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Advancing Global Food Security Through Fish Farming

Advancing Global Food Security Through Fish Farming

Sara Davis is the founder of Synergy Farms, Inc. (SFI), a social enterprise supporting small farmers in communities around the world. SFI is on a mission to improve global food security and reduce poverty through profitable aquaponic fish farming. 

A native of Nashville, Tennessee, and a graduate of Fisk University, Sara launched SFI in 2013. Before founding SFI, Sara served in the Peace Corps in Paraguay and Belize, working in rural economic development and advising small businesses. Sara currently serves as Director of SFI and Synergy Farms Namibia (SF Nam) in Windhoek, Namibia.

SFI, based in Nashville, Tennessee, is a social enterprise, supporting small farmers in communities around the world. The goal is simple, yet big—to end global poverty through small business enterprises. SFI empowers local farmers to improve global food security using aquaponic technology. SFI is growing locally: from Southern Africa to Rural Tennessee, SFI is expanding local farm production for better access to nutritious foods.

In this conversation, The Kassan Group Founder Jenny Kassan talks with Sara about the work SFI is doing to drive the development of an inclusive, regenerative economy.

 

Jenny Kassan: A new economy that yields equitable outcomes implies approaching business with “new” or different tactics. How has SFI adapted to meet the shifting challenges of the day?  

Sara Davis: We stay agile by approaching our work environment from a non-traditional lens. SFI is based in Nashville as the parent company to SF Nam, our venture aquaculture farms in Southern Africa. SFI is responsible for management and directing operations abroad. SFI’s workspace is virtual. Tasks and responsibilities carried out by the executive team are implemented from the comfort of each person’s space. Our executive team is made up of shareholders who are committed to focus capital investments toward growing our production and maximizing profits. Our goal is to effectively contribute to creating a food-secure world.

JK: As a business owner, how do you motivate investors, policymakers, and customers to take ownership of the change they want to see in our economy and society?

SD: Launching a for-profit social enterprise was a brave and sometimes lonely endeavor. Prior to producing in Namibia, as founder, I first focused on building a support network of individuals I could rely on for encouragement throughout the long and arduous journey. Many of those who support me also work in spaces focused on social improvement, however in the non-profit or religious realm. It has never been a hard message to impress upon others that profits can be generated while doing the good, necessary work. For SFI, staying persistent, creating small successes, and celebrating those transformations along the way have encouraged our investors and customers. Being visible in spaces where other profit-driven business models do not exist has encouraged support from local policymakers, confirming that our presence and approach matter and is valuable. 

JK: As we collectively face challenges on a global scale, to what extent is social entrepreneurship “borderless” in your view? 

SD: In my view, no environment is absent of challenge and world experience. The bond among justice fighters has no end; “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  

JK: What are three lifestyle or professional habits you use to stay focused, healthy, and ready to take on the world? 

SD:  

  1. Schedule time to rest. Working endlessly is learned behavior. In the development space, there is no end to solving problems. Sufficient rest and reduced pressure allow me to maintain my creativity.  
  2. Be intentionally non-competitive. Some social environments create the false sense that one is better than the other versus all are valuable. Seeing each other as brothers and sisters holding hands to accomplish goals, and recognizing that there is room for us all in abundance, helps me approach any market as an achiever.
  3. Encourage others. The energy that I put out returns to me. My desire is to offer positive reinforcement and likewise want to receive positivity.

 

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About Sara Davis
Sara Davis is the founder of Synergy Farms, Inc. (SFI), a social enterprise with a mission to improve global food security and reduce poverty through profitable aquaponic fish farming. A Nashville native and Fisk University graduate, Sara launched SFI in 2013. Prior to founding Synergy Farms, Inc., Sara served in the Peace Corps in Paraguay and Belize, working in rural economic development and advising small businesses.

Sara worked for First Tennessee Bank in small business banking and retirement planning, and later at State Farm as a Property and Casualty Sales Manager. Sara received intensive training in commercial aquaponic farming as an apprentice in 2014 at Growing Power Inc. in Milwaukee Wisconsin. Will Allen, a founder, farmer, philanthropist, and MacArthur Foundation “genius” Fellow, shared his knowledge in sustainable agriculture aquaponic production with Sara, and he continues to serve as a close and trusted advisor. Sara currently serves as Director for Synergy Farms, Inc. and Synergy Farms Namibia in Windhoek, Namibia.

