Farmer’s Fridge: Conversation with Shayna Harris

Apr 8, 2019

It’s not an exaggeration to say that agriculture is in Shayna’s blood. With a grandfather who immigrated from Germany as a farmer, 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 at Farmer’s Fridge, a Chicago-based start-up that sells fresh, nutritious foods through 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? Shayna loves thinking big, creating, and being dynamic.

In this interview with Activate, Shayna talks about the importance of staying genuine and doing what you love; the challenges of working in the food industry; the meaning behind her personal slogan “made by humans”; and more.

Meet Shayna — Chief Growth Officer of Farmer’s Fridge

Undergraduate: Boston University | International Relations + Political Science

Graduate: MIT | Sustainablility

1. Tell me about yourself and how you arrived at where you are.

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 people live in farming regions. 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. 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 my undergrad thesis on the connection between trade, migration, and economics. My study evolved around whether fair trade was really sustaining the local coffee farmers in Mexico.

Later on, I had an internship at Oxfam working on sustainable development. I got to work with world’s largest coffee companies to help them understand why it was important to adopt fair trade policies and how to work with farmers. I worked with companies including Starbucks, Green Mountain, Intelligentsia, and Cooperative Coffees.

I also got a scholarship to Brazil where I got to understand farmers at a more local and intimate level. That trip was tremendously powerful for me.

2. 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 go on to do something else. Instead of choosing to migrate to larger cities, they decided to stay on their farms so that they did not have 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. That was when I decided to dedicate my entire life to agricultural and sustainable development. I also decided that I wanted a life of serving others.

3. People usually associate “serving others” with non-profits, not business. What does serving mean for you working at Farmer’s Fridge?

What a wonderful question. When I was younger, I also assumed that serving had to be restricted to the non-profit sector, but that is not entirely true. Working at the intersection of government, business, and non-profit allows me to drive the change I want to see.

I see service taking place at three different levels at Farmer’s Fridge. First, every decision we make in our business impacts people. At the executive level, we are 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 after school youth programs and homeless shelters.

Third, thinking about where our products come from and who we partner with is also part of the service. We partner with businesses that use heritage grain in their brand as well as 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. We want to make sure that the the raw materials we use are able to impact our local farmers positively.

4. 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. However, we are very honest with ourselves in acknowledging that we cannot do 100% all the time. There are companies that make such statements, but that kind of marketing prevents us from having honest conversations about the problems with the current food system. What we do believe, however, is that as we grow in scale, we will have more purchasing power and a lot more we can do.

Farmer’s Fridge Salad in a Jar

5. 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, which is not a lot. 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 try to provide the maximum value for our customers by offering something that is both affordable and delicious.

We don’t tell people whether to eat healthy or not because that’s a personal choice they have to make. We understand that everyone has different taste, dietary restrictions, desires, and styles of living.

What we do know is that there are so many consumers in the U.S. that are not happy with what they are eating. 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 then you make the choice of deciding what you want to eat.

6. Is it difficult to keep foods fresh?

We have an algorithm that calculates how many products we should have at each location everyday. Our goal is to sell as many products that people need while minimizing the number of unsold products.

7. 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 at the business evolves. 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.

8. You studied political science as an undergrad. A lot of college students today are concerned that their humanities degree won’t land them a 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 drive 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 to 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 can also search for ways to apply passion your passion to the marketplace.

Rapid Fire Questions

1. What are your top three values?

Transparency, humility, and love.

2. What’s one piece of advice you would give to your 18-year-old self?

Drop the assumptions. Early on, I thought that the only way I could live a way of service was through non-profits. But later on, 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. This is the slogan of a coffee shop across my office, but it has now become my personal slogan. I appreciate that everything we use and touch in a day is all made by human beings. For me, I live by the principle to respect and be kind to every human being I connect with throughout the day.

This piece is written by Alexandra Huang, a Weinberg freshman. Alexandra is the founder of Activate, a publication dedicated to sharing stories of inspirational entrepreneurs. You can read more of Alexandra’s articles on her website. Besides writing, Alexandra is a gourmet and traveler who loves exploring new cultures and experiencing the world. She can be contacted via email.

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