Women in Business Q&A: Heather Onstott, CFO, Freight Farms

Heather Onstott is the CFO at Freight Farms, Inc., a startup focused on creating a more connected and sustainable food supply. Freight Farms manufactures hydroponic farms inside shipping containers, the Leafy Green Machine. Connecting Leafy Green Machines across the continent with the Farmhand app, freight farmers have access to best practices, crop data and expert advice.

Heather is also a Venture Partner at LaunchCapital's Boston office, having co-founded the Small Business division that focused on debt investments. As Director of Small Business, Heather implemented two innovative debt structures to help narrow the funding gap between traditional bank financing and venture capital.

Heather has almost 25 years of experience working with small businesses and startups. In addition to being a frequently requested speaker and startup pitch judge, Heather has been an elected officer to several nonprofit boards and currently serves on the advisory board of The Capital Network, an organization focused on the financial education of early-stage entrepreneurs. Heather holds a BA in Economics and French from Wofford College, and an MBA from Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I grew up in a really small town that allowed a lot of freedom of movement; kids were expected to go outside and explore and entertain themselves - solo or as a group. We heard "you can do it" and "figure it out" a LOT. I believe that having that ingrained from an early age makes one "scrappy" (now called "creative thinking" and "solution-oriented"). That willingness to try or do anything has served me well both personally and professionally.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Freight Farms?
As a banker I learned to assess risk and navigate political waters. As a consultant I learned how to break issues into their core elements and communicate them clearly. As a venture investor I learned how important it is to be humble and seek out entrepreneurs that would listen to coaching, but ultimately put a stake in the ground and make their own decisions. I bring all of these learnings into the office every day - and use most of them on an hourly basis!

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Freight Farms?
Every day that a Small Business Farmer joins the Freight Farms network is a highlight for me. I love the entrepreneurial spirit that drives someone to be his/her own boss and carve his/her own path. To work with a company that enables that for more people - while solving one of the world's most challenging problems, the food supply chain - never gets old.

Everyday also brings its own set of unique challenges. If it didn't, I'd probably find somewhere that did - vanilla ice cream without sprinkles is just not for me.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
Creating a product means you have to get three things nailed down: sales, marketing and manufacturing. There are a million other little things but those are the big ones. If you want to stand out from the crowd, be able to do the math. Growth, margins, conversion rates, throughput, capacity... we live and breathe these metrics. Understand how they relate and impact each other and you're halfway there. It's pretty simple advice but there aren't many people I run across that can string them all together.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
Oh there are so many! Others have covered a lot here so I'll confess to a more recent reminder: balancing the desire to say "yes" to take on new challenges with one's realistic availability is imperative. If you don't say yes enough, great opportunities pass. If you say yes too often, you can't possibly handle it all well. I have damaged my own credibility and others' by not properly matching time commitments with time availability. You don't do anyone any favors by taking on more than you can handle and then struggling through, but you also do yourself a great disservice by not raising your hand. The location of that line in the sand changes daily, so just be aware of it and manage it appropriately.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I really hate this question for so many reasons. But in the spirit of non sibi, I personally try to remind myself that this particular balance is not 50/50 every day, it is more like something to strive for over the long run. We all work crazy hours - but I try to make sure that the big rocks go in the jar first. Often at the expense of a good night's rest!

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
The biggest issue that we as a society have is that we even give voice to the phrase "women in the workplace". Take it from a confessed math geek: ignore meaningless and poorly analyzed statistics about women in any given industry or proportions of relative salaries. Averaging anything so broadly yields meaningless conclusions. Do what you want and be good at it, and don't worry about your gender. If you're good at what you do no one thinks of you as a "woman in the workplace" - they think of you as a leader. Isn't that what we all want anyway?

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I'm not sure I ever had a mentor in the traditional sense, but I certainly had bosses along the way that served as excellent examples for me and encouraged my growth. Two that immediately stand out are a peer and one who is considerably younger - so don't let age define who will be a good champion! Both of these men provided guidance and feedback but let me define how to handle tasks at hand. Letting me learn rather than giving me "the answer" helped build my confidence, which is the best gift any mentor can give. Unfortunately I grew into my career at a time when there weren't many women available as mentors. I'm not sure how that would have changed the shape of my career, I encourage women to find mentors where they can regardless of gender.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Well who doesn't want to be Sheryl Sandberg's best friend? Between her accomplishments, humor, candor (and, sadly, grace) she embodies a trait of every woman I've ever admired. Next to her I'd have to say my 96 year old Nana. She recently had surgery to fix a broken kneecap caused by catching her heel on a sidewalk while heading to church. She couldn't stand the thought of no longer being able to dance, so chose surgery over a cast. She bakes cookies for her substitute mailman and gardener, has 15 lbs of on sale butter in the freezer (just in case...) and still lives in the same house she's lived since my childhood. Both women's independence, practicality, sassiness, humility and love of family are characteristics I strive to incorporate into my own life.

What do you want Freight Farms to accomplish in the next year?
I want to see Freight Farms help place fresh produce into the places that need it most. There are so many urban food deserts that have wreaked havoc with the health of our most at-risk community segments. I would love to see Freight Farms empower more and more individuals to start their own business, connecting them to add transparency to our food supply. Imagine a world where "traceability" means walking next door. And most of all I want Freight Farms to become a key part of educating our next generation about food. We've had a lot of interest from colleges and universities, but I'd like to see elementary and middle schools get involved.