New to direct investing? Get your questions answered!

New to direct investing? Get your questions answered!

Don’t Shy Away from Being Empowered with Your Investments!

I’m not sure I can do this – I’m not an investor.

Actually, if you’re like a majority of the US population, you are an investor!  You may not think of yourself as an investor, but if you have retirement accounts, bank accounts, mutual funds, etc., you are an investor!  And you have options about where you can put your investment dollars.

I thought it was illegal for small businesses to ask for investment from regular people.

It is true that the laws governing investment in the United States (called securities laws) are complicated and can limit who can invest in certain investment offerings.  However, there are many legal pathways that allow regular folks to invest directly in small business.  If a small business offers you an investment opportunity, you should ask them whether they have received counsel from a competent securities lawyer.  If something is not done correctly from a legal perspective, the risk is on the business, not the investor.

What should I know before making an investment?

Wherever you invest, whether in a mutual fund that holds publicly traded stocks or in a small business, you need to be aware that there is no such thing as a risk-free investment.  You should not invest more than you can afford to lose.

Beyond that, it is up to you to decide what information you want to ask for to help you decide whether to invest.

Here are some things to keep in mind when evaluating whether to make an investment in a small business:

  1. Look at your whole portfolio and remember that diversification mitigates risk. If almost all of your investments are in the stock market, investing in a small business whose success is not tied directly to the ups and downs of the public markets can be a good way to diversify your portfolio.  Think about it – almost all of most Americans’ investments are in giant multinational public companies.  But 99% of US businesses are small private companies that account for half of all employment and half of all production.  Why put all of your investment dollars in only half of the economy?
  2. The stock market has been likened to a casino – it has become increasingly opaque, trading is often conducted by sophisticated algorithms, and financial instruments have become so far removed from the real economy that it is hard to trust that it will continue to be a safe place to put your nest egg.
  3. Warren Buffett’s advice? “Never invest in a business you cannot understand.”  Most investors not only don’t understand the businesses they’re investing in, they don’t even know what businesses they’re invested in!  They just let fund managers make all the decisions and hope for the best.  Why not invest in some of the businesses that you know and understand?
  4. Most of our investments are made through intermediaries (often more than one) like stock brokers, fund managers, and investment advisers. When you invest directly in a business, you eliminate the fees and percentages taken by these intermediaries and there is more transparency about what you are actually investing in.
  5. A business is all about the people who run it. When you invest in a small business, you’re investing in the founder based on your opinion of their commitment, integrity, and abilities.  A small business owner is generally going to be much more committed to their business’ success than a CEO of a multinational public company.  CEOs move around from company to company and get their golden parachutes when they leave.  Entrepreneurs usually start their businesses to express their most dearly held dreams and passions.  Their business is their baby so they will stick with it through thick and thin.
  6. When you invest in a business based on your relationship with the owner, that owner is going to feel personally responsible for your investment dollars. The last thing they want is for someone they know to lose money by investing in their business.  They will do almost anything to avoid having to tell their investors that they have lost their money or are unable to pay them as much as promised.  When you invest in a faceless multinational corporation, there is no similar feeling of personal responsibility to the investors.

Besides the financial returns, what are the other benefits of direct investing in small business?

When you invest in a small business, you often get benefits that go beyond purely financial returns.

These vary depending on the particular investment and business but they often include

  • Having the pride of knowing that you helped a business that’s important to your community
  • Being able to tell your friends and colleagues that you invested in a business they may know and love
  • Being part of a community of investors with similar values
  • Having the opportunity to learn from the business owner about the details of the business
  • Providing support to the business owner when she needs it – advice, contacts, business referrals, etc.
  • Having some ability to affect the success of the business as a customer and a source of referrals
  • Being invited to special events
  • Being recognized publicly as a supporter of the business
  • Discounts and perks
  • Knowing that your investment dollars are supporting something that is having a positive impact in the world

Remember, all investments have an impact – what impact do you want your investments to have?  When you invest in a mutual fund of public company stocks, does that create any positive impacts in your community or on things that are important to you?

