Q&A with Sheryl Wallace, president of Cargill North America Grain
Getting out of the city each summer to work the land, feed and milk cows, or care for the chickens on her relatives’ farms is one of Sheryl Wallace’s favorite childhood memories.
“I thought I was helpful with chores,” Wallace recalls. “However, my cousins still give me grief that I was the slowest at plucking chickens when butchering.”
With roots in Minnesota, she decided to stay local, attending the Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota. After graduation, Wallace began working at Cargill as a commodity merchant. Today, she leads the company’s grain business in the United States and Canada as president, North America Grain. Wallace has commercial responsibility for 110 facilities, trading and merchandising, and the barge business. Assuming the role in 2019, it’s one of many she’s had in her 25 years with Cargill.
“As I reflect on my different work experiences, it’s like I’ve had five careers, but they’ve all been within Cargill. I’ve worked in our agriculture, oilseed processing, edible oils, flour milling, and financial services businesses, including leading our corporate risk management function,” Wallace says. “My path has been a mix of me owning my career by having transparent conversations with my managers and me having faith and trust in Cargill leaders and mentors on roles they feel would be a good fit or further develop me. In the end, I am passionate about setting the strategic vision and leading teams to accomplish more than they think is possible, serving customers, developing talent, and driving impact.”
In a recent interview with Successful Farming, Wallace talks about the grain industry and the importance of a diverse workforce, among other topics.
SF: Tell me about your role with Cargill and what it means to be the president, North America Grain.
SW: Every day, thousands of people on our team support customers on both ends of the supply chain — on one hand helping farmer customers be successful and on the other partnering with food, feed, and fuel customers to help them meet their objectives. We leverage our supply chain capabilities to support customer needs and provide other services such as price risk management and regenerative ag solutions.
SF: What has been the biggest challenge in your role over the past two years, especially during the pandemic? How are you overcoming those challenges?
SW: When I came into the business, we were navigating the trade war with China, and it was seven months before the pandemic began. In 2021, we experienced one of the most severe droughts in Canada, a major technology system deployment, and devastating damage to one of our export terminals in the Gulf of Mexico from Hurricane Ida. While each event is considered a significant adversity for the business and impacted our ability to serve customers, it pales in comparison to the challenges of navigating the pandemic, which continues. Our employees have been extraordinary and incredibly resilient over the past two years, particularly our front-line operators. During this time, we have led and made decisions with our values. One of them is putting people first. By focusing on the safety of our people, we have kept supply chains operating. I am so proud of what our team has accomplished, our ability to continue putting food on tables, and how we’ve navigated the pandemic. Cargill has also put a strong focus on providing mental health support and resources — one more way we are putting people first.
Personally, as a working mom, I’ve been able to use my experience of being a caregiver during the pandemic to be a voice for others. I’m also focusing on the “silver linings.” We’ve had more family time, are getting pretty good at pivoting (changing plans), and are more grateful for the simpler things in life.
SF: Look 10 years down the road. How do you see grain trading and merchandising and the barge business evolving?
SW: While I don’t have a crystal ball, I can imagine a world where there is less hunger; climate change has stalled or even started improving; fuel from agriculture commodities is the norm; markets are more volatile; innovation in seed, technology, and farming practices have improved ag production; and global grain flows are different than they are today. Agriculture is rapidly changing given the growth of renewable fuels, emphasis on sustainability, and changes in consumer preferences. I am excited for the role that agriculture will play in solving some of the greatest challenges of our time and the opportunities that will exist.
SF: As the executive sponsor of Cargill’s Global Women’s Network, why is this initiative important to you?
SW: I am passionate about championing gender equality because it’s the right thing to do — for women in the workforce today and for my 14-year-old daughter and generations to come. Quite simply, I believe that having a diverse workforce is a business imperative. By having the best and brightest team members with different backgrounds, experiences, and styles, it enables us to better serve our customers, innovate, solve problems, and deliver on our strategic direction. To enable diversity and for it to be impactful, you must foster an inclusive environment where everyone can be their best self, feel empowered, and is engaged to perform at the highest level. Several years ago, Cargill was one of the first companies to sign the “Paradigm for Parity” pledge, which is a commitment to have women in 50% of our leadership roles by 2030. I am very proud of the progress we’ve made, and that we acknowledge we have more work to do in this area, which is why this is so important to me.
SF: What advice would you give young women interested in pursuing a STEM career?
SW: The opportunities within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are endless. There are so many possibilities of where you can take a career, and the impact that these roles have is incredible. We need the best and the brightest minds in these fields … including and especially women. Stay with it!
SF: Tell me about a role model and that person’s impact on you.
SW: My mom has been a role model and continues to inspire me today. There are so many things that I respect and have learned from her over the years. She always instilled the value of doing your best — giving it your all. She put family first and made family a priority, whether it was our immediate family or being together as an extended family. My mom is very close with her sisters. Look out … when the five of them are together, there is so much joy, sisterhood, and laughter! She was a working mom, like me, and showed me it was possible. We are blessed that she lives nearby and is always willing to help — taking care of the kids, giving them a ride to activities — and it’s not uncommon to come home to find she’s made dinner for us.
SF: If you could have a conversation with young Sheryl, what would President, North America Grain, at Cargill Sheryl tell her?
SW: Oh, where do I begin! I would tell her to dream big, bigger than you can imagine, embrace your story, and enjoy the journey. Don’t sweat the small stuff. If you’re fixated on getting something perfect, remember that sometimes “good is good enough.” And consider skipping the blue eye shadow in the ’80s — it isn’t the best look for you.
Background: A native Minnesotan, Wallace attended the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. During her 25 years at Cargill, Wallace has held various roles in agriculture, oilseed processing, edible oils, flour milling, and financial services businesses, including leading the corporate risk management function. In 2019, she was named president, North America Grain. Wallace also serves on the Executive Committee and the Foundation of the National Grain and Feed Association and on several joint venture boards.