erin O'donnell

VICE PRESIDENT OF SALES AT SUN VALLEY RICE COMPANY

FULL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT

Welcome to the AgSnacc Podcast where we take a look at careers in agriculture and the journey toward those careers. I’m your host, Erin Gorter, and we hope you enjoy this tasty AgSnacc. 

 

Erin Gorter:

All right, so today we are here with Erin O'Donnell, the Vice President of Sales with Sun Valley Rice Company. Good morning, Erin. How are you? 

 

Erin O'Donnell:

Good morning, Erin. I’m good. 

 

Erin Gorter:

Fabulous. So we start off here with having you describe what you do for a living and what a typical day at work looks like for you. 

 

Erin O'Donnell:

Well, as you mentioned, I'm the vice president of sales for Sun Valley Rice Company. We are a rice miller in Northern California. So that means we, the company buys rice from local growers, we mill it and we sell it to our customers. Our customers can be anywhere in the world really. So the rice that we grow in Northern California is typically used for Japanese food, like sushi, and so sushi has become really popular not just in California, and the United States, but really all over the world. So one of our roles here in sales is to sell our rice to our customers domestically here in the United States, but also for export. So we export the rice to Europe, to Asia because we have customers in Hong Kong and China, and Russia and South America. So a typical day for me can look really different depending on what's going on that day. So a lot of times I'll be talking to customers, international customers, so that could start really early in the morning if we're talking to European customers, or it can be really late in the afternoon, if we're talking to customers in Asia. We also work with customers here locally in the domestic market. So sometimes I get to talk to people who are my neighbors too. And so it really comes down to that: connecting with our customers wherever they may be, making sure they're getting the rice that they want. If there's any, anytime there's a quality claim, the first person that the customer calls is one of the salespeople, so we are the first person to sort of try to smooth that over. And that really can be one of the best parts of the job is really helping your customers get what they want, and helping them if they're upset, helping them calm down, and really finding a solution that works best for both the customer and the company. So that's one of the things I like best about the job is just working to kind of problem solve and help customers get what they want, but really do the best thing for the company too. 

 

Erin Gorter:

So within that question, you just address kind of what your like, favorite part about the job is. What is the most challenging part about your job? 

 

Erin O'Donnell:

You know, again, it can kind of depend on the timing. So there's different challenges that pop up at different times of year or different years. Just different years are different. When you’re working with an agricultural commodity, there's a lot of things that can happen and it's never the same. So one year can be different from the next year as far as the growing season, or what might happen with the supply issues. So one of the hardest parts I would say is anytime we face a situation where there might, where rice is under a really tight supply, and you have more demand than you have supply. So I would say for me, that's the hardest thing because you want to give your customers what they need and what they want. And if there's issues with supply and what working to see that supply. That's probably the hardest thing. Again, because we like to give our customers what they want. 

 

Erin Gorter:

Yeah, I would say that's kind of a general like challenge with sales is you want to do what you can for your customer and when you just can't for a reason that you can't control, it's challenging. 

 

Erin O'Donnell:

Yeah, and like we said, it's an agricultural commodity. So things, different, you know, there's different challenges. One year you might have a drought and not have enough rice. Another year you might have a lot of rice, and you might have a hard time getting the right price for your rice and giving the right price to a grower. So those sorts of things you just have to work with it because, again, it's an agricultural community that some of these things are unpredictable. 

 

Erin Gorter:

For sure. So, backing up and getting a little bit more history about you, what was your high school experience like? Were you involved in sports? Extracurriculars? What type of classes did you take? 

 

Erin O'Donnell:

Yeah. So I grew up in Gilroy, which is in sort of the South Bay Area. My family was not involved in agriculture or anything like that, although there is a lot of agriculture around Gilroy. My dad was an engineer in the Bay Area, and I sort of naturally gravitated towards that. You know, I kind of took classes, science classes and math classes, to sort of study engineering in college, and I also really enjoyed sports. I did, my favorite was soccer, but I was also involved in tennis and track and field, volleyball, but really soccer was my favorite. I liked to play in the mud in the dirt and in the rain. So that was a lot of fun. I enjoyed the teamwork that soccer really provided and really those relationships that you get when you're really working hard with your team. 

 

Erin Gorter:

When you were in high school, what did you want to be when you grew up?  

