We’re losing them. They see their future in some other place and believe the best opportunities and jobs lie elsewhere. That makes me sad as a parent, a community member and as a food industry professional. High performing high school students are leaving for college and are not coming back. That’s causing a slow but consistent brain drain. I keep wondering how we might get our kids interested in feeding the world.
Let me back up for a moment. I’ve just returned from the last of three 3-day intensive retreats as part of the New Leadership Network, a program funded by the James Irvine Foundation, whose mission is to expand opportunity for the people of California. The NLN website reads, “The New Leadership Network brings together diverse emerging leaders across issues, sectors, and generations to learn, build relationships, collaborate and innovate for a better future for their region.”
As a cohort, we were taught how to use the principles of Human Centered Design and Design Thinking. Together we traveled to Stanford University’s D-School. There, and in smaller groups, we were given the opportunity to work through a challenge that we had identified in a previous retreat. Our group’s point of view was that our county was well-positioned to become the epicenter of food innovation and entrepreneurialism. Yet, our best and brightest high school students didn’t hold that same belief. They were convinced that leaving for college meant leaving for good. What if we could change that, help them to see the opportunity that was right here at home?
The night before this last retreat, we met with a group of high school seniors. Time, busy schedules, and the holidays forced us to scale down the prototype that emerged from our time at Stanford. We had hoped to take these kids on a learning journey from farm to table. Along the way, they would meet successful food industry innovators and entrepreneurs. We would introduce them to venture capitalists and take them to an incubator. Instead, we were relegated to dinner, a PowerPoint, and hope.
These were amazing kids sitting across the table from us. They were heading to schools such as Princeton, Berkeley, Stanford, UCLA, and Cal Poly. Our fears were confirmed. None of them saw a future here at home, and none of them had even considered a career in food.
What was surprising was while all held the vision that their post-college future included living and working in Silicon Valley or some other big city tech hub, none of them saw entrepreneurship as a path. It was foreign to them. Further, they were unaware that we would soon need to be feeding 9 billion people, and need to do so with fewer available natural and human resources.
We took them through the PowerPoint. We showed them examples of the thousands of innovative food and food tech companies that exist. We played videos showing some of the cool technology that has been created and deployed. Then we broke out the numbers. According to last year’s AgTech investing report, the investment in food and agriculture technology startups in 2015 was more than $4.6 billion.
They left the dinner excited, as did we. It was clear, they were interested. They told us that if there was a program that exposed them to entrepreneurship and provided them with tools needed to innovate, their view of the future might be very different.
As a parent, a community, and an industry, it’s incumbent upon us to foster their interest and change their paradigm. If we are going to feed 9 billion people by 2050 in a manner that supports the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profits, we are going to need innovators and entrepreneurs. In areas where food and agriculture are at our core, wouldn’t it be cool if we grew our own talent too?