Not one individual or even a small group of individuals, could achieve what this group of people has achieved. We really believe that our biggest asset is our team, and we don’t recruit people who don’t fit in that culture.”
The leadership team, “puts its money where its mouth is,” Costa-Smith says, and spends a tremendous amount of time and money on recruitment, team development and continuing education.
“Success breeds success,” she says. “Everyone wants to be part of a winning team, and we recruit people with that type of attitude. We are all winners, we are very, very averse to losing and we’re all fighters. That kind of attitude breeds itself. It’s an exciting place to work and it’s all of our jobs to make sure that that culture goes on way past when I’m gone from the farm.”
Team development expands to the operation’s entire family of 4,000 employees, she says. In addition to fun activities like Monster Olympics, where different departments compete against one another, and the farm’s celebrations at TPIE, Costa Farms puts a huge emphasis on education – including literacy of its farmworkers, continuing education for its team members and helping to finance college education for its team members’ families.
“To me, this is the most exciting work that’s being done under our team development umbrella,” Costa-Smith says.
In February, Costa Farms graduated 39 people from its literacy program, the second graduating class thus far. Farm workers at Costa Farms are encouraged to take month-long programs, available during work hours, to learn how to read, write and do math, among other skills.
“I can’t tell you how humbling it is to sit through that graduation and listen to these people say, ‘it was really hard as an adult for me to learn how to read, but my life has changed forever,’” Costa-Smith says. “It’s exciting to see these farmworkers who couldn’t read anything, to stand up with a microphone and read thank-you notes, and it brought us all to tears. It opens so many doors to people and you don’t realize – you think everyone in this country can read and write, but it’s not accurate, because there are a lot of immigrants who don’t know how.”
Through a scholarship program Costa Farms established 10 years ago, the operation has helped fund college tuition for almost 100 of its employees’ children. The program is geared toward families that wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford a college education, Costa-Smith says. Education to her family has always been the most important thing, she says, and that’s why Costa Farms has put such an emphasis on helping its extended family make it possible.
“Education, for us, is very important, I think because of our background and having to quickly leave our country, because our grandparents and parents couldn’t educate their children in a free society,” she says. “We feel very passionate that education is critical, and we walk the talk, all the way from helping team members who can’t afford a college education to educating our current team members. It is very, very, very important.”
That emphasis on education extends to the community and beyond. As a proud board member at Homestead Hospital, built by Baptist Health Systems, Costa-Smith helps develop health care education and wellness programs that serve an underprivileged community. She’s also been involved for the past four years in a mission program called Medical Students In Action, which periodically travels to the Dominican Republic and sets up week-long health clinics. The mission includes doctors and medical students in pediatrics, cardiology, dentistry and other disciplines. Maria chaperones teams of bilingual high school students who serve as translators between the medical team and the patients.
“It’s a wonderful experience to be able to help people who are really, truly in physical need, but it’s also wonderful to teach our next generation about how they can use their gifts to give back. That’s very important personally.”
Women And Men Complement Each Other In The Workplace
Being a woman in horticulture can have its advantages and disadvantages, Costa-Smith says, but whether you’re a woman or a man in this field, the key to success is leveraging your strengths and working hard.
In the workplace, women and men complement one another, but women do bring a unique set of skills particularly to the agriculture industry.
“If we focus, as women, on delivering value in our organization, we will be viewed equally,” she says. “A woman in a room with a bunch of men is never going to be viewed the same because we’re not the same, but let’s celebrate and leverage our differences.”
Some of those differences might include being very detail-oriented, empathetic and compassionate to team members and a better understanding of the end consumer.
“As women, I think we’re able to perhaps understand the consumer a little bit more, and that gives us an edge in agriculture, in that we can work to develop solutions for our ultimate consumers that address their needs,” she says. “We are able to put ourselves in the shoes of the ultimate consumer, a little bit better than perhaps our male counterparts, and I think that’s one major advantage.”
Current mainstream workplace issues like equal pay is problematic, Costa-Smith acknowledges, but she says equal pay seems like a given – man or woman, of any race or creed – pay should be based on performance.
“There’s no free lunch,” she says. “We deliver, we get paid. That’s the way it works. It doesn’t matter the race, the gender – none of that matters. So as women, the best argument we can have for equal pay and the best case we can make for equal treatment and equal pay is just superior performance.”
She applies this same realistic outlook to the question of whether her children will join Costa Farms one day. The mother of three boys – one who graduated with an engineering degree this spring, one enrolled in a liberal arts program to pursue writing and one in high school – Maria says if they want to join the operation, they’ll be treated like everyone else, as equals.
“When we say it’s a family business, the family extends to the 4,000 team members who work here, so if we have next generation family members who could add value to that team and that family, they will be interviewed as anyone else. We would love to have them, but only if they add value to the organization,” she says. “That may sound harsh, but at the end of the day, my responsibility is for the well-being of Costa Farms, not to create jobs for the next generation of Costas.”
Looking Toward The Future
The industry has a number of challenges in its path, and it’s up to each organization to do its part, as well as to collaborate on solutions, Costa-Smith says. Water availability is one of these challenges, as is sustainability as an over-arching concern. Costa Farms is using its R&D department to work toward sustainable solutions.
“Water in the world is a finite resource and we have to continue to develop products and plants that need less water, and more efficient ways to water our products, both at the nursery level and at the consumer level,” Costa-Smith says. “Along those lines, we need to work on using more biological controls than we have in the past. This is an important initiative at Costa Farms.”
Whether it’s looking at water or chemical usage, using less plastic or finding alternative packaging, sustainability should be a target for all industries and humans, Costa-Smith says.
“You can argue about global warming back and forth, whether it exists or not, but one thing we cannot argue is that as humans and as companies, we do change the earth. We are using water; we are using chemicals; we are using plastic. So what can we do as an industry and as a business to minimize our footprint on the earth, moving forward?”
Developing solutions for small-space gardening, increased the demand for plants and improving consumer success with plants are other important initiatives for Costa Farms, Costa-Smith says.
“Our population is changing, and there is growing interest in gardening,” she says. “We know there is opportunity, but the reason that potential hasn’t been fully developed yet is because we have to send the message about how consumers can succeed with our products and set expectations, too. We can make people feel like they’re going to succeed with our products through our marketing efforts and through education. That’s a really important frontier.”