 

Erin O'Donnell:

You know, I think it's so difficult when you're in high school to know what you want to be when you grow up because you don't have a lot of experience to tell you what really is out there, what are all the options. And so, really, I looked at my dad, and he was an engineer, and a lot of people told me that I was good at science and math and that I should go into engineering. So I did that, and I really loved engineering. But I think if I were in high school again, I think I might try to broaden my horizon a bit and not, and kind of look outside of not just what my family was doing, but try to gain additional experience to see what other sorts of careers are really out there and are options for us. 

 

Erin Gorter:

So you mentioned after high school going into engineering. Can you tell us more about your education background after high school and maybe your work experience history up until where you are now? 

 

Erin O'Donnell:

Sure. So I went, after high school, I went to Chico State up in Northern California and I went through a couple of majors. So first I started with computer engineering, and I liked it, but it wasn't that interested in software coding at the time and that was a big part of it, and I was more interested in sort of like physical engineering like sorta like kind of building things is what I thought I wanted to do. So I switched majors, and I did civil engineering. And I enjoyed that as well. I did a couple, when I got, when I came home from the summer, I called around to my local civil engineering firms and asked if I could get an internship with anybody and I was lucky enough to get one. And that was a really great experience because it kind of showed me what the everyday life of a civil engineer was. And I liked it, but I couldn't see myself doing that forever. So, and what I was really excited most about in college was physics. So I really enjoyed learning about physics. And the reason I enjoyed it so much is because physics really teaches you how to think about the world in a way, and it really teaches you to ask questions about the world in a way that you can find the answer. And so I really, that really made sense to me, and I really enjoyed that. So I ended up switching my major again and studying physics. So I did get my bachelors in physics. And then from there, I went to graduate school, and I went to Brandeis University in Massachusetts, which is right outside of Boston. So that was a really great experience too. I got to live right in Cambridge, which is the big city. And I did my graduate degree, got to do research in physics, and actually, we're studying what was called neuro physics. So it's kind of studying like the physics of the brain, and I thought that was really interesting, and I liked it a lot. The funny thing about being a graduate student, though, and, and the nice thing about being a graduate school student in science is that the school typically will pay you to go to school. So you can get a fellowship, and they pay your tuition, and they pay a stipend for you to go and, you know, the stipends are not typically high, but it's typically enough to live on, so enough to pay your food and your rent, and that's about it. And so I really enjoyed the experience of being at graduate school and at the beginning, I had intended to get my PhD in physics, but after being there for a few years, I did get a bit homesick and I decided to take a leave of absence from that program to really test to see if did I want to get my PhD and go along the academic route. And, I had an option, so it was nice that the school gave me an option to sort of test it out. So I didn't have to quit the program. I just took a leave of absence from the program, and then I came back to California and got a job. And then at that time I had about a year to decide, did I want to go back and go back into get my PhD or do I want to just take my masters and keep working. So I did, I came back to California and I got a job at Intel Corporation as a product development engineer. And I really enjoyed it. So at the end of that first year, I decided to go ahead and continue to work. And rather than go back and get my PhD. So what I did at Intel is I worked on sort of the, what we called silicon debug. And what that means is basically, Intel Corporation makes microchips that you put in your computer makes your computer work, and they like to make new ones every 18 months. So there's always a new process for silicon microchips. And so the way it works is that the microchip has a silicon base, which is the material science part of it. And then it also has a circuitry base, which is just a design on how the circuits work. But when you put those two things together, what can happen is there's oftentimes bugs that are not understood. And so our group, our job was to figure out any of those problems that happened after you kind of put the material science stuff together with the circuit stuff. And that was a fun job. I enjoyed that a lot. And then I got married and had a couple kids. And at that time, I wanted to spend a little bit more time with my young kids when they were babies. So I decided to leave my job at Intel. And at that time, since I had my master's degree, I was able to teach physics at the local state college. So I taught physics at Sacramento State, while my kids were babies. And that was great, because it allowed me to be out of the home and doing things that I loved. I loved sharing my enthusiasm about physics, but at the same time, getting to spend extra time with my kids. So that was a great experience. And then when my kids were a little older, I went back and worked back at Intel again in the similar role. And then my husband, who had always been in the agricultural sales arena, he had asked me to help him start the business. And so I left my job at Intel and helped him start a business where we were sales consultants for agricultural commodity industry, really focusing in rice. And so that's what brought me to where I am today. So now I continue to help sell rice in our region. And I worked for specifically some values. So it's a kind of a different career path to agriculture, but I really enjoy it. 

