Shelley Burich is not one to let anything get her down. An entrepreneur, a vanilla farmer, an advocate, and a leader, she is motivated by the prospect of trying new things, sharing knowledge, and watching others grow and transform through the power of community. Shelley remains determined to face obstacles, grateful in the face of challenges, and believes you are ‘never too old’ to embrace innovation.
What inspired you to be a vanilla farmer and entrepreneur?
Growing vanilla just stumbled onto me. I had no real big interest in growing vanilla. I didn't even know how to grow it. First, it was about the challenge of learning to do something new. I'm that type of person. You won't know unless you try. So I figured, ‘I've got nothing to lose if I don't try it.’ It was just another plant to grow and to learn from, but I think in the end the vanilla chose me. It started something inside me where it not only gave me a passion for learning how to grow this plant properly and understand the potential of this global product.
Becoming a farmer - learning about organic growing, natural fertilizer, and the health aspects - has taken me on this amazing journey. It even got me into e-commerce, and that's just another ballgame. When I think about growing vanilla and where it's taken me and the doors it has opened, not just in agriculture but also in commerce and industry, it has been mind-blowing.
This year’s UN theme for International Women’s Day is ‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality.’ How can digital technology and innovation deliver greater gender equality?
We still have a long way to go in terms of the Pacific region operating on a level playing field with the rest of the world. But I don't think we should wait. I think we will get to that level playing field by entrepreneurs, such as myself, taking that challenge and just getting in there and doing it: finding out what works, what doesn't, what's missing, what are the gaps and the needs, and then addressing it within our countries and our region. We need to involve our governments and get their support for whatever challenges we encounter. If we don't try these things, if we don't get out there and do it, we will never be on a level playing field; we will always just be willing to accept what is given to us.
The Pacific region has a huge opportunity to use e-commerce and get our unique products out there. So let’s not hold ourselves back. We, as women entrepreneurs, have the opportunity to give our voices to make change happen.
We still have the challenge of closed payment gateways where a lot of our countries are unable to accept direct credit card payments. The banks are always saying there aren’t enough interested entrepreneurs. Our argument is if you don't open it up, there won't be any interest. One of my goals is to build a big team of Shopify entrepreneurs to have this collective voice to look at the demand here in the Pacific to open payment gateways.
What does your mission mean to you?
I'm still going out there, training new farmers, hoping that I can help grow a massive vanilla industry. Whether we’ll get there, I don't know, but at least I've started it. I feel that the people I bring along will also participate in growing the vanilla industry. Where I see myself and my business in ten years, I don't know. That's just the excitement of it. I'm happy to take each day I am blessed with, and I'm grateful for what I have when I get it.
I want to share and get more women not to be scared to take that leap of faith, diversify, do something different, and know they have support. I want to build a support unit with other women entrepreneurs so that someone's not trying to do it alone. The indigenous e-commerce program I'm part of is looking at starting a Pacific indigenous network for women, where we can help with e-commerce, business planning, self-awareness, and put all that into your business.
In your experience as a farmer and an entrepreneur, how have you seen equality evolve?
The world has realized that women entrepreneurs have a lot to offer. We're still not on the same playing field with our male counterparts, but we're certainly in a better place. I am grateful that organizations such as the World Bank, ADB, and FAO are all starting to unite women entrepreneurs. Whether in the agriculture sector or e-commerce, there's a lot of support. The only limitations we have, are the ones we put on ourselves. We must continue to believe that we are whole, resourceful and creative.
The only thing still lacking is not knowing what's out there. We still have to go looking for it. We still have to go knocking on doors. There still needs to be more information on what is available. Another challenge is that the criteria for many of these funding opportunities are quite high, so women miss out on a lot just because of the criteria. Things need to be simplified so that more women can access these opportunities.
What were some of the challenges you faced as a leader, and what did you learn from them?
I see myself as a transformational leader. I like to mentor and see others grow. When you think about leading, be bold and ask questions in meetings with government organizations and forums. When I used to ask questions, I always ran the question in my head first, thinking, ‘That's a dumb question.’ But when I would say it, people would say, ‘That's a really good question.’ It’s because the questions that we ask from our reality are real. We know what is happening to us; if we don't tell them that, they won't even know how to help. The private sector and our entrepreneurs must ask questions and share what people are experiencing. Also, don't be discouraged if people don't listen to you in the beginning. Keep telling the same story. Keep doing it but do it in a way that's not condescending, and you're not putting them down.
What are some memorable projects or mentors you've encountered in your career?
An organization that sparked my empathy for community work was the Samoa Cancer Society—just being with people who struggled differently, listening to their stories, and realizing that they have much bigger challenges. It led to a passion for me to do something to make a difference. That organization sparked my interest, which started my community work. I cherish my time with the Samoa Cancer Society, and if I get another opportunity to return and do something with them, I will.
The other organization I enjoyed my time with was SWAG, the Samoa Women's Association of Growers. It’s a great organization, and it taught me a lot within the agriculture sector, even though when I was with SWAG, I was already growing vanilla. It allowed me to work with different ministries and industries and understand their processes and systems. I was also able to connect with other women farmers, growers and entrepreneurs and to learn from and share with others. It taught me how to write funding proposals well - which is an excellent skill to have.
What do you think needs to be done to ensure more women are in leadership roles?
Because we're not given many opportunities, we lose our confidence or think we need more capacity to be on that level playing field with our male counterparts. I'm on a public board as a director, and I never thought I would be on something like that. When I applied for that position, I looked at the criteria and thought, ‘I don't have a degree. I don't have this. I don't have that. Why would they even consider me?’ We have so much. Believe in yourself. Believe in what you have. And put that conviction into your application. And don’t be afraid, you don’t always need a degree to say that you’ve got this. Our degrees, is our life experience. What we have actually done. We do have something to offer!
For entrepreneurs, whether you're in the agriculture sector or whatever you're doing, connect to an organization. I'm still a member of SWAG. You get access to the membership and the industries that the organization works in, and they get to know you. Make yourself visible; that's how doors open as well. It's not about what you can get from others or what they can get from you. You can benefit each other.
What advice would you give Pacific women still studying or early in their careers?
Listen to your gut instinct. Listen to your heart. If it doesn't feel right for you, don't do it. Do what feels right for you. Don’t be scared to do something wrong. Don't be afraid to fail because failure is about learning. It's also giving you strength. You gain a lot of strength from failure. Failing is because I have tried something different, wondering whether it would work. But the success was that we tried it. The way I look at it, it's not about failing anymore. It's about overcoming challenges and learning and growing from whatever life throws my way.
**The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group.