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It’s not an exaggeration to say that agriculture is in Shayna’s blood. With a grandfather who immigrated from Germany, Shayna grew up hearing about stories on the farm and talking about what real food means. In college, she discovered her passion for sustainable food development, which led her to become the current Chief Growth Officer for Farmer’s Fridge, a Chicago-based start-up that sells a variety of healthy foods in vending machines.
Shayna has always thrived in non-structured environments where roles are undersigned. She loves figuring out the big question – How do we get there? Thinking big, being creative and dynamic is in her blood.
In this interview with Activate, Shayna talks about the challenges of working in the food industry; the meaning behind her personal slogan “made by humans” mean; the importance of staying genuine and doing what you love, and more.
Undergrad: Boston University International Relations + Political Science
Grad: MIT Sustainable Management
Current Position: Chief Growth Officer, Farmer’s Fridge
Tell me about yourself and how you got to where you are now.
I grew up hearing stories from my grandfather about farming, food, and land. This sparked an early passion for me. In college, I learned that 75% of world’s poor live in farming regions and do not have enough food to sustain myself. I found it so ironic that the people who grow our food and tend our land end up not having any food to eat themselves. This was a driving force for me – I thought this was something I might be able to change.
I studied political science and international relations as an undergrad, and was able to study how government policies affect the agricultural sector. In junior year, I travelled abroad to Southern Mexico and wrote a thesis on the connection between trade, migration, and economics. I was wondering, is fair trade really sustaining the coffee farmers in Mexico?
Later on, I had an internship at Oxfam working on sustainable development where I got to work with world’s largest coffee companies and help them understand why it was important to adopt fair trade policies and how to work with farmers. I worked with Starbucks, Green Mountain, Intelligentsia, and Cooperative Coffees.
I also got a scholarship to Brazil to understand farmers at a local and intimate level, and that was a powerful trip for me.
Why was the Brazil trip transformative for you?
That was a transformative year for me because I understood how important it is for humans to have the ability to choose. A lot of farmers that I worked with actually decided to stay on their farms after they received direct access to markets and could do something else. They chose not to migrate to different cities and not to break their families apart. This hit home for me because my grandfather had no choice but to leave his job as a farmer to provide for the family. This was also when I decided to dedicate my entire life to agricultural and sustainable development. I also decided that I wanted a life of serving others.
People usually associate “serving others” with non-profits, what made you decide to work for a business? What does serving mean for you working at Farmer’s Fridge?
What a wonderful question. When I was younger, I assumed that serving had to be restricted to the non-profit sector, but that is not entirely true. For me, service is manifested threefold.
First, every decision in a business impacts people, and that is serving. At the executive level, I am committed to building a business with fair principles – that means making sure everyone we work with are treated fairly and with humanity. This includes workers, data scientists, kitchen line workers, and basically everyone we work with.
Second, Farmer’s Fridge is dedicated to bringing fresh, nutritious meals to people in Chicago, and that is also a way of serving. We are dedicated to zero waste, which means that no unsold meals that are still fresh go uneaten. We partner with the Greater Chicago Food Depository; they help us distribute our foods to places like afterschool youth programs and homeless shelters.
Third, thinking about where our products come from and who we partner with. We partner with businesses that use heritage grain in their brand; we partner with a small business in Milwaukee that makes nutrient dense wraps. We also work with local apple and peach growers in the Midwest over the summer. Thinking about how the raw materials we use impact our local farmers is also a part of service.
What Farmer’s Fridge is doing is truly inspirational. But there must also be hurdles working in the food industry. Can you tell me about it?
Definitely. We are swimming upstream in a food system that does not serve everybody. We are honest with ourselves that we cannot do 100% all the time. There are companies that make such statements, but that us prevents from having an honest conversation about the problems of the food system. What we really believe, however, is that as we grow in scale, we will have more purchasing power and a lot more we can do.
It’s not easy to get people to eat healthy. How does Farmer’s Fridge do that?
Can you guess how much a meal costs at Farmer’s Fridge? It’s around 5 to 6 dollars. When our customers think about what to eat for lunch, they usually think about places like Subway, and other businesses that have similar pricing to us. We don’t tell people what to eat for lunch because that’s a personal choice they have to make. We understand that everyone has different taste, dietary restrictions, desires, and styles of living. We just want to provide the best value to our consumers.
We know that there are so many consumers in the U.S. that are not happy with what they are eating,
and we are just here to provide 24/7 accessible food you can trust. You can see our food in a jar, and it’s transparent. You can pronounce all the ingredients. And you make the choice of deciding what you want to eat.
Is it difficult to keep foods fresh?
We have an algorithm that we use to calculate how many products we should have at each location every day. Our goal is to sell as many products that people need while minimizing the number of unsold products.
What would you tell college students that either want to start their own company or join a start-up?
For those that want to start a company, make sure you have a true passion for the mission because your role is going to change. You have to really love the idea. For those that want to join a startup, first of all it’s really fun, because entrepreneurs are really dynamic and wild. It’s important to ask for clarity to make sure you’re on the same page with your boss; manage up; and also believe in the mission.
You studied political science as an undergrad. A lot of college students today are concerned that their humanities degree won’t land their job. What do you have to say to them?
I wanted to be a zoologist when I was a kid. I took a lot of English classes in college, simply because I loved it. I have always been driven by an innate curiosity, always driven by passion, and that has served me really well. So many studies suggest that emotional intelligence is highly tied to success, which means that being authentic and doing what you love is really important. When you do what you love, it shines through. People respond to authenticity and genuineness. So my advice would be:
Do what you love; continue to be passionate; and tap into that authenticity.
Pragmatically, I recommend students do some summer internships. Try to spend as much time as possible to work on different projects and figure out what skills you have to develop. While you are interning, you are also searching for ways to apply your passion to the marketplace.
Rapid Fire Questions
- 1. What are your top three values?
Transparency, humility, love
- 2. What’s one piece of advice you would give to your 18-year-old self?
Drop the assumptions. I thought that the only way I could live a way of service was through non-profits. I realized that the change I really wanted to drive had to happen at the intersection of government, business, and the non-profit world. I grew to have an appreciation for humans that work in all these sectors because they have their own constraints as well as their ways of driving change.
So, drop the assumptions and be open minded!
- 3. What’s your favorite pastime hobby?
Currently, it’s what my four-year old daughter calls “Family time”. Electronics are off.
It’s just a time for me and my family to laugh, enjoy ourselves.
- 4. What piece of inspirational advice that you live by?
Made by humans. Appreciating that everything we use and touch in a day is all made by human beings. For me, I live by the principal to respect and be kind to every human being I touch throughout the day.
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