Laura Johnson Blair is chief strategy officer of Farmforce, a Norwegian technology company and cloud-hosted web and mobile platform that enables NGOs and multi-national organisations to transparently source from smallholder and medium-scale farmers in developing markets. Farmforce builds trust and transparency in the value chain by using digital technology to bring smallholder farmers into formal value chains, and promoting traceability of produce. Since Laura joined three years ago, Farmforce has grown from a late-stage start-up, spun off from a non-profit foundation project, to an independent company which engages in a commercially viable strategy. Farmforce works with clients across 32 countries throughout Africa, Asia and Europe. Laura has previously worked in executive roles in East African and Southeast Asian agricultural start-ups and initiatives, with a focus on climate-risk resilience.
What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
Growing up in Ohio, I was very interested in agriculture and livestock, and attending and competing at county and state fairs as well as national competitions. I was also involved in national and international science fair and was fortunate to live very close to a major university, which gave me access to laboratories, greenhouses and mentorship. This meant I was able to research molecular biology from the beginning of high school; plant sciences and molecular biology were my first loves. Through this experience, I did a World Food Prize Foundation Borlaug Ruan International internation in Taiwan at the World Vegetable Centre, as well as working with European companies during my time at university. I studied for my bachelor’s degree at Cornell, and was able to study both applied economics and plant molecular biology. I realised that although I loved biology, I did not want to be a bench researcher, but was much more interested in the application of biology to real-world issues, and the intersection between biology, innovation and business. I spent four and a half years working in Kenya after graduating from Cornell, working in the agricultural insurance sector. I supported the transitioning of an NGO into a for-profit, impactful company, and set up operations across many countries in Africa and South-East Asia. One focus of this work was advising governments on agricultural strategies and facilitating regional dialogue. My entrepreneurial journey has involved joining early-stage organisations and working to take them to the next level in terms of scope, scale, viability and impact, to help efficiently tackle climate and economic issues faced by small-scale farmers and the agricultural sector generally.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
I find that quite often, people look at ‘entrepreneurship’ quite narrowly; that to be an entrepreneur, you have to have an idea, set up a company, and build it. This understanding can lead to a lot of redundancies and inefficiencies. I view entrepreneurship more broadly; it can include joining young ventures which are already tackling a problem you’re interested in, and using your expertise to develop that organisation and achieve its aims.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
I was aware of many ideas that had a lot of potential for development. One of the key things to remember is that your path is subject to many pivots along the way. This does not mean the original idea was not good, but that the market, and reality, call for different demands, which you must adapt your original idea to. It is not a failure to adjust your route, but a natural consequence of taking the initiative and deciding which core ideas to stick to, and which changes to make. I was aware of Farmforce since my move to Kenya in 2010, and I thought it was a great platform and value proposition. It is essential to be aware of current trends and demands; the importance of traceability in agriculture was not nearly as common just two or three years ago, but we have jump-started this idea as it becomes more essential and desired by consumers.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Pragmatism – I find it is easier to see the world how you want to see it, but it is essential to be realistic and break-down the steps to get to where you want to be. My role focuses on understanding all the requirements of larger tasks and focusing on how to implement the final outcome.
Flexibility – being able to adapt is so important. You can’t simply forge ahead with an original plan when circumstances change. I find that being able to re-calculate my trajectory with reference to where I’m living, what resources I have available to me and what support I have, is a very useful skill. Early on in start-ups, often there are not enough staff or resources to allow you to stick to your role only; you need to be flexible enough to cover all bases and extra tasks.
