Dr. Kate Santos is a scientist, an artist, an advocate, a traveler, a dreamer, a visionary and a go-getter. Well-known for her work managing Dümmen Orange as Operations Director, Santos has taken on a new role as co-founder of Luxflora, an organization for women in horticulture. As a born leader, Santos says her goals for Luxflora, in cooperation with co-founder and Dümmen Orange colleague Rebecca Lusk, include developing opportunities for women in the industry to tell their stories, have their voices heard, network with one another and connect with the next generation, as well as the consumers with whom they have so much in common.
“Women are the primary demographic that we as an industry target at the consumer level,” Santos says. “So women in our industry have the unique perspective of understanding where we as an industry are coming from (and what is possible and what is not), and how to deliver flowers and plants in a way that will resonate with female customers who are interacting with the product at the retail level.”
Greenhouse Grower talked with Santos to learn more about how horticulture became such an important part of her life, how that path led to the idea for Luxflora and what she sees as important areas of opportunity for the horticulture industry.
Greenhouse Grower (GG): Tell us about how you set out to pursue a career in horticulture. What is special about this industry, to you?
Kate Santos: I grew up loving the outdoors and went to college with the intention to major in plant biology. Through my undergraduate career I explored all aspects of plant biology – systematics, molecular biology and horticulture. Of all the options in plant biology, horticulture is what I always went back to. Whether it was the scientific competencies and research projects designed to answer a begging question or whether it was the solitude of walking crops, watering or planting – I was hooked. There is a duality in our industry that I love, because oftentimes in careers it is all or nothing. You’re either a lawyer or you’re not. In horticulture, there is a lot of dexterity to what we can do.
GG: How did your education and career evolve to bring you to your current position?
Santos: I often reflect on how fortunate I have been to get to where I am today, and see that my career is rooted in the insatiable desire to learn more in order to be able to truly have a perspective that takes into account the big picture and what defines our industry as a whole. It started for me at the University of New Hampshire with a degree in Plant Biology and grew as I began working as a grower for Cavicchio’s Greenhouses in Sudbury, Mass. Cavicchios’s was where I truly fell in love with growing, and my first professional accomplishments revolved around the pride I felt in growing my first poinsettia, pansy and spring annual crops.
After a few years in the industry, I was hungry to learn more in order to be able to contribute to some of the recurring challenges that were facing growers, like myself. One of my proudest career accomplishments, so far, is the doctorate I received from the University of Florida. Following my graduate program, I accepted a position with Costa Farms as the Director of Research and Development.
My current position, Operations Director, for Dümmen Orange came from an opportunity to learn and participate in the process from the beginning: the breeding and supply chain. Here I am perpetually impressed to see how we manage the daily duality between being not only a developer and innovator but also a producer and a grower. Working toward making sure each of those competencies integrate together seamlessly as an optimal product is what will continue to drive success for our organization and be our greatest strength.
GG: Tell us about some of the initiatives within your company that you have contributed to, or that you have started, which make you the most proud.
Santos: Luxflora, for one, is something that I’m incredibly proud to be a part of. Getting 100 percent health insurance covered for our employees is something else I’m proud to have contributed toward achieving. I’m currently one of many involved in our corporate HR strategy and how we can focus more on our employees and continue to define initiatives to promote our team and retain and empower our current team, as well as attract the best and brightest to help build the future of our organization. Finally, I am proud to be a part of building the identity of Dümmen Orange in North America from local initiatives within Columbus, Ohio, to more national initiatives to connect with customers in a more personal and tailored way.
GG: What do you see as some critical areas our industry needs to address in the coming months and years?
Santos: We need to work together more. Luxflora is confirming that for us. We have a new generation coming into the market, and we need to unite and reflect the passion and excitement we have to others in a way that encourages participation. Passion is contagious.
GG: What are and will be the growth markets in the industry that you see as exciting areas to watch?
