Jacob first found his passion for global development in Peace Corps Ghana. He worked on projects focused on food waste elimination, value addition, and gender empowerment. Afterward, he created a grain distribution business in northern Ghana and has developed over a dozen global supply chains of specialty ingredients. As Agricycle's COO, he oversees a network of 40,000 farmers upcycling natural fruit abundance into value-added income for their families.
Let's start with the Peace Corps, tell me a little bit about your time there.
So I started really straight out of college, went to Peace Corps in northern Ghana, and was an agricultural volunteer. So I probably wouldn't even have been able to keep a plant alive for a week, it was kind of half of my cohort, and then here we are in northern Ghana, finding ourselves involved in a community develop their agricultural scene. So it was a huge learning curve and it definitely brought me out of my comfort zone in every regard from the actual task at hand, as well as the cultural language, barriers, differences, things like that, and total geographic isolation compared to suburban, Minnesota. So then I got my hands wet in education. So I went to schools and would teach whatever classes were needed that semester, and I went to the health center and the clinic they had there and helped out where I could with babies taking nutritional panels, even some metrics, and things like that for the doctors. Then some of my favorite initiatives were besides just dancing and playing with the kids and boot camps and things like that were just the economic stimulating business discussions and initiatives that took place mainly with the women of the community. Typically any initiative that comes into men gets the opportunity. So one of my favorite ones was a jewelry making business and I just never would have thought in high school or college that I'd be sitting in a tiny village in northern Ghana for making jewelry with women and trying to create value-added income for them through means of creation. There is some time dye batik fabric making all sorts of initiatives like that. And then those cultural ones, creating farming groups and subsidized inputs, things like that for increased outputs, a whole lot of different initiatives that was just life-changing experience.
So why don't you tell us a little bit about your supply chain development experience across Sub Saharan Africa?
During Peace Corps, I started seeing a demand for a need that was not met in my village and in the northern part of Ghana itself. There's very poor infrastructure to store and transport grains and so one of the main problems that occur in northern Ghana is in boarding schools. So kids come from all over the country and then food is shipped to the kitchens that cooks can provide food for the boarding students. In southern Ghana, it's really no problem, they can start right away, but in northern Ghana, there's a lack of up to maybe a month or two before the food reaches the northern half of the country. So some of the students are unable to go to school, or at least they're at school but unable to go to classes because they're they can't eat and after two months, some go home, it's really just a difficult situation. So one of the things we tried to do was create this business, a distribution company for grains and create that supply chain that can get to the schools. All that's really needed is just an initial capital investment and then proper storage techniques to buy low at market saturation and then distribute later throughout the year. So that was kind of the initial idea for getting my feet wet in the industry. I got an opportunity to work with a friend who I met in Botswana in Peace Corps as well to develop about a dozen supply chains across Sub Saharan Africa and connecting smallholder farmers and some larger farmers processing fonio was the main one and other specialty ingredients to larger buying markets in America and the largest wholesale distributors of specialty ingredients and grains in America. So making that connection was something I didn't really have experienced too much beforehand. But then after a year of just being thrown in the ground and having to figure it all out, you become able to navigate the terrain pretty well.
So you've talked a lot about what you've been doing on a global level. I know you're in Milwaukee here, what community initiatives are you currently working on?
So one that we had just finished up working on was a fundraiser for Secure Bridges, which is a nonprofit in Milwaukee, combating human trafficking. It turns out Milwaukee and the Midwest, in general, is actually a pretty big hub for it. So we did a virtual month of fitness fundraiser for people across America and anywhere really. You just log on to this app and then do different fitness challenges, things like that. For all the proceeds, we donated to Secure Bridges to help them fight their aim. Then another one we're working on currently is a 10,000 smiles campaign with our Jolly Fruit Co. our sun-dried fruit. We are donating 1000s of bags to companies in the Milwaukee area, we stood in line with voters and distributed some bags to kind of put cheer in people's face and help them if they're out in line voting in the cold for hours on end to give them a little boost and nutritious snack that hopefully will put a smile on their face. And it tells all about the story of where it came from. And then so partners, individuals, and people throughout the Milwaukee area, giving away these bags to hopefully put a brighter end to the year that wasn't one of the greatest we've had in a while.
