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Women in Business – Q&A with Karen Caplan, CEO of Frieda’s Specialty Produce

Welcome to Women in Business, our blog series for Cushman & Wakefield’s Women’s Integrated Network (WIN) showcasing women in leadership roles and sharing their advice and encouragement to other women on how to succeed in business.

We spoke with Karen Caplan, Co-Owner, President, and CEO of Frieda’s Specialty Produce. She is the eldest daughter of produce trailblazer Dr. Frieda Rapoport Caplan, the first woman to start (1962) and own a produce company in the U.S. Karen graduated from the University of California, Davis with a Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Economics and Business Management before entering the family business.

A produce industry leader, Karen is a frequent keynote speaker and panelist on leadership, innovation, and produce trends. She was the first female chairperson of the United Fresh Produce Association and the first female president of the Southern California-based Fresh Produce & Floral Council and was a Director of the Federal Reserve Bank (LA branch). Karen currently serves on the boards of the California Agricultural Leadership Foundation, CSU-Cal Poly Pomona Dean’s Advisory Board, and UC Davis Agricultural Issues Center. She is also the current president of The Trusteeship, the Southern California chapter of the International Women’s Forum.

What kind of culture did you want to create for your company?
I’ve been running the company since 1986 and have seen it all in terms of building our culture. I started with trying to “professionalize” the company back in the 90s, where men had to wear ties and women had to dress up. Most recently, I wanted to stand out from the other produce companies and create an appealing environment for our workforce, which now has a lot of millennials. We started with getting rid of cubicles and making the office environment and “dress code” more casual.

Also, family is really important to me and I will say that I completely changed when I had my first daughter. I developed an understanding of the demands of having a robust home life and then balancing that with work. For example, being up all night with my kid and then coming to work and trying to focus. So, the culture we’ve created now is one that really respects your personal space and respects the family and personal pressures.  For example, I had a meeting this morning with one of my Directors. I asked her, “Before we start, how are you doing?” She had some health issues a few weeks ago and I feel it’s important to check in with employees afterwards. This promotes a better culture of work and life balance.

Does the need to drive revenue growth ever conflict with other decisions?
In my company we talk only about margin dollars. We don’t talk about sales dollars. The salespeople are incentivized by how many margin dollars they bring in and not so much about the top line revenue. Sometimes our top line revenue might stay the same but our margin dollars go up. If you understand your business model you know what that should be. In the produce industry, the companies that have the biggest failures are those who thought that the more they sell, the better, because sometimes they sell but they don’t bother to check if they’re making a profit!

What is your long-term goal with this business?
Definitely to have a sustainable business and grow the profits. The goal is to reach full environmental and financial sustainability. There are over 100 families here that depend on us, so I want to have good planning and infrastructure in place.

Switching gears, a big part of this blog is to help empower women. What is the most significant barrier to female leadership and how do you overcome that?
The biggest barrier to female leadership is often in a person’s head because there is always a way around. You might have to sacrifice something, you might have to go to a different company, you might have to move, or you might have to do something unpopular. But there are a ton of options to break through the barriers.

What advice would you give a woman who wants to advance to an executive level?
If you want to advance to the executive level, the first thing to do is set that as a personal goal and then ask yourself every day, “What am I doing to get closer to that?” Then evaluate as you’re taking action and see if that’s really working for you.

If you want to advance, you need to look and see how other people were successful. Look around and see what those other people are doing, saying, acting, reading. If there’s an executive you admire, listen to a podcast about them or go hear them speak and try talking with them one-on-one.

What are you most excited about for your future?
I’m excited for the future of this industry and my business because everyone has to eat. Also, plant-based diets are becoming more popular for good reason, not only to save the planet but to save our bodies. I’m really optimistic about the plant-based future.

Anya Ostry is a Senior Director at Cushman & Wakefield, specializing in Global Transaction Advisory, and serves as the chapter lead for the firm’s Women’s Integrated Network in Orange County. Anya is also a board member of CoreNet Global’s Southern California Chapter and CSU Fullerton’s Mihaylo College of Business & Economics Executive Council and member of Allen Matkins’ Women’s Leadership Roundtable.

Hafsa Ahmed serves as a marketing coordinator and provides administrative and marketing support to Anya Ostry’s Global Transaction Advisory team in Orange County. She is an active member of the Women’s Integrated Network, working alongside Anya to plan events and activities for members.


Click HERE to learn more about Cushman & Wakefield’s Women’s Integrated Network

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