Kellee James is the Thunberg of biotechnology.By Fatimah B
If the past few weeks have taught us anything about climate change, it’s that one soul can indeed make a difference. With Greta Thunberg inspiring young and old to march for change, Kellee James is waging a war on a different front, with similar goals.
The Urgency of Kellee James
Why is James’ company, Mercaris, so important? To give you a little background we look at Monsanto – a global biotech giant supplying numerous countries with GMO seeds and poisonous agro chemicals for decades. Heard of DDT or Agent Orange – Monsanto developed them. The company has finally come face to face with their deeds where the proverbial can of worms has sprung a massive leak. During the past year, lawsuits have sprung up all over the continental U.S., concerning one of its most popular weed killer, Roundup, a chemical that has apparently caused an outbreak of cancer cases. So far, estimates claim roughly 18000 lawsuits could cost Monsanto’s parent company between $8-10 billion in settlement.
Which is where James’ company, Mercaris, steps in. Mercaris is responsible for supplying accurate market data and auctions that are key in growing the organic and non-GMO food movement. James saw organic, non-GMO crop production as an entirely separate field, “The production is very different and because consumer demand and consumption has also been so different these markets behave very differently than conventional ones.”
The fight against Genetically Modified Organisms has suffered badly in the United States where “more than 93 percent of the corn and soy planted in the United States is genetically modified in some way. Most of that ends up as animal feed, ethanol, or corn syrup — and corn syrup gets into lots of foods. Cotton, sugar beets, and canola are also common genetically modified crops. Roughly 60 to 70 percent of processed foods in grocery stores contain at least some genetically modified ingredients.” What’s more, the cross-contamination by GMO-crops is usually overlooked.
James is not picky when it comes to who gets listed, so long as they are certified organic or non-GMO. This enables small family-run operations to compete on the same level as larger corporations – something we definitely don’t see every day. According to James, Mercaris can be regarded as a combination of Bloomberg and eBay, an efficient subscription-based data service that allows you to trade your goods on the platform in real time.
James’ background as an economist and environmental enthusiast is an unusual one – rarely do we find both in the same space, much less encompassed in one person. Her background as an Aspen Institute Catto Environmental Fellow gives us more insight into her mindset, as does serving on the board of Net Impact, “a membership organization of more than 12,000 MBA professionals committed to sustainability through corporate responsibility.”
For James, seeking true sustainability through corporate responsibility hits the heart of the matter, and she’s not one to shy away from speaking the truth, “The real difficulty is keeping this going day after day, year after year. Having worked in Federal Government what’s nice about a bureaucracy is that it will keep functioning whether you’re there or not. At a start-up if you don’t show up with your A game then you don’t do it, it doesn’t get done. If you don’t think of it, it doesn’t get thought of. So, there’s a lot of pressure that comes with that and that’s the thing that’s really challenging.”
James also realizes that minorities are often overlooked when seeking out potential candidates. As an African American woman and heading a tech company, she makes it a point to look for diversity in candidates. This led her to MANRRS, Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences which James cites as a good source of undergrads. “If we can get them when they’re undergrads to do internships then hopefully in a few years we can hire them full time so that’s one strategy we use.”
Having spent 5 years at the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX), “the first electronic trading platform and registry for spot, futures and options contracts on carbon, sulphur, clean energy and other environmental products” James’ work experience was enough to impress former President, Barack Obama, who appointed her as a White House Fellow in 2009. Her job? To advise on environmental matters.
And Here’s Why Kellee Should Inspire You
Her academic qualifications include an MBA and a MA in International Development from American University in Washington. While many of us may have degrees we never use, James is not in the same category. Her education and field experience enabled her to develop Mercaris as the intersection between “organic non-genetically modified organism (non-GMO) [in the] agricultural sector, organic non-GMO commodity trading/exchanges, the market place and technology. As organizations, from farms to food companies, adjust to meet growing consumer demand for organic food, we noted a lack of information, transparency and support along the supply chain […] Overall, Mercaris helps to increase the efficiency of that supply chain, which should ultimately benefit everyone ‘from farm to fork’.”
It is inspiring to see James not only making strides in an unusual field but developing unique solutions to address a growing concern. Climate change will affect everyone, and for James, a sustainable future is our best hope.
“Be relentless–entrepreneurship is difficult but rewarding. You really have to have both passion for the company you’re building and in-depth knowledge of your field. It’s harder being a woman of color in this field but there are a growing number of resources out there for minority entrepreneurs. Don’t hold back. If this is your dream, do the research and build the network to give yourself the best chance for success.”
Well said, Kellee James, well said!