Among many damning and didactic op-eds on the nature of entrepreneurship, Ross Baird is perhaps at his most concise, impactful, and systemic of criticism in this thought: “People who have capital put money into people who look like them, live near them, and either come from their social circles, went to their schools, or generally have similar lived experience.”
It’s no secret that nepotism and privilege run rampant in American society, both in business and beyond. But Baird hasn’t gained his reputation as a thought-leader on social entrepreneurship for his lamentations on the status quo. The executive director of Village Capital and a lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, Ross Baird is the image of action-oriented thinking. The concept of social entrepreneurship by which he lives and teaches is simple: why can’t we use the science of commerce and innovation to solve big, maybe even untenable, social issues? “We need to figure out how to make the system work for everyone in the face of technological changes,” Baird champions.
One of his collaborators is Lyons Brown, another big name in Charlottesville with a laundry list of investments and accomplishments which have shaped the city and U.Va. to be what they are today. He is an orator at heart, once asked if he had “preacher’s blood.” He begins his story where any classic farmer (or investor) might: with a love of the land. “When you leave Charlottesville, you’re leaving heaven,” he starts; “I finally gave up trying to find heaven everywhere else and moved back here.”
Among other ventures, Lyons has founded several craft spirits brands; he was a principal player in fundraising and founding U.Va.’s Darden School of Business’s iLab, which places 25 startups into a pipeline program every May. In many ways, he is the quintessential American (born into the Jack Daniel’s family—yes, that Jack Daniel’s) and a Virginian at heart: passionate about the earth, open expanses of land, and the laissez faire good-heartedness of a pastoral lifestyle. Despite many big successes, he remains humble, and best of all, committed to using his influence as an advocate for social change. He is, so it seems, a perfect partner to put social entrepreneurship into action right here in the country land he loves so much.
His passion project? Sustainable farming. Just as Boston has bio-med, New York has media, and Silicon Valley has tech, Charlottesville will have farms. Baird, Brown, Charlottesville, U.Va., and Albemarle County now sit at the core of a new startup capital in Virginia, one that relies on the education and agricultural roots of its community.
Enter the last key character in the story: Joel Salatin, a self-described “Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer;” the owner of Polyface Farm in Staunton, Virginia; and a friend and future business partner of Lyons Brown. The two are presently negotiating with Montpelier to develop a collaborative farm-to-table food ecosystem they hope will become a reality by late Fall this year. If so, Salatin will begin farming on the land at Montpelier, the former plantation home of President James Madison. A distillery and bee sanctuary run by Brown will add craft spirits and honey to the menu at a restaurant exclusively serving the meats and produce from Salatin’s farm.
Polyculture farming is at once radical and venerable. Rather than relying on the industrial farming systems that churn out cheap grain, corn, and livestock, it harkens to a simpler epoch in farming when crops were rotated seasonally, animals were free to roam, and expediency was neither an option nor a goal. It is in many ways the antithesis to the modern startup lifecycle, which grows exponentially and often unsustainably.
And, most importantly, it’s a stance, albeit small, about the authoritarian and oppressive role that factory farms and their subsidiaries have placed on the modern farmer. Industry giants like Monsanto, Procter and Gamble, Perdue, and even the FDA have formed an oligopoly that controls and disempowers the farming techniques of small landowners across the country. The use of genetic modification, poisonous pesticides, and unethical animal treatment are inextricable from the food we eat every day, creating health and environmental hazards. And, a broken feedback chain between consumers and the men and women producing their food has left many amnesiac, eating without knowing or caring where their meal comes from.
Thankfully, the restaurant will be a breath of fresh air, celebrating Blue Ridge Farmland and the timeless community that surrounds it—the progressive backwardness of breaking bread that was grown by your neighbor. It is a closed loop of education, business, sustainability, and the ingredient most often left out of our considerations of contemporary success: patience. And though it may seem that a place this quintessentially Virginian could only exist in Charlottesville, Brown hopes that it will the proving grounds for a template of sustainable, education- and community-backed, ethical farming and eating that will be replicable across the country.
Finally, we return to Baird and his creed of using entrepreneurship to enact social change, beginning with education.“Without education, we won’t ever have the consumer revolution we need,” Brown cautions. To ensure that clean eating doesn’t become a trend or worse, a stigmatized niche, Batten will start a cautiously titled “Food Lab” led up by Christine Mahoney. In it, a focused group of students and entrepreneurs will support the movement, the restaurant, and the policy implementations needed to make lasting change.
The road to a poison-free plate will take commitment and face many bureaucratic and social setbacks, though. “The best thing we can do is scale the educated young person,” Brown instructs. “The only way we can change behavior is by getting the facts out and infusing the educated with this the ability to compellingly and intelligently champion their passions.” Let’s hope a home-grown, home-cooked meal with a view will be a good jumping-off point.
Come celebrate the Charlottesville startup community.
Six Virginia startups will compete for $25,000 on Friday, September 23 at the Haven in a live pitch competition. Sen. Mark Warner will kick off the evening with remarks about Virginia’s startup ecosystems.