Investing in small businesses allows you to invest in the real economy in a business that employs people and provides useful goods and services.  When you invest in public company stocks, your money doesn’t even go to that company – it just goes to the previous owner of the stock!

Why not use some of your investment dollars to invest in things that are important to you?  Community gathering places, alternative energy, businesses that create good local jobs, etc.  Imagine if everyone moved just a small percentage of their investment dollars to small businesses creating a positive impact in the world – we could create a better world by simply being more mindful about where we put our money.

What was your first memory about money?

What was your first memory about money?

What are your beliefs about money?

Thank you to everyone who helped to spread the word about and attended our three day training – Raise Capital on Your Own Terms – Build It, Fund It, Grow It!
At the training, we shared a combination of practical tools, legal and financial training, and exercises to help build the mindset needed to successfully raise funding. This was the first time we ever held a three-day virtual training and we had some bumps leading up to it, like my luggage being lost on the way to Baltimore, our event headquarters. But the event exceeded expectations and attendees gave very positive feedback!
Here is some of what they said:
“Incredible expertise in the room”
“I think it was done very well. I was surprised at how engaged people were for an online event!”
“Having the guidance of qualified, caring individuals like Jenny and Michelle, when you are trying to tackle raising capital, is invaluable.”
“The Kassan team provided the perfect balance of soul searching and spine building to move my project forward.”
“Jenny Kassan and Michelle Thimesch are a dynamic duo unleashing a world of positive social and environmental impact through their work of helping entrepreneurs raise capital on their own terms.”

At the event we observed that almost all of our attendees had something in common: whether they were just starting out or have been running their business for years, money mindset played a big role in how they thought about raising money from investors.
I facilitated an exercise where we uncovered our beliefs about money, which you can watch here. We hope you find it helpful for your own journey!

Building an Inclusive Workforce with Second-Chance Hiring

Building an Inclusive Workforce with Second-Chance Hiring

Working Fields Offers a Path to Employment and Confidence to Formerly Incarcerated People and Those in Recovery 

 

Mickey Wiles is the CEO and Founder of Working Fields, a mission-driven staffing agency that helps individuals overcome barriers to employment — such as substance use disorder, criminal justice system involvement, resource challenges, or work history gaps — and build stable futures. A U.S. Navy veteran, Mickey has worked in leadership roles at Ben & Jerry’s, Seventh Generation, and Burlington Labs, and served as Executive Director of Turning Point Center of Chittenden County, Vermont. Mickey is a person in long-term recovery and was provided a second chance after spending time in federal prison. 

For the last 18 years, Mickey has dedicated himself to helping others who need a second chance after addiction and/or criminal convictions. By collaborating with businesses across Vermont and New Hampshire, Working Fields has fostered a community of recovery-friendly workplaces that treat people in recovery or those with past convictions as they would treat anyone else.

In this conversation, The Kassan Group founder Jenny Kassan chats with Mickey about how Working Fields is contributing to the development of an inclusive, regenerative economy.

 

Jenny Kassan: How do you stay true to your business’ foundational principles while also being flexible enough to meet the shifting challenges of the day?

 

Mickey Wiles: Our foundational principles are reflected in our company values: love, humility, honesty, equity in action, stability, and gratitude. Our team keeps these values front and center by focusing every two months on the continued development of a different value. Our leadership team, which meets weekly and addresses the issues and challenges of a changing environment, always considers the company’s values in making company decisions. We embrace change, flexibility, and agility as long as we also always challenge ourselves to make decisions consistent with our values.

 

JK: Your company helps foster healthy and resilient communities. As we face large-scale challenges on a global scale, to what extent do you consider social entrepreneurship “borderless” and to what extent do solutions need to be localized? 

 

MW: Social entrepreneurship means placing people, planet, and prosperity for all at the core of business. These principles apply across the board regardless of where we operate. If we collectively operate with other like-minded businesses, then our reach is borderless. However, with this as the premise, our challenges are to be inclusive and take into consideration all individuals, recognizing that different societal groups have different needs and practices. As we expand and serve communities and varied groups of people, we need to always be aware of these differences.

 

JK: How do you see the practices and core values of your business as distinct from the “business as usual” status quo? What do you do to resist the pressure to “fit in” to the old economy paradigms?

