Sarah Nolet is not the typical image of what you would associate with Australian agritech businesses. But she’s used to breaking down barriers and challenging outdated views and beliefs.
Nolet – who grew up in the Silicon Valley with parents who were both in the tech industry – is used to working in male-dominated sectors. After studying computer science and systems engineering and later working as a systems engineer in the United States defence sector, she never saw her gender as a barrier to a career in STEM.
Today, she works with some of the country’s most influential agricultural leaders and innovators to ensure new ideas get noticed. She and co-founder Dr Christine Pitt run the Federal Government backed, Farmers2Founders, a national innovation program designed to accelerate primary producers in agtech and food innovation. She also runs Agthentic, a global food and strategy consultancy and Tenacious Ventures, the country’s first agrifood venture capital firm.
“My message to Australian farmers is to back yourself in the innovation and ideas that you come up with,” she told Women’s Agenda. “We know that producers do have amazing ideas and are really thinking on the cutting edge of some of this stuff, but maybe don’t have the confidence or knowledge to take it to the next level.”
Nolet loved farming from an early age. Her parents owned a hobby farm in the US where she loved to work with the animals and learn how things were done. She wanted to do “something that mattered” in the area, but her family urged her to “go make some money, then do something good for the world”.
After a few years of working, Nolet took a gap year, travelling to South America, where she worked mainly in agriculture. There she wondered if some of the skills and knowledge she had acquired while working in defence could help improve farming practices in rural areas, particularly when it came to sustainability. Later, when her partner was given a job in Australia, she travelled with him and decided to test her theory.
“I saw that in agriculture, there was really a focus on the technology and not the users – the farmers. It was a huge gap, a disconnect between the two sectors,” she told Women’s Agenda.
Nolet wants to break down the “us versus them” mentality between tech and agriculture. She says it has been getting to know different business owners and people in rural and regional areas who have “excellent ideas” that has encouraged her to keep expanding her businesses.
“I think the key…and maybe my superpower is not being afraid to ask lots of questions, even the stupid ones.
“There have been many funny conversations, such as me referring to AI, as in artificial intelligence, and the farmers assuming I am talking about artificial insemination.”
There is also a huge lack of understanding among people in metropolitan areas when it comes to how agriculture works in Australia, Nolet says. While there is “huge pressure on farmers to take care of the environment”, many city people do not understand how innovation works.
Nolet has noticed a small, but growing niche of women working across agtech. More formally educated women are coming back to the farm and are keen to use new technology and innovation to improve how they operate.
“Sometimes when we hold events I am noticing a 50-50 mix of women and men, and that fantastic.
“I always say I came for the tech, but I stayed for the people,” Nolet said.