Salinas Impact Story: Creating Fertile Soil for Untold Stories to GrowMay 11, 2020
Sometimes the one writing the story finds their own story in the process. Which is exactly what happened to Amy Wu.
Amy had been an investigative reporter for 20 years at major media outlets when she got a call from an editor at The Californian asking if she’d be interested in moving to Salinas to cover agriculture.
It was 2015, and the Agtech sector was burgeoning in the region, which ticked several boxes on Amy’s interest list: business, government, agriculture, tech. She said yes and headed to the Central Coast from the Central Valley.
But there’s a backstory here of a rising tide, brought on by the creative thinkers in Salinas and amplified by DCI, that would become the fodder for Amy’s future.
The Spark That Put Salinas on the Agtech Map
Three years earlier, in 2012, Salinas Valley was known mainly as the salad bowl of the world when Capital One, the region’s main employer, closed its offices and left 900 people out of work.
Salinas’ city leaders had already been looking to shift the region’s trajectory, and Capital One’s departure made the case even more compelling.
Reeling from the loss of one of the city’s largest employers, the City of Salinas launched its Agtech Innovation Ecosystem initiative with the three-fold aim to attract and support entrepreneurs and startups; seed and grow educational and training programs; and rebrand and establish the region as an Agtech hub.
While city leaders brought together a strategic coalition of stakeholders with vast expertise — like John Hartnell of Silicon Valley-based consulting firm SVG Partners and Bruce Taylor of Taylor Farms — DCI was brought in to spearhead rebranding and outreach.
At first, it was an uphill climb. No one had heard of the term “Agtech” and Salinas didn’t have a big research university to give it gravitas. But DCI persevered and the first big hit came in 2013 when they brought a reporter from the Financial Times to Salinas, resulting in the front-page article “Silicon Valley Links with Salinas Valley to Make Farming ‘Smart’.”
Just a couple of weeks later, The San Francisco Chronicle followed suit and soon the trickle of press became a torrent, with major feature stories in CNBC, Wired, the L.A. Times and more. And as the narrative shifted about Salinas and the region’s credibility as an Agtech leader grew to a national — and even global — scale, there became more and more to write about.
So much so that, when DCI pitched Forbes Media on the idea of holding an Agtech summit in Salinas (they’d been considering the Midwest) and connected the team with those spearheading the Agtech Innovation Ecosystem efforts in Salinas, Forbes said yes. And in July of 2015 the first Forbes Agtech Summit was held in downtown Salinas.
Which means Amy arrived in Salinas at the perfect time.
“I’ve always been interested in innovation and how it impacts society,” says Amy. Over the next three years, Amy witnessed — and covered — plenty of it. Like the opening (and prolific growth) of Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology incubator. And the highly successful CSin3 program, which has paved the way for students who may have fallen through the cracks — 40% of the program’s students are female, 93% are minorities, and 74% are the first generation in their family to attend college — to earn a BS in Computer Science in 3 years.
Another big boost to Agtech startups was the launch of the THRIVE Accelerator Program, a highly competitive 4-month program culminating in a pitch at the Forbes Agtech Summit and up to $200,000 in seed capital.
The more involved Amy got in the Agtech scene, the more she began to wonder how many Agtech startup firms were led or launched by women. Being Chinese-American, she recognized that the entrepreneurial road was exponentially more difficult for minority women in a new field spanning two arenas — agriculture and technology — that had traditionally been dominated by men. “I kept wanting to ask these women, ‘What’s motivating you to climb Everest?’”
So in 2017, she began seeking out minority women entrepreneurs in Agtech.
The Incubation of From Farms to Incubators
Amy sought out grants to fund a documentary, “From Farms to Incubators: Telling the stories of minority women entrepreneurs in Agtech in the Salinas Valley and beyond.” And for the next several months, she searched for minority women who had started companies in Agtech and listened to their stories.
“A common thread I found among these women entrepreneurs was that they were intent on wanting to use their skills and education and professional background to create something that made an impact,” says Amy. “They’re truly on a mission to make a difference and solve problems in the food system.”
Which is a good thing, because the food system is facing unprecedented challenges — like climate change, shortages in water and arable land, and new additions of interrupted supply chains due to global pandemics — all while being expected to feed approximately 90 million people by 2050.
Innovative technology applied to agriculture can help farmers make smarter decisions and do more with less … less land, less water, less labor. And diversity drives innovation. “When you have a diverse group of people, decision making is more robust and you get better outcomes and more creativity because you have different perspectives,” says Pam Marrone, CEO and Founder of Marrone Bio Innovations.
Two of the founders Amy profiled were Diane Wu and Poornima Parameswaran of Trace Genomics who won the Thrive Accelerator competition in 2016. They created a simple soil test and added machine learning to unlock powerful insights about the billions of microbes that exist in just one teaspoon of soil.
Ask any of the subjects in Amy’s documentary and they’ll tell you that not only can starting an Agtech company as a woman be daunting, it can also be lonely. Women control only 7% of U.S. farmland and own only 14% of farms.
Add to that the fact that startup founders with funding are 80% male and 90% white — despite the fact that First Round Capital reported that companies with a female founder performed 63% better than investments with all-male founding teams — and it can seem downright impossible.
As Anna Caballero, California State Assemblywoman, says, “Women don’t get treated well unless there’s a critical mass.”
Amy is helping create that critical mass in Agtech.
In 2018, the documentary took center stage at the Forbes Agtech Summit and it has been screened around the country, including at SXSW and Techonomy. She was recently named one of the “50 Women Changing the World” in Worth Magazine’s “Groundbreakers 2020,” and her book From Farms to Incubators is coming out in 2021 as a companion to an exhibition launching at the National Steinbeck Center in November, 2020.
Amy came to cover the burgeoning Agtech scene in Salinas that DCI had helped to grow. Now she’s growing a movement that will pave the way for the next generation of women Agtech leaders to find better solutions for agriculture, for business, and for our future.