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Second Annual Aspire to Grow Conference

Contributed by Alexa Pinter | Junior | Agricultural Science

The second annual Aspire to Grow conference took place at Cal Poly on March 4, 2020. More than 200 students, staff and faculty joined to hear from industry professionals. According to the Cal Poly College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences, the Aspire to Grow conference aims to inform and empower students from across campus about the many and varied career opportunities associated with food and agriculture in the U.S. and beyond.


This year's conference, sponsored by Nutrien, included honoring the life well lived of Frieda Caplan who passed away in January at age 96. Frieda and her company brought more than 200 new fruits and foods to the U.S. and helped create the modern produce section as we know it today. Student Co-Chairs Emma Manukian, senior agricultural communication major, and Gissel Neri Corcoles, agricultural science junior, introduced the keynote speaker, Dr. Kemba Marshall, DVM and then the pair moderated the discussion panel. The panel included five industry leaders: Michelle Ramos, Sonia Soares, Martha Montoya, Frank Santiago and Irene Bernall. Their bios can be found by clicking here.


“The agricultural industry is challenged with the expectation to always be on the cutting edge of innovation and technology to provide safe and affordable food for the world. Aspire to Grow highlighted how the diversity of thought, backgrounds, and culture serves as the foundation of innovation in agriculture,” co-chair Emma Manukian said.

While at the conference attendees heard stories of people from diverse backgrounds, career paths and different stages of life. One of the most touching stories told by the panel was that of Frank Santiago, who is now the territory manager in the Pacific North West for Corteva.

As a child, Santiago moved for the lettuce harvest twice a year and in turn, had to change schools. He was unable to graduate on time and got his GED and vocational training and became a single father. “People told me I should go to college, to me that was like saying you should go to the moon,” Santiago said. Yet, he did go to college and went on to be an agriculture teacher before returning to industry with Corteva.


Sonia Soares, the founder of Harmonized Consulting LLC, had a line of advice to those in attendance, it was “si, se puede” or yes, you can. Throughout her speech, she discussed her children’s health and other hardships and said she continually reminds herself si, se puede. In the case of Irene Bernal, a 2003 Cal Poly and Ag Science alumni, she started working for Cargill directly after college and is now at Amazon in Seattle. Her advice to the audience was, “get to know people who aren’t like you.” She said this is what helped catapult her career into what it is today.


Santiago, Soares and Bernal’s stories were just some of the stories shared during the Aspire to Grow Conference. The stories of all of the participants showed how they faced adversity, trials and tribulations throughout their life and how they were able to fight through them to get to where they are today.

Photos Contributed by Dr. Ann DeLay

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