Features

Juana Gomez – Frutura Produce

This HR executive looks back and pays it forward

One of Juana Gomez’s most vivid childhood memories is of crouching in a field at dawn, shivering, as she picked lettuce with freezing fingertips. Her father was then a farm manager at a lettuce company, and he needed extra help in the fields. 

Fast-forward a few years: Gomez, at 16, was still helping at the company when she wasn’t in school. One day, a manager told her she could work in the packing shed if she needed more hours. 

“I remember thinking, ‘If I go there, I’m never going to get out of this life,’” Gomez recalls. “So, I didn’t. I decided right then and there to focus on school so I could have an office job for the rest of my life.” 

Juana Gomez | EVP of Human Capital | Frutura Produce

Juana Gomez | EVP of Human Capital | Frutura Produce | Photo Credit: Toni Allen

Now executive vice president of human capital at Frutura Produce, and until recently chief people and culture officer at Monterey Mushrooms, Gomez has never forgotten what it was like to work in the fields. She says she looks for people who are humble and not afraid of a challenge, but who also have a growth mindset. She wants to help others rise to take on leadership roles. 

“I’m grateful for my time at Monterey Mushrooms,” Gomez says. “Lifelong friendships will remain, and I will bring the same passion to the workforce of Frutura Produce.” 

Training new leaders 

Gomez’s priority at Monterey was its leadership development program, a training program created by experts which provides a platform for managers and hones workers’ soft skills. That includes how to communicate appropriately with teammates, how to think creatively and how to cultivate leadership qualities. She believes that developing a company’s human capital and advancing the organization are one and the same thing.  

Juana Gomez | EVP of Human Capital | Frutura Produce

The HR Team

Gomez made the training platform available to anyone at the company, from entry-level workers to first-time managers to senior leadership, on an ad hoc basis. She says it utilizes “some of the best training, the best leadership programs out there,” and includes a variety of online classes. 

The HR pro spends her time thinking about how to grow talent. For inspiration, she keeps a quote on her desk from Colin Powell: “Leadership is all about people. It is not about organizations. It is not about plans. It is not about strategies. It is all about people motivating people to get the job done. You have to be people centered.”  

“That’s what I try to keep in mind,” Gomez says. “Yes, we get results, but we get them through people. We know that people have aspirations, and we want them to have a way to grow within the company.” 

Using time wisely 

At Monterey, Gomez also focused on removing redundancies through automation. For example, she used the company’s timekeeping system, Kronos (UKG), to automate payment processes, including for missed meal premiums in California, which requires employees be paid if not given a meal break.  

And, working closely with IT, she integrated a business analytics system, Qlik, with the company’s human resources database—it now runs reports on the number of hours worked, total headcount, turnover and retention. Gomez credits the information systems team with doing “a wonderful job” partnering with HR on the integration. 

Juana Gomez | EVP of Human Capital | Frutura Produce

Juana Gomez with her teammates, Bob Jenkins (CFO) and Greg Sweet (COO)

“It removes the redundancy of having to do it day-to-day,” she says. “So, we could spend the time analyzing and pulling the levers that we needed to pull to make a difference, versus spending the time running the reports or getting all the data and sorting it and calculating it.” 

Gomez’s strategy was to use tools that Monterey already had to streamline daily processes. She estimates it saved hundreds of hours. 

Gomez also forged multiple successful partnerships while at Monterey. For example, she took on the labor shortage, and ensured local workers had low-cost, high-quality benefits through plans built in collaboration with partners such as Garza and Sons, BDV Solutions, Gallagher and others. 

A grueling climb 

Gomez, who worked full-time while going to school, earned her associate degree in accounting from Cabrillo College in 2004 and her bachelor’s in business administration and HR from San Jose State University in 2008. In 2011, she got her MBA from California State University-Monterey Bay.  

“It took me forever to finish my education,” Gomez says. “It was grueling.” 

Juana Gomez | EVP of Human Capital | Frutura Produce

Juana Gomez & Monterey’s CEO and Founder Shah Kazemi with scholarship recipient Diego Gomez

Some days, she’d get up at 5 a.m. to start class by 6 a.m., take a cold shower at the school gym, leave by 8 a.m. and dash to work for a full day. At 5 p.m., she’d drive for an hour to reach a class that ran for three hours, then drive an hour back home. 

There were days when she felt like giving up. But she stuck it out, even on nights when she’d get home exhausted and work with tears streaming down her face. Gomez credits her support system—including her husband Ramon, her sons, her brothers, her niece and Ana Granados, second mother to her boys—as well as her mentors with getting her through. 

“I wasn’t going to go backwards,” she says.  

One night, Gomez’s father, who passed away in 2020 from COVID-19, had come to visit her. At 3 a.m., he woke up and found his daughter bent over an assignment for school. 

“He looks at me, and I still remember his face,” Gomez recalls. “He’s like, ‘Mi hija, que haces?’” (“My child, what are you doing?”)  

Homework, Gomez told him. Her father was incredulous, but later, he told the story to anyone who would listen, driving home how hard his daughter worked.  

Juana Gomez | EVP of Human Capital | Frutura Produce

Juana pictured with Velia Muruaga and Elena Fortaneli.

Gomez started her career at Earthbound Farm, where she rose from clerk to HR manager over the course of a decade and became senior manager of HR in 2006. From there, she rose to HR director, then to HR vice president. In 2016, she became corporate director of HR at Monterey. In 2020 she became chief people and culture officer. 

“We all hear about Oprah and all these people who had one-in-a-million success stories,” Gomez says. “But there are so many more who are like me. I won the lottery; there are opportunities out there. And people are people—companies are successful through people.” 

View this feature in the Vol. III 2023 Edition here.

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