Women in Business 2014: Karissa Kruse, Sonoma County Winegrowers

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President, Sonoma County Winegrowers, 3637 Westwind Blvd., Santa Rosa 95403, 707-522-5863, www.sonomawinegrape.org

Age: 38

Residence: Santa Rosa

Professional background: I have more than 17 years of experience in various aspects of marketing, brand management, strategic planning and business development. I have worked for companies such as General Mills, Universal Studios, Mattel and Dairy Management. I worked at Dairy Management for seven years on behalf of dairy farmers nationally.

[caption id="attachment_94222" align="alignleft" width="245"] Karissa Kruse[/caption]

I am a partner in a small winery, Argot Wines, and the owner of a 25-acre parcel in Bennett Valley, with five acres planted to grapes. That makes me a winegrower, in addition to working for them.

I am on the board of the Sonoma County Harvest Fair, Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation, Sonoma County Tourism, Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, Santa Rosa Junior College Viticulture Advisory Committee and a member of Leadership Santa Rosa Class 29. I was selected as a North Bay Business Business Journal Forty Under 40 award recipient in 2012.

Education: B.S., economics, and MBA, marketing and strategic management, Wharton School of Business at University of Pennsylvania.

Staff: I have five full-time staff people, one shared staff person and a contract bookkeeper. I manage a 21-person board and oversee two committees -- Marketing and Grower Programs, a joint community relations task force and a Sustainability Initiative working group.

Tell us about yourself and your organization: I am the president of Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, also known as Sonoma County Winegrowers. It's a marketing and educational organization dedicated to the promotion and preservation of Sonoma County as one of the world's premier grape-growing regions. I work on behalf of the 1,800 grape growers in Sonoma and Marin counties (District 3).

We are a state commission with oversight by California Department of Food and Agriculture, which supports producer regions. This means that growers have voted to assess the sale of their grapes in order to have a fund to do marketing, promotions, education and support agriculture preservation.

Sonoma County Winegrowers has an unprecedented partnership with the Sonoma County Vintners and Sonoma County Tourism to support tourism, winemaking and grape growing in Sonoma County. We are known as the "trio."

My role in the organization is to work with the board of directors to set a strategic plan and budget. I oversee 60-plus grower education programs a year dealing with everything from new technologies, pest management, water conservation, employee development and sustainable winegrowing. I also lead the SCW marketing efforts, many of them in partnership with the "trio," which includes national advertising with partners such as the Wall Street Journal, Food & Wine Magazine, and Wine Spectator.

We have events such as Sonoma in the City and Sonoma Summit, focused on educating trade, media and consumers about our region, wines, and vineyards.

SCW also has a community relations and outreach initiative in partnership with Sonoma County Vintners. In order to immerse consumers in the vineyard experience, SCW has a unique program with vineyard walks and a consumer Grape Camp event every year.

I also work with the local, regional and national media on both promoting Sonoma County and educating on our grape-growing issues.

This organization handles everything from water issues that affect growers to marketing Sonoma County grapes and wines. I truly never know what the day will bring and always feel motivated and challenged by the vast array of the things I get to do.

What is the achievement you are most proud of?: The biggest accomplishment in the past year and achievement that I am most proud of are the same thing -- being a part of the Sonoma County Winegrowers' commitment to be the first wine region in the U.S. that is 100 percent sustainable. There is no greater achievement than to ensure that the land and people in this county endure.

I am so proud to be a part of agriculture and of such a humble, intelligent, generous community of grape growers who are stewards of their land and of this county. I am proud of them and proud to be a winegrower in Sonoma County.

What is your biggest challenge today?: The biggest challenge today is the increasing regulations for grape-growing and farming in this county. Agriculture has always been at the heart and soul of Sonoma County's identity. Yet today, our farmers who have been here for generations are facing a lot of obstacles due to more regulations and a small minority of community members that don't see or understand the value and importance of keeping ag alive in this county.

Agriculture keeps the land in soil, not concrete. It supports the livelihood of farmers and their families, and it is an economic driver for this county. I hope that we can have more collaboration moving forward and those who feel that grapegrowers are not stewards of their land will take the time to meet with us, see how we farm, and how much we positively impact our community through charity, volunteering and so much more.

As a successful female professional, what were the biggest obstacles you faced, and how did you overcome them?: For me, the two biggest obstacles that I faced in my career were having the tenacity to "get on the track" and then having the courage "to get off the track." As a young girl growing up in South Dakota, my career aspirations were pretty simple.

However, a move at age 10 to Colorado Springs opened my mind to the possibility of living in new places, exploring and pursuing an East Coast education and corporate career. With this new mindset, I set a goal of having a corner office in a big consumer products marketing company. I wanted to market cereal, shampoo or some popular brand with a big budget.

This desire led me to dedicate my high school days to getting into a great college through volunteering, sports, extracurricular activities, leadership roles, shadowing professionals in the workplace and academic focus. And then I dedicated my college days into getting that first critical job by working for free at different agencies and companies to learn marketing, joining clubs, getting good grades and being a leader in school organizations. I pursued everything with focus, determination and lots of hard work.

All of this led to that first big job, marketing Honey Nut Cheerios for General Mills. I had arrived, right?

I thought I had arrived, but the reality of working at a big company was not at all what I had imagined. I felt trapped into sticking with something that I had worked so hard to get. Having the courage to leave General Mills and eventually pursue a path in small business, working for people and, now, in agriculture, was an obstacle I overcame.

