Emerging Leader Alum Sees Strength in DifferencesShare
Growing up on a Wisconsin dairy farm, Deanna Zernicke was familiar with Land O’Lakes, Inc. and recognized the value of advocating for the agriculture industry. In college, she heard about an internship opportunity with the Land O’Lakes Global Food Challenge program. This piqued her interest, and she attended a career fair to find out more.
“In talking with the recruiter, I discovered that if I was selected to be an Emerging Leader for the Global Food Challenge, I’d have an opportunity to work with industry professionals and my peers, learning and traveling throughout the entire summer,” Zernicke recalls. “It seemed too good to be true.”
Zernicke was selected as an Emerging Leader for the 2016–17 academic year. At the time, she was a student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In December 2018, she graduated with a double major in economics and agricultural business management.
Solving problems through teamwork
In addition to traveling to Africa and observing processes and systems at a Midwestern cooperative, Emerging Leaders are matched with a Land O’Lakes mentor and a team to work on a project for a specific Land O’Lakes business unit. Emerging Leaders also work as part of an intern team on a consulting project while at the Land O’Lakes corporate office during the summer. Zernicke’s project had to deliver on:
- Developing and delivering an actionable proposal for one of the Land O’Lakes business units.
- Supporting the Land O’Lakes purpose of Feeding Human Progress.
- Helping find solutions to agricultural and food insecurity issues because the global population is projected to grow to more than 9 billion by 2050.
“The Global Food Challenge enabled me to work through actual problems — especially those that didn’t necessarily have concrete answers,” Zernicke says. “The opportunity to do that type of critical thinking was incredibly valuable.”
Zernicke learned a great deal during her time as part of the Global Food Challenge and her follow-up internship with Purina Mills at Land O’Lakes, but three traits have particularly stuck with her.
“In working on our projects, we needed to switch things up a few times,” she recalls. “I quickly learned how to be flexible and bounce back with different ideas to get around obstacles. I also learned to be resilient. Sometimes our group was so confident that our idea would solve all the world’s problems, then we would go into a meeting with our Land O’Lakes mentors and get back on track to reality,” she laughs. “It was a great lesson; we’d have to go back and figure something else out.
“The third thing was to ask concise questions and be respectful of peoples’ time. In school, you can discuss problems without a cutoff. In the office, everyone is busy and has their own projects. Our group had to learn to ask very specific questions to get the answers we needed in the allotted meeting time. That will be a great skill to have in my career.”
The power of differences
Zernicke says her biggest takeaway from the Global Food Challenge was learning the value of people with a variety of backgrounds working together. “I came into the program believing that people who grew up on a farm and were connected to agriculture were pretty much the only ones who should be working in the industry,” she recalls. “But I quickly realized that some of the smartest, most inspiring people in the Global Food Challenge program didn’t have an initial connection to agriculture.
“By having a diverse group, we came up with more valuable answers to problems than we would have with four people who were pretty much the same.”
Best of both worlds
Zernicke is pursuing a career in branding and insights and is also staying close to her family’s farm in Wisconsin. “I’ll still be connected to agriculture and use my ag business major, since I’ll be doing more of the paperwork and financials for our farm,” she says. “I’m excited to be part of the decision-making process and play a bigger role.”
Zernicke and her fellow Emerging Leaders still keep in touch via a messaging app, updating each other on what’s going on in their lives. “We came into the program as total strangers,” says Zernicke. “After going through the Global Food Challenge program together, we left as family. That was the biggest highlight: the amazing people I was privileged to work with and learn from.”
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