Published May 06, 2013
Growing up on a farm in North Central Iowa, Jim Borel, thought he’d graduate from Iowa State University with a degree in agriculture business and return to his parents' farm to work.
But you know what they say about the best laid plans.
Now, decades later, Borel is executive vice president at DuPont (DD), one of the world’s largest chemical makers.
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“Growing up and working on a farm, raising cattle, working in the fields, being part of the process of growing things just captivated me. I was always interested in agriculture,” he said. “There’s a feeling of, if you’re involved in producing food, there was something noble about that.”
After a couple of years in school, Borel decided the best path was to go into the industry and work for awhile, because, as he said, if he went back to the farm, he’d likely never have left.
“I had a tough phone call one day when (my dad) was ready to retire and he said, ‘I’m thinking about renting out the farm, but before I do, I just want to give you another chance,’” Borel said. “My goal was if I wasn’t able to be on the farm, I wanted to be within one step of farming, and I’ve been able to do that with DuPont.”
The Root of Success
In his more than 30 years with the blue-chip chemical company, Borel has been able to check many items off his life’s to-do list.
“When I started, I remember at the time thinking two things were really intriguing: If I ever have the chance to live overseas sometime, that would be really interesting. And if I had a goal, it was if I could be regional manager in our Chicago office, that would be the ultimate,” he said.
Not only was he serious about those goals, he’s also been able to exceed them.
Borel has been a world traveler for his company, working overseas in many nations, including: Japan, the UK, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, and a host of others. Working abroad, Borel was tasked with developing the business in developing markets and making a difference in the way those nations think about farming, and bringing more food security to the regions.
Through his work, Borel said farmers are always interested in new ideas and new technology;farmers are constantly looking to improve their situation, no matter if they’re in the U.S. or halfway across the globe. Borel said it’s not just about science, though, it’s about creating local wisdom to give farmers the tools they need to be successful.
“I led a study team in India in the mid-90s and we eventually started a business there selling directly to the country,” he said. “So developing our business in developing markets was a really important part of the learning experience, and I’m drawing a lot on that for the work we’re doing now in Sub-Saharan Africa. We can make a real difference in farmers' lives and food security for everybody, but we have to improve productivity everywhere.”
Harvesting Advice for a Younger Generation
While he’s thankful for the opportunities he’s had at DuPont, Borel said living and working in various parts of the world taught him some important lessons.
For example, when he and his wife were first ready to move overseas, though it was a big decision, the intrigue ignited the desire to do it. He found himself moving his entire family all over the world, and his daughter was even born in England.
His best advice to young people looking for a similar adventure in their careers is to be flexible. For him and his family, moving from place to place taught them to appreciate life from different perspectives.
“If we hadn’t done that, if we hadn’t said ‘You know what? Let’s do it and figure it out,’ Then the whole trajectory might have been different,” Borel said. “So, take advantage of opportunities, be clear about who you are, but take advantage when you can.”
While he seized every opportunity he could, Borel still met challenges along the way. Living and working in nations unlike the U.S. comes with its own sets of obstacles.
“One of the big challenges in Ethiopia is there are so many farmers and so just reaching them, physically being able to get there and interact with them, and logistically getting the product to them is difficult because the countries oftentimes don’t have great infrastructure,” he said.
Amid the roadblocks that cropped up, Borel said he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Crops vary, languages vary. But as I work with farmers around the world, I find they have a real common set of values. They’ve got a love of the land, they want to improve the lives for themselves, and their families and a real commitment to stewardship. And you see those things play out in different ways, it’s fun to be a part of that,” he said.