Can you share with our listeners one of your most successful or favorite networking experiences that you've had?
Yeah, so it's, it's got to be how I got a job at Agricycler. So I was coming back from one of my trips to sub-Saharan Africa, and I went to school in Madison, Wisconsin. So I came through going to Chicago to see some college buddies on the way back home to visit my family in Minneapolis. I had one day for the kind of like a speed dating session to all my friends from back in the college days and just see them again, catch up, have a good time, and see what everyone's up to. So pretty much like every hour, I had someone scheduled or a group of people or something. It was just such a fun day for me and then it was one of the later times around dinnertime, I had dinner with a buddy and then I had one person in like an hour. So I was like, "Oh my goodness, I actually have an hour off, who's left in the city, I gotta call somebody up!" So it turned out being a friend of mine from club basketball and it turns out they were an entrepreneur, creating this great startup who was distributing solar energy and solar lights for charging and phone use and electricity in the Congo. They were in an incubator and accelerator with its other startup who is doing global development in Sub Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, who needed some supply chain logistical support. So we were just doing sharing stories on development, Sub Saharan Africa just kind of catching up and then the conversation turned to you know, you really should connect with this guy, I think you guys would have so much in common and he's just as passionate about the same things you are, I think it would really work out. So I continued the night and saw my friends and stuff and went back to Minnesota a couple of days later, I called up this guy who was Josh and shot him an email to say, "Can we can we talk, Aaron introduced us." Then we had like a two-hour conversation right away, we just hit it off really well, exactly what he needed. I had experience in exactly what I was wanting to do kind of without even knowing it is what he was creating. And so he is the founder and CEO of Agricycle now, and I'm the CEO now. So it's just a very interesting way that's a random networking opportunity, just seeing friends led to my career path, and then my biggest passion right now.
I imagine in your role with Agricycle you've had some global travel, and you've probably met some amazing people. How do you best stay in front of and nurture these relationships in this community that you've created?
Yeah, it's so important to do so and it's something I need to do better at. I work at it and try to keep up with my network, but it's so important to do so. And some of the things that I've learned, I'll shares a list of them. So one of them is starting with when you go into meetings, and then you create a list, you have a document wherever you want to store it of this person, the title, or the fit, and then little details about it. So you just grow this huge list and then every once in a while, you reach out to them. Even maybe it's not even having to do with a specific request. It's just "Hey, how you doing checking in that was really great meeting you, what are you up to?" Something like that, just very simple. And even a personal angle, it can go to personal or professional, which is very important to reach back out. It could be a one minute email, you send out no problem. But sometimes, these are the ones I've sent, where I say "Hey, how's it going," have led to really great things, or vice versa, someone does that to me, and then we ended up creating a partnership that we didn't see coming. But that's one I would say. Get into communities. With COVID and ever-increasing digital platforms that were on slack channels, Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups, I'm in a couple of different slack channels, they upcycle food associations, a great one, startup CPG, another great one, then some Facebook groups too. Just be in there and try to be active here and there and say who you are, what you're doing, and maybe an ask or what you can offer something like that. But even just passively listening to see what's going on. And you can interject here and there and say, Oh, I can meet that need or something like that. Being in as many of those groups as possible, take some time to seek those out, and then the connections that it might lead to are well worth the time.
What advice do you have for that business professional who is looking to grow their network?
