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Peg Willingham: “It’s ok to ask questions and ask for help”

It’s ok to ask questions and ask for help. Earlier in my career, I worried that people would doubt my competence if I didn’t pretend to know everything already. In reality, people like to be needed and to be asked questions, and they will think you are smart because you LISTEN. Leading yourself is harder than […]

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It’s ok to ask questions and ask for help. Earlier in my career, I worried that people would doubt my competence if I didn’t pretend to know everything already. In reality, people like to be needed and to be asked questions, and they will think you are smart because you LISTEN.

Leading yourself is harder than leading others. A lot of leadership advice focuses on how to inspire and motivate a team, which is important — but it’s equally important to be aware of your own blind spots and to keep learning and improving. It’s hard to hear honest feedback, but it’s the best way to know what you need to change.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Peg Willingham, executive director of Fairtrade America, an independent, third-party certification that betters the lives of farmers and workers in developing countries. With 30 years of international advocacy and nonprofit experience, Willingham possesses expertise in agriculture, resource mobilization, partnerships and policy. She is passionate about improving the lives and livelihoods of smallholder farming families by minimizing the impact of climate change, poverty and gender inequality.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to advocate for good causes at organizations that improve health, nutrition and livelihoods. I feel lucky and excited to join Fairtrade America for the same reason. The name says it all: we are part of an important global movement to make working conditions and wages more fair for people who grow and harvest the food we eat and the coffee we drink. Fairtrade offers them a better deal. Over the years, I have witnessed first-hand the challenges experienced by these producers, including those cultivating coffee and bananas in Latin America, tea in Africa and rice in Asia. Collaborating with these communities, as well as with companies who partner with them, is a dream job for me.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

I have joined Fairtrade America in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, which of course is affecting everyone around the world, but has been especially devastating to farming families in developing countries. This gives us an even greater sense of urgency to fulfill our mission. On the plus side, the pandemic has also made Americans more aware of the food system and how much we owe to front-line workers in agriculture, food production and retail. I am also very mindful of the impact on my colleagues. We know we are lucky to have jobs when so many have lost theirs, but we miss being together in person. I am inspired and grateful to see how productive and dedicated they are in the middle of this stressful, uncertain situation.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Bananas are one of the leading Fairtrade products we work with and are a big part of our team’s culture — if you look on our website, you’ll see some of us wearing banana suits! What I did not realize, though, was that our team has a “banana dance.” During my first Zoom staff meeting, while I was introducing myself virtually, I was startled to see a number of people making strange gestures with their arms … until someone explained that it was that dance! My takeaway is that I always need to be learning — about the banana dance, about my colleagues, and about the larger Fairtrade story.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Our goal — which we share with millions of American consumers — is to reduce poverty, improve labor standards and conditions, and encourage sustainable production. Fairtrade America betters the lives of farmers and workers in developing countries by inspiring businesses to implement ethical sourcing and production practices and assisting shoppers in making informed purchasing decisions.

Fairtrade Certification means farmers and workers have been paid at least the Fairtrade Minimum Price — the lowest possible price a buyer can pay a producer for a Fairtrade product to allow the producer to remain sustainable — and received the Fairtrade Premium funds for funding in their communities and/or businesses.

Fairtrade positively impacts almost 2 million farmers and workers in over 75 countries through improved income stability; the opportunity to join forces with other producers; resources to improve yields; gender equality for all producers; as well as quality of life benefits, such as funding in their communities. We hope your readers will join this global movement and make a difference.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

When I think of people who have been impacted by the work of Fairtrade I think of Rosine — a Fairtrade cocoa farmer and member of the CAYAT cooperative in Cote d’Ivoire. In an industry in which most women farm the land, but do not own the land, Rosine owns her own land. She has worked hard and has the dream of building a two-bedroom house, some of which is funded through the Fairtrade Premium. The Fairtrade Premium is an extra sum on top of the price paid for cocoa that farmers like Rosine get to vote democratically on how to use. In this case, it’s going towards housing — but it can also go towards schools, infrastructure, clinics, business improvements — basically whatever farmers choose! It’s one of the best parts of the Fairtrade model — farmers having more means and determining their own destiny. Watch this video about Rosine — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bdYK8kIxL4I

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

First, educate yourself about the links in the supply chain that end with your plate but may begin thousands of miles away in a place where farmers and workers have to contend with low wages, low prices for the crops they produce, the devastating effects of climate change, and other challenges.