 

Erin Gorter:

So how does your engineering and physics background play a part in what you do now? 

 

Erin O'Donnell:

You know, I would say, in a couple of ways. So one, when you study any sort of science in school, the main thing that you're learning is you're learning how to think critically. And critical thinking is just so important for any job that you're going to do. So I would say that I use that a lot. Just the problem solving as well is something that I learned kind of how to attack a problem in a sense, in my, with my school. And so I think problem solving is something you do, no matter what your job is. Also, I got really good experience in computers. So I, you know, I really understand things like how to use databases and things like that. And so those are things that we typically use a lot of as well. Even in sales, you want to be able to analyze your data like what, who's buying what, where, and when, and things like that. So being able to sort of analyze the data and talk to our data analysis teams and sort of the language that they speak at has been really helpful for me. 

 

Erin Gorter:

Very good. So, fun question. We're in the business of producing, managing and marketing the distribution of food. What is your favorite agricultural commodity? 

 

Erin O'Donnell:

Well, you know, I really like everything that comes from California. I think we're so lucky to live in a place where we have so many great foods. You know, I love all the almonds and nuts that come in from our region. California rice is really excellent. All the fruits and vegetables that we get, I mean, I just really feel really fortunate to live in California and have all of the different diverse commodities that we grow right here in our backyard and get to have them fresh, you know at the grocery store, no matter what the season is. So I can't really pick a favorite which of California's. 

 

Erin Gorter:

It is nice. We have tons of variety. Alright, so thinking about what students, high school students now could do to like get experience doing what you do now, can you think of any opportunities or programs, or anything they could take advantage of to kind of start building a skill set to be a vice president of sales with Sun Valley Rice Company? 

 

Erin O'Donnell:

Sure, that's a great question. So one of the things, and I had to learn sales kind of in the middle of my career, from engineering to sales. And that's, you know, what I learned about sales is that it's really about creating relationships with people. And so let's say if you're the kind of person who really loves talking with people and creating long lasting relationships with people and learning things that are, you have in common, and then that, you know, maybe sales is something that you really like to do, can be really fun to meet all kinds of new people from all kinds of different areas in the world, and creating relationships with them based on some kind of common thing like rice, for example. And so if that's something you would be interested in, I think that you can get experience in lots of different ways. So you really, sales is something that everybody does in some way in everything that they do. So if you're a waitress, you're selling the food, right? So you're getting excited about it, you're helping people find what they want, and you're trying to create like a little relationship with them. And so I think you can do that with anything that you're doing. One of the things I did in high school and college was, you know, when I wanted to learn more something about more about something, I would just call the local companies in my area and say, hey, you know, my name is Erin, and I am studying this and I would really love to work with you and be an intern at your company. And you'd be surprised to know that a lot of companies are really open to that. So I mean, just call people in your neighborhood and say that you're enthusiastic, and you want to learn more about what they do. And a lot of people will be willing to help you and learn more about that. So I would really encourage students to do that. If there's a certain company in their neighborhood that they are interested in. There's no harm in calling them. The worst that the people could say is no. That's really the worst that can happen and it doesn't happen that often. 

 

Erin Gorter:

Yeah, there's 100% chance the answer's no if you don't ask. Always ask. Yeah. Alright, Erin, last question. If you were going to go back to 15-year-old Erin in high school, what is the number one piece of advice you would give her? 

 

Erin O'Donnell:

Gosh, that's a great question. I wouldn't get, I think I would give myself the advice of just to be, you know, confident in myself and to not worry about all the little details that can sometimes be difficult in school, worry about what so and so thinks or what this is or what that is. And really, I would tell myself to focus on the things that I enjoyed and, you know, do those things more. And also, I would have told myself to sort of explore a little bit more, give myself, maybe not just focusing on engineering, but looking at all of the different possibilities that are out there at that time. So set up in a lookout time what your family does, and see what else is out there too. 

 

Erin Gorter:

Very good. Good advice. So once again, this was Erin O'Donnell, the Vice President of Sales with a Sun Valley Rice Company. Thank you for being with us today, Erin. 

 

Erin O'Donnell:

Thanks, Erin. Appreciate it. 

 

Thank you for listening to this AgSnacc, a production of the Brock Center for Agricultural Communication at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in collaboration with the South Coast Region Agricultural Education Consortium. For more information, please visit our website at www.agsnacc.com. That’s www.a-g-s-n-a-c-c.com