Paulina Gastelum is CEO of US operations for AGQ Labs. (Courtesy photo)

Executive MBA Prepares Paulina Gastelum to lead in Agribusiness

By Sue McMurray

When Paulina Gastelum’s grandparents migrated from Mexico to the US to work in California and Oregon’s agricultural fields, they planted the seeds of opportunity in the minds and hearts of their children and future generations.

They worked for 30 cents an hour under the Bracero Program, a farm labor agreement that allowed Mexican workers to temporarily work in the US to help relieve the agricultural labor shortage during World War II. As they toiled in pursuit of the American Dream, they sent money home to their children still in Mexico. Their work ethic and skills became an example for Gastelum’s parents, who later moved to the US to work in the fresh produce industry.

After Gastelum (EMBA ’22) finished high school in Mexico, she began chasing her own American Dream at age 21 when she immigrated to the US.

Inspired by her family’s contribution to agriculture and her desire to gain a deeper understanding of the business, Gastelum pursued a career in a small agricultural lab in 2004. After a few years, her dream to grow as an agricultural business professional took hold.

Overcoming challenges through education

Although she completed a college degree in Mexico, Gastelum’s limited English proficiency posed a challenge where her professional goals were concerned. She also realized being a single mother and a woman in a male-dominated industry were perhaps even more challenging. “I found myself working extra hard to stand out and earn the respect of employers and clients,” she says. “My family, employers, teachers, friends, and colleagues faithfully invested in me and encouraged me to never give up, particularly in the face of adversity.”

She knew she would need additional education and enrolled at Columbia Basin College in 2009, earning degrees in agribusiness and business management and mastering English proficiency.

She learned about the WSU online Executive MBA (EMBA) program from her agribusiness contacts in the Pacific Northwest and WSU graduates who are leaders in the agricultural industry.

“Based on my research, I concluded that the WSU Carson College of Business would be the best fit for my educational needs and better position me to achieve my own professional goals,” she says. “The online program provided the flexibility I needed with my full-time job and family obligations.”

EMBA training advances career

While earning her EMBA, Gastelum was a senior manager in a lab providing food safety and quality advisory services. Before she graduated from WSU in 2022, she became vice president of commercial operations at AGQ Labs, which offers sustainable agricultural, food, mining, and environmental solutions internationally.

After just four months, she was promoted to chief executive officer of the US territory.

“My EMBA degree has opened doors within my industry that would not have been available to me otherwise,” she says. “It has given me the confidence to trust my instincts without being complacent, the courage to be visible in a predominantly male industry, and the humility to admit my mistakes and move forward.”

Gastelum remembers two learning experiences in particular that supported her business aspirations. One occurred in her very first EMBA class, information management systems, with lead instructor Gregory Rose and section instructor Jolanda Barnett. At the time, she felt the class was completely over her head, but Barnett was “absolutely amazing and patient when explaining concepts and how they related to my work.” In the end, Gastelum created an information systems project that she implemented at her work, helping increase the lab’s productivity.

The other experience was in her capstone class where she and her team created a project to detect food allergens and contaminants early and propose solutions for consumers.

Viewing business through a wider lens

“When I think about the value of my EMBA, what comes to mind are the knowledgeable professors, a great network of talented, driven professionals, relevant curricula on best business practices, and consistent individual support, guidance, and encouragement from school staff and faculty,” she says.

Overall, Gastelum says the EMBA program encouraged her to view the industry she had worked in for many years through a more comprehensive lens and taught her about alternative business methods. She also participated in the study abroad program, gaining international business experience and access to a global network in the Czech Republic, Estonia, and Finland.

Her future plans include furthering AGQ’s mission for a better and safer world, implementing more efficient practices, and exploring new business possibilities.

“I have deep respect for AGQ’s vision and business model and feel very fortunate to be part of their US team,” she says. “As I grow my career, I’m determined to create a culture that supports education, empowers individuals, and breaks down stereotypes of women in this industry.”

Learn more about online MBAs and Executive MBAs at the Carson College of Business.