Second, vote with your dollars. Every time you buy a bag of coffee or a chocolate bar or a bunch of bananas, you’re telling the brand and the store what you want to see in this world. Imagine if every single person didn’t buy coffee until the brand could show that the farmers who grew it got a fair deal. We all have so much power via our purchases — we only need to use it.

Third, policymakers should support and enforce legislation to address the problems that create these conditions, including child labor, worker rights, and climate change.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

One of my favorite examples of leadership is the international team of doctors, community members and government officials who banded together in the 1960s to do something that everyone said was impossible: eradicate smallpox, a horrible disease that had killed millions of people for thousands of years. Against the odds, they succeeded. One of the leaders of this initiative, Dr. William Foege, lays out some great leadership lessons in his book”House on Fire” about the importance of sharing credit and being respectful, persistent, and optimistic. Be a risk-taker and a problem solver. I love this quote: “The trouble with being an optimist, of course, is that people don’t think you know what’s going on. But it is the way to live.” A similar message comes from Bryan Stephenson, the author of “Just Mercy,” who has devoted his life to fighting racial inequality in the U.S. justice system: “Hopelessness is the enemy of justice.” It’s a great mindset for any leader, team or movement that wants to make big changes.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

It’s ok to ask questions and ask for help. Earlier in my career, I worried that people would doubt my competence if I didn’t pretend to know everything already. In reality, people like to be needed and to be asked questions, and they will think you are smart because you LISTEN.

Leading yourself is harder than leading others. A lot of leadership advice focuses on how to inspire and motivate a team, which is important — but it’s equally important to be aware of your own blind spots and to keep learning and improving. It’s hard to hear honest feedback, but it’s the best way to know what you need to change.

Leadership comes in many forms. I had the privilege of participating in a political leadership program a few years ago, and many of our speakers were high-level elected officials. However, the people who made the biggest impression on me were the real-world leaders we met when we toured a coal mine and a factory. I was so impressed by the mid-level manager who knew the first names of all 900 people who worked for him. I think of him a lot more often than I do about most of the politicians I met.

Bad news does not improve with age. It’s so tempting to hold back when something goes wrong, but it usually backfires. I once worked for a boss who was brilliant but intimidating, so when a big mistake happened, people kept it from him … until the story got into the newspaper a few weeks later and made the whole organization look terrible. It’s an extreme example, but one that taught me that it’s better to bite the bullet and tell the truth, no matter how unpleasant, as soon as possible. On the flip side, as a leader, I try to let people know that it’s ok to make mistakes, as long as we don’t keep making the same ones, and we learn from the ones we do make.

You can be humble and still change the world. I have been lucky to work for some remarkable leaders who never felt the need to show off or dominate, yet influenced others in a way that led to tremendous change. You can get so much more done if you share the credit and the limelight.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The Fairtrade movement! This idea got its start in Europe in the 1980s and now covers more than 120 countries, but the only way to keep it going and growing is for people to continue to make ethical purchasing choices. Here in the U.S., the movement got started later, and there is so much more that we could do. Fewer than 1% of products in the U.S. that could be Fairtrade certified are, so consumers should keep pushing brands to take this important step.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Fairtrade is about making sure people get their fair share of the pie. The whole concept of Fairtrade goes to the heart of our values and the sense of right and wrong. Nobody wants to buy something that was made by exploiting somebody else.”

Jerry Greenfield, Ben & Jerry’s Co-Founder

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

The person I’d love to meet is Frans van der Hoff, a Dutch priest whose work with low-income communities in Latin America led him to start the Fairtrade movement in the Netherlands, which catalyzed the movement that now reaches so many today.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frans_van_der_Hoff

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Please follow us on Instagram and LinkedIn — we look forward to hearing from you!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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