Over the course of the year, we pay tribute to 35 living Vanguards and 12 departed heroes. This month’s featured Vanguard is Mayda Sotomayor-Kirk of Seald Sweet.
Originally printed in the October 2021 issue of Produce Business.
Young. Female. English as a second language. Some might say these characteristics are a challenge to climbing the corporate ladder in the fresh produce industry — especially for an ascent that started over 30 years ago. Not so for Mayda Sotomayor-Kirk. Today the chief executive officer of Vero Beach, FL-headquartered Seald Sweet and managing director of U.S. companies for Greenyard USA, Sotomayor-Kirk harnessed these attributes to make an indelible mark on the national and international fresh produce industries.
“Mayda has broken the mold of what women can do in the produce industry,” says Pat Compres, co-owner of Advance Customs Brokers, in Miami, FL. “Her courage, strength and resilience in the industry have made her what she is today. She was one of the first women to run a produce company in days when women at that level were few and far between in produce.”
Born in Havana, Cuba, Sotomayor-Kirk was 3 when her family immigrated to the U.S. and settled in South Florida. She earned a scholarship to attend Miami-Dade Community College, and pursued a law career at her father’s request. Along the way, it was a part-time job that changed her career path forever. As Sotomayor-Kirk is fond of saying regarding the fresh produce industry, “I do not believe I chose it; it chose me.”
In 1982, she started work as the import coordinator at ACA Trading in Miami, FL. This was a new entity formed by U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) grants to assist growers from Central and South America to market fresh produce in the U.S. Sotomayor-Kirk fell in love with the business when she started traveling, meeting growers and hearing their stories.
She soon realized how difficult it was to grow and harvest fresh produce, how hard it was to get that product into the U.S. and how important this task was for the success of these farming families and their communities. An instant kindred connection made her feel at home in the produce profession and that she could make a difference in the industry.
When the grants ended in 1989, Sotomayor-Kirk was asked by a good friend, former customer and ultimately mentor, Alan Levy, to join his company, Great American Farms, as import director. The company was one of the first to start importing asparagus from Peru. Levy, she says, taught her the commercial side of the business, how to manage customers and balance the relationship requirements between growers and customers. Most importantly, Sotomayor-Kirk says the biggest takeaway from her decade-plus at Great American was how to grow something from nothing and make it successful.
“One of my first memorable moments about Mayda is from the 1990s when I owned and operated Customized Brokers. We had agreed to handle cargo for her into Philadelphia. At the last moment, we had some issues and met to tell her we would not be able to proceed. Her response was, ‘I don’t care. You find a way to solve the problem; we are counting on you.’ This demanding attitude is what makes her so good at what she does. We are extremely indebted to her for always pushing us to step out of our comfort zone. Through our years of working together, and most importantly our friendship, there has been a time to learn something new and support each other in new endeavors,” says Compres.
Levy retired and closed Great American in the late 1990s, leaving Sotomayor-Kirk looking for a new job in the fresh produce industry. She connected, coincidentally, with then-CEO of Seald Sweet, Bruce McEvoy. It was also at this time she met Hein Deprez. Deprez, a Belgian businessman who operated global produce company UNIVEG and Greenyard among others, bought a half stake in the U.S. citrus cooperative, intending to turn it into a global entity. One of Deprez’s first hires was Sotomayor-Kirk to develop Seald-Sweet’s import program. In 2004, she was promoted to senior vice president and four years later, she became the company’s first female CEO in its century-plus history.
“Mayda had, by that time, good experience in trading fruits and vegetables in Latin America and had a positive track record in the industry. She was very interested to learn and to understand how we were working in Europe at that moment. Her enthusiastic drive was, for me, also very important in my decision to take her on board,” says Deprez, now co-CEO of Greenyard, which is based in Belgium, but has US offices in Vero Beach, FL, and Swedesboro, NJ.
“In the U.S., business is mostly driven by large companies with strong brands. Mayda introduced the ‘partnership model’ to the retailers to work in an open transparent system based on facts, knowledge and trust,” Deprez adds. “This is the only way to develop a sustainable future for the fruit and vegetable business. That is, bringing the produce that consumers desire at the best conditions — quality, price, sustainability — and to bring back a sustainable price to the growers by creating the optimal flow for the products.”
“Mayda has opened a lot of doors for the Greenyard group. As a group, we have strong relations in South Africa and South America (Chile, Peru, Mexico) because of the commitment Mayda obtained from these parties.”
Sotomayor-Kirk, whose family includes her husband and two children, was named the United Fresh Produce Association’s Produce Woman of the Year in 2011, and was appointed in 2017 to UFPA’s board of directors and as chairwoman of its International Advisory board. In 2018, The Packer named her Produce Person of the Year.
“If I were to take a poll regarding my stance, I believe the word ‘stubborn’ would be part of the description. However, as the years pass, I feel that I am much more open to possibilities. It does not have to be black or white, but there are opportunities everywhere as long as there are two parties that have trust in each other,” says Sotomayor-Kirk. “The industry I feel, at times, lacked sincerity and the ability to face things head-on. Telling it like it is, even accepting defeat and/or mistakes, is something that I believe in a great deal. This philosophy has served me well during my career and my personal life.”
“There are a few more years left in me, and I still have a lot to learn,” she adds. “Eventually, when I retire, I want to have someone take over my position and continue the Seald Sweet success story. I want to leave the company stronger than when I started. It is important to me to support growers and customers, to figure out how to manage the integral parts of this ever-changing industry.”