You never know what a reach out could lead to. I tell people all the time and talking to them that a no change is nothing but a yes can change everything. You send out 10 messages and 9 come back no, you're literally in the same place that you started. Nothing has changed your career, life is no different. But that one yes that you might get could lead to so many greater opportunities, you never know. So just being fearless than that and not worrying about a couple of no's here and there because you're never gonna get all yeses. But all those yeses are so important. Don't be intimidated, don't have the fear to get out of your comfort zone. If you're comfortable, you're probably not doing enough, like comfort is good in a sense. But you have to be a little uncomfortable if you're going to grow. Once you get out of your comfort zone and you become comfortable in that task, that's a great sign of growth, and then reach out to a different subgroup of that task or something like that and become uncomfortable again. Then repeat that cycle and get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
If you could go back to your 20-year-old self, what would you tell yourself to do more or less of or differently with regards to your professional career?
Yeah, I think this one might not be terribly popular with parents, but for grades, just past. I spent so much time having to get the perfect grades. And it's good, it's great to do. But I think no, you know, after graduating college and all the years of school that I go through, I think it's much more important that you have the drive to get those grades than to actually getting those grades in the first place. Work to do the best at everything you can do, but if I had that option of getting all A's, or go working two part-time jobs, or an internship or starting a company or something, I would much rather have my 20-year-old self, try and even fail at starting a company than spend 60 hours a week studying or whatever people are doing. There's never been an interview that where there are two people absolutely equal, at least in my experience, and one person has done amazing stuff, started their own company, and the other person has a 4.0 versus the other person who started the company and all these community initiatives and has 3.0 or something. Look at that number, it just doesn't really matter. So get grades, pass, it's great. But do the extracurriculars, put yourself out there. You're trained that comfort is getting good grades, like push yourself to get good grades. Don't put yourself outside the box because it's risky, it's not as important, the ROI isn't as good. I completely disagree.
So we've all heard of the six degrees of separation. Who is the one person that you'd love to connect with and do you think you can do it within the sixth-degree?
So I'd say definitely, on the sixth-degree question, I think you can get to anyone and like in half that like three or four. I'm so confident in that, especially without digital The world is today and the globalized nature of society. It's not easy to just snap your fingers and get there, but if you have the connections lined up, you can I think six is even overshooting it. The Dream person for me is Serena Williams. She's just such a role model in every regard. Especially since I started working with Agricycle, empowering rural women farmers in Sub Saharan Africa, and Serena is such a symbol of female empowerment, especially women of color empowerment. I would love to even just have a conversation with her. But if we could take a step further and get like a brand ambassador, like the face of one of our brands, oh my goodness, Serena, where are you at? I feel like some connections we have with startups and next-gen is connected with NFL play 60 and I made a connection through that because Serena is actually invested in Miami Dolphins, so going through that route. She also has her own fund and she invested in Impossible Foods and some other brands but Impossible Foods, a plant-based protein are the ingredients. So I go through Impossible Foods' CEO or someone their company reaches her, I feel like in three to four connections arise.
What final advice do you have to offer our listeners with regards to growing and supporting your network?
It's definitely tied to the theme of not worrying about no’s, not being afraid. Definitely just seek opportunities, you might think it's a silly networking event. Just try it! If if the silly networking event takes an hour of your time, and you haven't gotten a connection, and that stinks, that's unfortunate. But hopefully, you learned something, you have to take something away from it, if not some good connections. If you're in an event, don't just sit and think that the connections will come to you. Maybe they will, but go be your own advocate. If you're scared to go talk to someone, someone else probably scared to go talk to you. So just put yourself out there, don't worry about being scared. I always think that probably won't ever see these people again and that's like the worst case, so again, nothing changes. But if you do see them again, that's probably because you had a connection that you created. So the worst thing that could happen is nothing, no difference, and then the best thing is great connections. If you're on a webinar or listening to speakers, try to remember a couple of key points and what they're saying and if it resonates with you, shoot a message with those key points to show them you're listening and show them you're engaged and then use that to kind of springboard whatever conversation you'd want to get out of it. Then just say yes to opportunities, even if it's more of a mentorship opportunity. You never know what those connections could lead to. You never know you're gonna learn from teaching others. I'm just all about taking as many opportunities as you can so just take opportunities when they come or create them, and then take them.
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