Kirchner Food Fellowship: Combating Global Food Insecurity & Funding Socially Responsible Agriculture with Students
Editor’s Note: Blair Kirchner is director of the Kirchner Food Fellowship, a student-led impact investment program operated by the Kirchner Impact Foundation, the non-profit arm of the North American merchant bank. A few months ago the Fellowship announced a partnership with Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) and North Carolina State University (NCSU) which will provide financial and technical expertise in support of the 2018-2019 Kirchner Food Fellowship program. Now accepting applications from students for its fifth cohort, we asked Kirchner to write about the inception of the fellowship and its core mission as a program.
The seeds of the Kirchner Food Fellowship were planted (pun maybe intended) in early 2014 at a lunch in Toronto between an impatient academic innovator and two impatient entrepreneurial businessmen (one of whom was Kirchner Group’s founder) who saw, from different vantage points, many of the same societal challenges.
They noted several including the lack of training at universities for aspiring investors and the need to decrease training timeframes and lower overhead of traditional investment models in highly distributed situations. As they talked, they sketched out an experimental model, literally on a napkin, based on shared values, a shared commitment to global food security, and their respective passions for education and impact investing that they felt could start to address some of those challenges. Then, they called me and said – “can you make that happen in three months?”
Together, and with the support of our great network, we did. In June of 2014, the Kirchner Impact Foundation launched The Kirchner Food Fellowship. In October of 2014, we had our first cohort of Fellows formed into an impact investment team with discretionary investment authority over a dedicated pool of the Foundation’s capital.
Our first year was a roller coaster to say the least but that first investment team invested in Kuli Kuli’s (also an AgFunder alum) seed round! As the fellows looked at Kuli Kuli, they saw a growing market for nutrient-dense, healthy, convenient foods. More specifically they saw that the moringa market was wide open for a strong brand. The fellows were also drawn to the mission focus of the company which was being demonstrated in their commitment to have positive impact in their supply chain from developing economies. Perhaps most importantly that saw a CEO and team that had the drive and passion to make the company a success. We have since participated in their subsequent financings as well.
Through the use of problem-based learning techniques and highly committed millennial talent, which is native to the newest technologies, the program has proven it is possible to develop a new model to deploy equity capital very intelligently – real-world, real-time, real money. One of our partners described this as “Peace Corps meets VC.”
The first task for the fellows each year is to develop their own investment mandate which is under the overarching umbrella of improving global food security and in some cases we have put further parameters on it but they are responsible to define it. Other basic components are that the portfolio companies are revenue-generating and have an impact orientation.
Fast forward and we are now mid-stream of our fifth year. Each year, we run a rigorous recruitment and screening process to select a small group of university students from a vast pool of highly qualified candidates. One of the core components of the Fellowship’s success has been our process of selecting complementary skillsets and diverse backgrounds. It is so much more about the team than about individuals as our task is to build a high-functioning, cohesive investment committee in a matter of months. Collectively the team needs a range of skills and vocabulary. We joke that someone on the team needs to have grown something, started something and invested in something. aid another way, the team needs an ag vocabulary, an entrepreneurial vocabulary, and a financial vocabulary.
Beyond interviews, we also conduct a number of tests including customized IOP tests (industrial organizational psychology) as part of our final phase to ensure we understand how they think, perform and respond in certain situations – and to ensure they will remain a cohesive team during times of inevitable disagreement.
It is exciting that the program continues to evolve and grow in real time, and the success and dynamism of our Fellows and the ideas that come out of these partnerships have been thrilling as we all seek to revolutionize the agriculture industry and make it more sustainable for future generations. To me a classic example of creating value while promoting values – something we not only preach but practice every day.
Our program is extremely demanding for students who already have a full course load at their respective university. We require the fellows to participate in weekly calls and travel to 4-5 events both domestic and international. We are very upfront during our process to advising applicants to expect to average 10-20 hours of time dedicated to the program each week.
Our Fellows have come from some of the leading agriculture institutions: UC Davis, Texas A&M, Cornell, Guelph, Auburn, NC State, CINVESTAV Irapuato, and Rutgers; as well as leading business and policy institutions such as Harvard, MIT, University of Chicago, John Hopkins and UNC Chapel Hill. They have also gone on to start their own businesses and to work with organizations like the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), World Food Programme, Syngenta and the Bridgespan Group.
To give you an example, Erin Lenhardt was enrolled in an MBA program at University of Chicago Booth School of Business when she was selected for our first cohort. That cohort invested in Kuli Kuli and Green Zebra Grocery. After graduating, she continued work at her family business and started a consulting company focused on marketing for early stage Ag and food companies. She then went on to lead sales at Sir Kensington’s prior to its acquisition and now is the co-founder of Parsnip, which is like a dating site for brands.
In addition to Kuli Kuli, we have built a diverse and strong portfolio of agriculture and food companies including Tomato Jos, Green Zebra Grocery and, our newest addition, Solena. We strongly believe in being a value add investor and always appreciate recognition in that regard. Lisa Curtis, founder and CEO of Kuli Kuli is always kind in her praise for the program and recently commented “Kuli Kuli is proud to be one of the first investments in the Kirchner Food Fellowship portfolio. We’ve found them to be an exceedingly helpful investor – introducing us to one of our Series A investors and even traveling with us to South America to work out an issue with one of our suppliers.”
Over the years things have evolved and in response to both internal and external factors we now offer three unique deployment vectors: issue-specific, geography-specific and institution-specific. Last year we deployed a geography-specific cohort focused on opportunities in Mexico. Today we are in advanced discussions with city and state governments in Central Mexico to make the model a permanent part of their entrepreneurial ecosystem. This year the Fellowship is collaborating with the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) on an issue specific mandate to make an investment related to soil health.
After five years of experimentation and evolution, we are now aiming to establish partnerships with organizations that can help scale our model in their respective areas of expertise and social need – whether focused on an issue, geography or both.
Kirchner Impact Foundation is a not for profit entity that serves as one of the “returning” arms of our parent organization – values-based boutique firm Kirchner Group. Importantly and crucial to the fellowship’s success is the program’s ability to leverage the Kirchner Group’s platform and decades of experience in the agriculture sector working with investors and companies from start-up to exit.
Students interested in applying for the 2019-2020 academic year can do so beginning on March 1, 2019 on our website where more information on the Fellowship can also be found.