I did this by allowing myself to work at something that I am passionate about, even if it is not the path that was expected of me or the one that I originally thought would make me happy. The biggest obstacles for me were often those that I created myself and, therefore, had to overcome myself.

Being a woman in the workplace, that is actually something I have always embraced.

How did your background in marketing prepare you for leading an agricultural trade organization for a premium- to luxury-tier product?: The core of marketing to me is about connecting with people, communicating and being a champion. It can be done with a brand, a product or people. It is important to believe in what you are doing.

I love and so appreciate that I was able to transition from big business and big brands to working for people who are farmers and small-business owners. It is easy to do marketing with big budgets, because you can try many things and figure out what works. There are models and case studies to follow.

Now I am trying to do way more than I ever have with the smallest budget I have ever worked with. The small budget pushes me to be smart, look for collaboration and partnerships, and make every dollar count.

This job is the most rewarding job I have ever done, because I know the people I am helping. I know their spouses, their kids, their vineyards and their dogs. I work hard, because I want them to continue to do what they love, their calling of being a farmer. We are so lucky to have this group of farmers here in Sonoma County who love working, preserving and living on the land that's been passed down from generation to generation.

What "hats" do you have to wear in working with various groups, from member growers to neighbor and activist organizations to government representatives?: I prefer to think of it as all of the different shoes that I wear -- there are the "heels' that I wear when I am out in the community doing outreach, education and presenting about our grower initiatives. There are the "cowboy boots" that I wear to meet with growers and for days in the office. There are the "vineyard work boots" that I wear when I am out with a grower leaving footprints in the vine rows or out working in my own vineyard. There are the "flats" that I wear for a day of running around the office with my staff doing meetings, working with our agencies and prepping for the next board, committee, or neighbor meeting. There are my "running shoes" that are always in my car in case I can sneak in a run or a hike to recharge. I love them all. I guess that is one thing very female about me, "I love shoes!"

How do you think your profession will change in the next five years?: If we are able to meet our ambitious goal for sustainability, then in five years the Sonoma County wine industry will become America's first 100 percent sustainable wine region. That will feel like a big accomplishment. My hope for the next five years is that the community will continue to embrace and support agriculture and farmers here in Sonoma County.

This would enable me to spend less time preserving our right to farm in this current regulatory environment and more time celebrating the bounty that is Sonoma County, our community and the heritage of farming that is the fabric of this great place to live and work.

Tell us a little about your most important mentor: No one has made a greater impact on my life than my older brother -- both in his life and in his death. He was five years older than me, and I wanted to do everything that he did -- be a runner, play basketball, study marketing and be an entrepreneur.

He was my biggest champion and also my biggest challenger. He would encourage me to always be the best at what I did, to take risks, to be bold, be smart, to not settle and never be complacent.

Through his death, I have embraced how impossibly short life can be and how lucky we are to wake up each morning with the opportunity to feel love, pain, sweat, tears and hugs.

I have had many great mentors but only one brother. I miss him every day, but he is a part of everything that I do and who I am.

What advice would you give to a young woman entering your profession or the work world today?: Be yourself, and embrace both your strengths and your weaknesses. It is not about being a male or female in the workplace. It is about being an authentic version of yourself: Show up. Work hard. Be nice. Always challenge yourself to learn. Find a mentor. Champion people. Use mistakes as a way to learn and not a reason to beat yourself up. Celebrate small wins and successes -- preferably with a great bottle of Sonoma County sparkling wine!

Most admired businessperson outside your organization: There are many business people who are smart and caring. I work for 1,800 of them. However, I most admire one of the first people in this county whom I met and who took a chance on me and believed in me from our first encounter -- Bill Robotham. Yes, he is intelligent and strategic and successful, but I appreciate that Bill always has time for lunch, to send an email of encouragement, to listen and to offer advice by asking good questions versus telling you his opinion. He is a mentor but, more importantly, a great friend.

Words that best describe you: Tenacious, passionate, energetic, strategic, driven, risk-taker, scrappy.

Current reading: Does the large binder titled Code of Sustainable Winegrowing count? I am spending a lot of time with that book these days. But for evening and weekend reading, I am in the middle of two books. That is usually how it goes with me -- one book for fun, currently The Rosie Project, and one book for learning, currently Green to Gold. Yes, I am a little late to this book, but it is much more relevant now with our sustainability commitment.

Most want to meet: For business, I would have liked to have met Ewing Marion Kauffman, founder of the Kauffman Foundation. The core of the foundation and Mr. Kauffman's legacy is that entrepreneurship can be applied to any discipline. I have always been inspired by one of his messages: "managing for opportunity and innovation is bound to be unsettling. Transformational work is not a comfortable business."

For fun, I would like to meet Robert Downey Jr. and listen to him play the piano and sing. There, that is honesty for you, and yes, I am blushing.

Stress-relievers: A hard run, a glass of Sonoma County wine, laughing with friends. The wine and friends often go together!

Favorite hobbies: Hiking and wine tasting. That seems like a simple list, unless it is here in Sonoma County, where we are blessed with so many amazing options.

Anything to add?: One of my favorite quotes, "The person who says it cannot be done, should not interrupt the person doing it." I think this basically sums up my motto in life. If you want to do something, stop talking about it and just do it.

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