Aligning Forces to Feed America and Beyond.

Forming Future Agro Challenge USA in the midst of crisis.

As the world continues to be enveloped in the COVID-19 crisis we are experiencing the non-medical effects of the virus. Along with the economic downturn as businesses, small and large feel the strain not only of the pandemic, but of the measures set in motion to slow the spread.The food supply chain has been crippled and this issue will likely get worse before it gets better. There are already stories in the press here at home as well as abroad about the challenges of getting food from the producers to the retailers.

Before this colossal event, there were plans for a small regional convening in the works. It was to be held in Peoria, Illinois this week. There was to be a startup competition of agricultural entrepreneurs and innovators. It would have been the inaugural relaunching of the Future Agro Challenge USA; part of a global initiative that started in the aftermath of another crisis. The planning committee, comprised of entrepreneurial ecosystem builders envisioned bringing together advisors, mentors and funders, as well as corporations and policymakers, designed as a snapshot of the agrifood innovation ecosystem from across the US. As noted in the press release:

Future Agro Challenge’s mission is to find real, sustainable solutions to the complex global food puzzle challenging food insecurity, biodiversity, and climate change by bringing together a passionate and innovative ecosystem of agripreneurs, farmers, investors, corporates, researchers, and industry experts.

The organization’s vision is to build dialogue and be a convener to find the best revolutionary and feasible solutions beyond borders for the global food puzzle at national, regional, and global level that can be held up high for the world to see there are other ways.

There were plans to tour the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific in-house research agency. All derailed because of COVID-19.

It all started a year ago in Bahrain…

I met Carla Tanas, founder of the Future Agro Challenge (FAC) at the Global Entrepreneurship Congress. We were both delegates representing our respective countries and connected on several levels, but mostly around our common love of food. She spoke passionately about her organization which started as a way to bring her beloved Greece back after their economic crisis which started a decade ago. She and her husband, Michalis Stangos strategized approaches inspired by the UN Sustainable Development Goals. I told her about my work with the Kauffman Foundation’s ESHIP Goals supporting the nascent field of entrepreneurial ecosystem building which was also inspired by the UNSDGs.

As our friendship grew, so did our discussions about FAC and how to support Ag entrepreneurship around the world. One thing that kept bubbling up was the lack of presence in the United States. Years ago, there was a Future Agro Challenge competition hosted by Arrowhead Center, part of New Mexico State University. I had spoken with the then director and learned it was no longer housing it. Carla and I continued to brainstorm about organizations that could support an entity in the US, but there were more hurdles in shifting the mindset of agro-centric institutions for the work needed to foster entrepreneurial development.

In the fall, I was invited to join her in Thessaloniki to be part of the Global Agripreneur Summit and Future Agro Challenge representing over 60 member countries.Taking part in the festivities and meeting innovators from all over the world was inspiring. I had the honor of facilitating a workshop with some of their Impact Makers, the leaders of FAC in countries like Australia, South Africa, Serbia, Lebanon, and Peru, just to name a few. They were as diverse as their homelands, but shared an aligned vision. Just as “there isn’t one single solution to the myriad of complex global challenges” as stated on FAC’s website, there isn’t one prototype of a leader or entrepreneurial solution. The range of start-ups varied from high-tech to social entrepreneurship, robotics to mapping soil genome. Though there were companies representing the United States, I discovered they were foreign nationals who incorporated here. While I appreciate those who come and develop ideas in our country, I was disappointed that there were no homegrown entities on the global stage.

Inspired by all that was going on across the world, I left Greece and landed in Madison, WI at Startup Champions Network’s (SCN) Fall Summit. Fresh in my mind was the dilemma of finding an organization to support ag startups nationally. I quickly realized the answer was in front of me. The people in the room were the best of the best when it came to fostering and cultivating entrepreneurs. One of the first people I spoke to at registration was Jake Hamann, from the Peoria Innovation Alliance. Jake is an OG when it comes to ecosystem building, he was one of the founding members of SCN and part of Startup America which was its predecessor. It was much simpler to approach the people already assisting entrepreneurs by running incubators, accelerators, co-working spaces and serving as mentors, funders and startup competition organizers to have them focus on agriculture and food (!) Late last year we started conversations about creating Future Agro Challenge USA and embarked on planning the event that was scheduled for this week.

In typical scrappy bootstrapping form, we reached out to people we knew and put together a framework for an MVP (minimal viable product) style event. Our plan was to start with one, possibly two challenges and send those winners to the global competition. Eventually, we looked to host 5 regional events (representative of the 5 USDA regions) then partnering with our friends at Established who runs Startup of The Year who would have an Ag vertical as part of their flagship event. This was all going well and we had picked up momentum as word spread about FAC USA. Then COVID-19 hit.

All the plans, including hosting state policy makers and rallying youth entrepreneurs came to a screeching halt.

While this was unplanned and unfortunate, it has offered us a gift. Now we have the time and energy to solidify the foundation of what we started months ago. Forced patience and quieting to fully engage our growing partnerships and hone our mission, vision and goals. We, who are accustomed and even thrive in uncertainty can take a breath to pause. Storming, forming and norming is a skill that many ecosystem builders have. Other leadership skills include the ability to see across systems, bridging and connecting. In this time of chaos, one of the most precious commodities is connectivity.

Future Agro Challenge USA is coming together as an alliance of organizations focused on how we solve the food puzzle. To sustain-ably nourish our communities, fostering robust growth and creativity. The challenge is not about winners and losers, it’s a way to open up opportunities for entrepreneurs to move forward; connecting them with resources and shining light on innovations that will feed and nurture the world.

~ This introduction to FAC USA is a work in progress, much like our organization and will evolve as we do. Thank you for your interest.~

Community & Ecosystem Builder, Collaborator, Catalyst, Speaker/ Facilitator. Lover of words, ideas and people.

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