Ricky Stephens – the co-Founder of AgTech X, speaks to Challenge Advisory about his passions and inspirations within the industry, his career challenges and achievements thus far, and what the team is currently up to at AgTech X.
AgTech X is a community platform for learning, collaboration, and entrepreneurship within Urban Agriculture & Sustainable Food System topics. They are currently New York City’s only co-working lab that is focused solely on sustainable food & agriculture issues.
- Can you tell us about your career before forming AgTech X?
I started my career at a rapidly-expanding marketing & sales technology firm, Red Ventures, in Charlotte, NC. My last 18 months at RV I spent helping to launch their first international office in Sao Paulo, which gave me a lot more confidence in my abilities as a leader. Meanwhile, I had always been passionate about food, and as I began doing more research around the intersection of food-sustainability technology, it opened my eyes to how environmentally damaging our current food system has been and how much potential new technology has to help us create a better system. Moving back to New York, I started exploring the idea of joining a smaller start-up team focused on these issues.
- Tell us about AgTech X, and what led you to create the company.
I spent a few months meeting folks in New York who were doing interesting things in the food & agriculture space, and realised that there were a ton of other people like me who wanted to transition careers into a more meaningful industry. Urban agriculture seemed to be the field that was most intriguing to a lot of these folks. At the same time, I had met Henry Gordon-Smith (now my business partner) and was extremely impressed with the business he had built with Agritecture Consulting. I eventually pitched him on building a new business unit for Agritecture focused on training this network of career transitioners to find jobs or launch their own projects within Urban Ag. We decided to spin it out into its own business, and that was how AgTech X was born.
- Do you have any entrepreneurs that you look up to? If so, who?
My role model in the business world is a Brazilian entrepreneur named Ricardo Semler. He wrote a book called Maverick about his journey democratising the very old-school manufacturing company he inherited from his father at the age of 21 – it’s incredibly inspiring. Check out his TedTalk for a briefer version!
- Are there any companies in the industry that inspire you at the moment?
I’m most excited by companies that are serious about having a positive social and/or environmental impact, as opposed to solely focused on scaling and paying back investors as quickly as possible. Sometimes this can be done simply through creating a more innovative business model. A great example is what’s going on in food waste – viewing wasted food as a wasted revenue opportunity and an environmental responsibility, rather than just a cost of doing business. Examples include Imperfect Produce, Baldor (look up their SPARCS initiative!), and Toast Ale. Another innovative business model I love is Everytable – they’re attacking the social inequities around food access through a sliding scale pricing model based on the location of each store.
- What has been your greatest achievement since the creation of AgTech X?
We have two really exciting projects we’ll be launching this summer. But for now, I’d say it’s the strength of our community one year in and the fact that a number of our community members have made meaningful achievements of their own that we’ve helped facilitate.
- What was the most challenging part of starting your own business?
At first it was a lot of the ‘basic’ questions (What accounting software should we use? Should we file as an LLC or an S Corp?). It was all new to me as a first-time entrepreneur. But now it’s really trying to continue growing as a bootstrapped business. We’re probably still a year away from deciding on a long-term business model and going out to raise some money for it, so in the interim, we’re trying to grow our audience and test various initiatives as quickly as we can while staying really, really lean.
- What areas of AgTech are you most passionate about?
One (short-term) – building a meaningful community, where members get more value out than they put in. Two (long-term) – creating a model for how to build a more regional & sustainable food economy.
- Could you tell us the best advice anyone has ever given you?
When you’re in a leadership role, everything you do has an impact on those around you (the people who work for you, potential clients, etc.) – and therefore the success of your business. Realising that has been a crucial learning element for someone like me who is used to wearing their heart on their sleeve.
- Do you have any exciting upcoming projects?
Yes, two in particular. We’ll be announcing both in the next 30-60 days… follow us on social media @agtechx to be the first to know!
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