Resilience – being entrepreneurial is not the easy career path to take. It looks glamorous from the outside, but there is very little stability, whether financial or in terms of career progression. Credentials I’ve attained through my entrepreneurship differ from those required from most standard job postings. Having resilience also involved keeping track of how you’re actually feeling. I think self-care is something that is being recognised more. Burnout is common amongst entrepreneurs, and so it is important to find a balance, and being resilient does not mean you cannot prioritise your own wellbeing at times.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
I think the opportunity to create a world that you want to see is my favourite part about being an entrepreneur. For me, this is the main attraction of entrepreneurship over mainstream jobs. When I start my week, there is constant change ahead, and I have control over how to handle it and what direction to take the organisation in. That opportunity and choice, though exciting, can be daunting in that there are so many hypotheticals to choose from, but I think the variety overall is a great thing.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
I am impressed by organisations which can successfully balance scaling, funding and core revenue, as well as continuing to search other areas by focusing on where there are gaps in the market.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I would ask to discuss and analyse the mentality they have; how they balance their core obligations as well as branching out into new endeavours, and knowing when to abandon certain elements of a project.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
Creating lasting impacts in a sector I am very interested in.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?I feel that at times I have been prone to work too hard for too long, which can lead to burnout. Such work culture was previously glorified in entrepreneurial communities, but now I am aware that to perform my best, there has to be an element of self-care. In terms of things that I would do differently, I would say recognising when to change direction slightly, or head in an entirely new direction, in situations where the idea I had at the time just wasn’t suitable at that particular point in time or place. Especially in the impact world, it is important to understand whether the idea you have is one which will create major benefit and go where you want it to, versus it simply surviving. It is a difficult call to make, but I find that keeping yourself open to change, and remembering that changing path is not a failure, are important lessons I’ve learned.
How have you funded your ideas?
With the organisations I’ve worked in, we’ve been funded primarily by a mix of donor grant money for specific projects, as well as bringing in external investors. This trajectory, of starting out with donor money to build up specific projects, and then graduating to equity investment, has been a good balance. External investment requires lots more responsibility; you’re accountable to a board of investors and have to show results. There is a balance to be struck between reinvesting internal revenue and bringing in strategic donor support which aligns with the trajectory of the company, and deciding when to bring in external investment when it is necessary.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
Early in my career, I focused more on the awards side. In terms of the grants side, it varies a lot by organisation. Farmforce is based in Norway, and so we focus much more on Scandinavian investment and grants. I think there is a trend towards applying to government grants from the start, especially in the UK, whereas a few years ago when I worked in East Africa we looked more for big donors. It really depends on the specific area you’re working in, and being open to opportunities. I mentor start-ups in a range of industries, and a key component of that is deciding what is the best fit in terms of funding for that particular start-up.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
In terms of the good, Oxford has a great network and community. The calibre of the people and work done here attracts entrepreneurship because there are so many resources. The Oxford network is key. The proximity to London is also a great benefit. Drawbacks are that many companies’ target market is far from Oxford and not for the immediate benefit of the locality.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
The Enterprising Oxford newsletter is a great resource. I am frequently referred to entrepreneurs from life sciences, and many are not aware of all the resources available in Oxfordshire which are detailed in the newsletter.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
I think I’ve been relatively fortunate in this area. It is important to remember that I’ve been greatly benefitted by the fact I am a white, American, Ivy-league educated woman, and in many cultures people like me are simply treated as the men are. This is very much by virtue of my nationality, race and education, and for too many women’s experience is far different.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
I think there is a lot of value in looking at the network around you and creating a support system of people which have either done what you’re doing, or are trying something similar. These are the kind of people who can give you critical constructive feedback. Listen to this feedback. There is huge benefit to responding to feedback without taking it personally.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
Supporting entrepreneurs generally could be improved by a focus on the realities involved in starting up a company. I mentor start-ups out of Imperial College London, and their Enterprise Lab is very focused on practical support through a volunteer network. Essential support, like legal and financial services, are key. Being directed to seek external advice is useful, but it would be even better for institutions like the University of Oxford to offer some of those services themselves on a pro-bono basis.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Make a plan and go for it. Tap into resources available to you, but have your own goals and directions you want to go in. The idea of women entrepreneurs should be seen as no different to simply ‘entrepreneurs’. Don’t be daunted by the prospect of going into fields mostly dominated by men; forge forward with your own ideas.
Any last words of advice?
When you have an idea, make sure to do your research and find out the full context regarding the issue. Many other people may have attempted to solve the problem, or have created similar solutions. Doing this research early on to understand the landscape allows you to evaluate whether you’re the right person to tackle this issue, and how.