 

MW: Avoiding “business as usual” is not a difficult task for us as our mission and vision are so different from other organizations in our space. When we remain true to our mission, we automatically are not operating as “business as usual.” We have faced situations that raise questions in light of our company values. In that case, we invite everyone in the organization to discuss the opportunity and the pros and cons. We gain input from everyone to ensure we hear all arguments. Then we make a decision based on that input and the leadership team’s assessment.

 

JK: Who inspires you in the social impact world and what is the one question you’d like to ask them?

 

MW: I’ve been fortunate to work with and learn from three fantastic leaders in the social impact world. I first worked for Ben & Jerry’s when social impact businesses were not as common as they are today. Both Ben [Cohen] and Jerry [Greenfield] led us to not accept the status quo and to challenge every decision we made to ensure it took into account our “triple bottom line” (that’s how we referred to social impact business). My next mentor was Jeffrey Hollender at Seventh Generation. His leadership demonstrated that there was an additional level of impact businesses can have on the world. I would ask all of them the same question: If you had to do it over again, what would you change and how would you counsel your younger self?

 

ABOUT MICKEY WILES

Mickey Wiles is the CEO and Founder of Working Fields, a mission-driven staffing agency that helps individuals overcome barriers to employment — such as substance use disorder, justice involvement, resource challenges, or work history gaps — and build stable futures. 

Mickey has had a long career in the private sector business community where he held various leaderships roles starting with a Boston high tech firm, Microcom, Inc. In Vermont he continued in leadership roles with Ben & Jerry’s, Seventh Generation and Burlington Labs. Mickey also held the position of Executive Director at the Turning Point Center of Chittenden County. Prior to starting his business career, Mickey served six years in the United States Navy.

Mickey is a person in long term recovery and was provided a second chance after spending time in Federal Prison. For the last 18 years, Mickey has dedicated his work to helping others who want a second chance after addiction and/or criminal convictions. Mickey is on the Board and Executive Committee of VBSR, the nation’s first business association of businesses for social responsibility. Mickey is also President of Vermont Roots & Wings Alliance, an organization dedicated to supporting the drug court system and participants in Vermont. 

 

ABOUT WORKING FIELDS

Working Fields is a mission-driven staffing agency that helps individuals overcome barriers to employment — such as substance use disorder, justice involvement, resource challenges, or work history gaps — and build stable futures. 

We don’t just place people in jobs: Our model includes robust, personalized support for workers. Every Working Fields associate benefits from direct account management, ongoing peer recovery or life coaching, and coordinated support from community partners. These services enable our associates to get and keep the jobs they want, while helping employers realize the potential of these dedicated workers. 

We work closely with community partners, particularly social service agencies, across Vermont and in Manchester, New Hampshire, to identify individuals in need of supportive employment services. These referrals have enabled us to help over 1,300 jobseekers since 2017.  

 

 

The Evolution of Investment Crowdfunding, and Where We Go from Here

The Evolution of Investment Crowdfunding, and Where We Go from Here

In 2009, I got together with Janelle Orsi to cofound a new nonprofit called Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC).  The mission of SELC was to bring legal knowledge and support to those who are working to make our economy regenerative, healthy, just, and sustainable.

One of the very first things we tackled was securities law.  Having worked with many small businesses that lacked access to capital, we knew that a change to the law that would make it easier for small businesses to raise funding from their communities, customers, and fans could have a major positive impact for our small disadvantaged businesses.

We wrote a petition to the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2010 which got the attention of small business advocates, members of Congress, and eventually, the White House.  Amazingly enough, a new law was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama in 2012 that legalized investment crowdfunding at the national level.

It took four years for the Securities and Exchange Commission to adopt rules so that this new law could actually be used. 

We were hopeful that this was the silver bullet we had been waiting for to finally move significant funding into the hands of Main Street businesses and social ventures, especially those owned and run by entrepreneurs who have been almost completely locked out of mainstream finance (e.g. women, people of color, etc.).

The results so far have been mixed.  There is still a lot more that needs to be done for federal investment crowdfunding to fulfill its promise as an equalizer of opportunity.

Check out my talk on this topic at SuperCrowd22.