As we near the close of our celebration of Women’s History Month, I wanted to take a few moments to highlight the contributions of women leaders in agriculture. This includes many who did not grow up with a background in agriculture but have leveraged their skills to become key leaders on the Risk Management Team. One such transformational leader is Donnika Stance, Director of the Administrative Review Division.

Donnika’s division was formerly known as Appeals and Litigation and handled a variety of tasks that included everything from appeals to sanctions and debarments. During the formation of Farm Production and Conservation Business Center, her organization was reconfigured to focus on the growth of appeals and unique policy application problems as a means of ensuring the crop insurance program functioned as effectively and as efficiently as possible. Simply put, her team’s focus on resolving the policy questions affecting a nationwide program allow the agency to remain keenly focused on serving the larger needs of America’s Farmers and Ranchers.

I had a chance to talk with her recently. With her unique background, I was curious about her thoughts on Women’s History Month and advice she might have for other women interested in advancing their career. I must admit, in the spirit of full disclosure, that my conversations with Donnika were quite interesting. You see, I once served in that role earlier in my career and seeing how the expansion of program products has affected the workload gives me a unique perspective on how much things have changed. I believe you’ll find it interesting too.

Richard: Thank you for taking a moment to talk with me and share with others. What are your thoughts on Women’s History Month?

Donnika: I love the fact that Women’s History Month was created but lament the need for it. In my view, women generally haven’t received full consideration when their voices were added to public debates in the past. That is an unfortunate byproduct of history that we are continuously improving in evolving society. This month allows all women to freely revel in their ambition, strength, courage, and perseverance because they can see their value and their contributions celebrated across the nation. As a Spelman College graduate, I personally had an opportunity to thrive in an all women university environment which made promoting the welfare and growth of young women in a supportive and encouraging environment a priority. Since graduation, I have been fortunate enough to move from one job to the next and find some measure of support and validation which has been gratifying. At the end of the day, the support I’ve received and the consideration of my voice in RMA is one of the reasons I have chosen to stay.

Donnika Stance

Donnika Stance, RMA Administrative Review Division Director

Richard: You didn’t come from a farming background prior to joining USDA, what made you interested in the agriculture?

Donnika: Honestly, I saw an opportunity to grow…no pun intended. Like many urban Americans, agriculture was not something that I was exposed to. I never visited a farm and did not know much of anything about how our food supply was cultivated and moved to the point of sale. Quite simply, farm-to-table was restaurant sloganeering to me vice a business ecosystem that fed the nation. I was simply looking for opportunities that seemed enticing and related to my core skillset. My first job after law school was with NOAA as a contractor and a colleague that recently departed the USDA National Appeals Division shared how the work was similar in nature but focused on agricultural issues. Within time, I applied to become an appeals officer and the rest is history! Once I established myself in the position and became comfortable with the appeals process, a whole new world opened for me. I started to understand how vast agriculture was and how the business of food production impacted the US economy. The next issue for me was determining where I could go next to maximize my impact on USDA. For me, that choice was RMA and I could not be happier.

Richard: To what would you credit your professional success?

Donnika: I have always tried to be a chameleon throughout my professional career. I use the term chameleon as a synonym for being a person trying to build as many of my skills to fit as many opportunities in my field as possible. I have made it a point to take measured professional risks by pursuing opportunities outside of my comfort zone to push the envelope with learning something new and stretching my capabilities. I have rarely turned down an opportunity if there was a chance that doing so would lead to success and learned early on that change was not something to be feared, but something to be embraced if I wanted to achieve my goals in life. Lastly, I try to remind myself to be daring everyday because fear of change, be it personal or professional, is a self-imposed limitation that often holds people back.

Richard: What advice would you give to other women just starting their careers or who want to take themselves to the next level?

Donnika: Believe in yourself and commit to being heard. First, that means studying your craft and pushing hard to make an impact even when you see options that others around you do not. Technical competence is extremely important to success in this line of business. Second, trust yourself and your voice. There will always be detractors that attempt to deter you from what you know to be right and may attempt to discount your opinion. Do not be deterred or miss an opportunity to render a thoughtfully considered opinion when necessary. Your voice has power but only counts when you use it. The environment my colleagues have created in compliance allows each voice to be heard in both a professional and collegial way which has allowed me to thrive personally but has also afforded my teammates the valuable space to grow along the way. That continues to be a source of strength for the entire team that I develop a deeper appreciation for every day. It is in that vein that I aspire to be a role model for men and women to see that a career in agriculture can be a means to achieve success in the field.

I was very grateful that Donnika took time to talk with me. The rapid introduction of new crop insurance products has dramatically increased the volume and complexity of administrative program appeals affecting payments and participation. Our team members in Compliance have done a phenomenal job, and Donnika’s leadership over a vast portfolio enabled agency leaders to fortify program integrity efforts and successfully deliver results for America’s farmers and ranchers.

I hope you will be able to join us next Wednesday, March 31, at 1:00 pm EDT, for “Women Leaders in Crop Insurance.” It will be a one-hour presentation and discussion panel. We will welcome three special guests who have had successful careers in agriculture and crop insurance. They will discuss challenges they overcame and changes they have seen during their careers.

– Richard