Santos: I am excited to see how our industry continues to interface more closely with related industries: Fashion, Food, Home Décor, Technology – just to name a few. Vertical gardening, living decorations, inspired florals – luxury is becoming more experiential than material, and what is more experiential and rewarding than being a part of seeing something grow and develop than adding life and color to your home or workplace?
GG: How are you and your company getting involved in these areas?
Santos: We are stepping outside of our industry to other industries to learn how they operate, where we can collaborate and where there are opportunities. It is an exciting time for our industry because there is so much interest and desire to define ways to take a break from our technological dependencies. I truly believe that flowers and plants can be the counterbalance to this.
GG: How are you involved in your local community? Please tell me about any organizations that are important to you and how you support them personally.
Santos: My husband David and I moved to Columbus, Ohio a little more than two years ago, but with the travel that we both do, we are still getting to know Columbus. Being new to an area, the community here in Columbus has been incredibly welcoming. We recently bought a home and are getting to know our neighbors. I see us getting involved in local community organizations that support local artists, chefs and community initiatives that focus on making Columbus even better.
GG: As you know, this industry is full of passion, and people can spend all of their waking moments working. As a woman in horticulture, how do you balance your time to make sure you have a personal life, as well?
Santos: I would love to say that I have cracked the code on work-life balance, but honestly, my primary focus has always been my career, because my career is my passion. I love what I do, and I continue to want to be better, not only personally, but for my team, and for the company.
That being said, I think we all have a limit that we reach where we need to redirect. Over the years, I have gotten better at realizing when I am close to reaching that “breaking point” and I need to take a break (before I break), so I stop myself and go for a run, grab my camera, or pick up a book that takes me somewhere else for a while.
I think regardless of whether you are male or female and happen to have a tendency toward working too much, you need to come to terms with the fact that it is ok to take a break now and then. Sometimes those of us who always see there is more to be done have a hard time stepping away. To avoid burning out, it is important to do just that, as well as create opportunities for those you work with who may be faced with a similar challenges.
GG: Tell us a little about your family. What are some secrets you can offer other women on balancing your family and work life?
Santos: I’m sorry to say that I don’t think there are any secrets to balancing personal and work life. It is hard work, requires focus and attention and the pendulum inevitably rests too far on one side or another from time to time. My husband, David Dobos, who also works in the industry, is who I rely on to help maintain that balance. We both love travel and visiting new places and try to maintain balance by trying to align some of our travel schedules when we can. If we both happen to be in the same area, we will try to stay for a weekend if it’s somewhere neither of us have been. For us, what has been most valuable is understanding what makes each of us happy and supporting one another toward those ends.
GG: Who are some of your influences (both women and men), from both inside the industry and outside the industry?
Santos: A mentor and good friend of mine, Mike Rimland, once told me, you don’t get to write your life story – you only get to read it. Influencers for me are the people who have had a positive impact on my professional life story in a way that it would read different were they not a part of it. They are the ones that have told me something that I still remember and find myself repeating to others. They are the ones who have helped me succeed, who I still reach out to when I need a sounding board, and who influence my decisions and actions long after I have spoken to them.
For me that started with Dr. Paul Fisher (Professor and Extension Specialist at the University of Florida’s Floriculture Environmental Horticulture Department). I would not be in horticulture if it wasn’t for him, and I would not approach a problem in such a pragmatic way if I did not have the opportunity to work for him throughout my undergraduate and graduate school years. He continues to lead one of the best research programs in the country and I’m proud to have been a part of that.
I also had the pleasure to learn and work with (Costa Farms’) Mike Rimland and LJ Contillo. They are true visionaries and inspired thinkers for our industry, who unabashedly want to see this industry not only grow but thrive. Their passion is infectious and inspiring, and I count myself lucky to have had the opportunity to work with them.
Biense Visser, our CEO at Dümmen Orange, is the most recent influencer in my career and has taught me a lot about business acumen and strategy, the importance of building relationships and collaborations, and to always look at a situation from multiple angles in order to stay objective. I consider myself very lucky to have these individuals, as well as many others, as such positive influencers in my career.