Mercaris Gains Ground with Organic Goods (Part 1)
Black Enterprise Magazine September/October 2018 Issue

For Kellee James, 39, the word ‘organic’ was important to her outside of her weekly trip to the grocery store. It’s a good thing that it was, because since 2013 when she launched Mercaris; an electronic platform for trading organic goods, U.S. sales of organic food reached $35.9 billion, up 11% since 2014. talked with the former White House fellow to learn about her past and how she came to this industry, what Mercaris is presently doing for its customers, and what the future has in store for her.

[RELATED: Mompreneur of Six Shares 3 Steps For Starting a Business] You were an army brat, how does your upbringing factor into your current work with Mercaris?

James: I moved around a lot. I think that type of childhood is a great background for an entrepreneur. You learn to adapt and thrive in new environments. I also worked on horse farms and cow/calf operations as a teenager and college student–while it’s much different than the work I do today, it gave me an appreciation for agriculture.

What inspired you to launch Mercaris?

It’s really the culmination of so many formative experiences for me: as a grad student I worked with coffee farmers during a time of very low commodity prices and saw how it impacted them.  Shortly after that, I was an early-hire at a commodity exchange for greenhouse gas credits and other environmental contracts.  I believe market mechanisms can be a tool to achieve environmental and social benefits, and Mercaris is an expression of that.

Explain how Mercaris works.

Mercaris provides two things: We are a market data service that produces detailed market reports for organic and non-GMO agricultural commodities on supply, demand, price, trade volumes, and other fundamental analysis. We also run an electronic trading platform where buyers and sellers can trade those same organic commodities.  Our customers range from organic grain farmers, to mills, food processors and consumer packaged goods companies, to financial institutions.

What major accomplishments has the company achieved recently?

The accomplishments I’m most proud of are those that directly benefit our customers.  We’ve supported their work in making their own supply chains more efficient, in improving revenue and marketing options for farmers, and even for due diligence ahead of M&A activity. I’m also proud of the team we’re building — a group of smart, talented people with a very unique knowledge base.

What advice would you give to upstart minority-tech entrepreneurs?

Be relentless–this is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done professionally, and you really have to have both passion for the company you’re building and in-depth knowledge of your field. It’s still harder being a woman of color in this field. 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.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview with Kellee James, where we learn about her mentors, her co-founders, and how Mercaris makes money.

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Marcia Wade Talbert

Marcia is a multimedia content producer focusing on technology at Black Enterprise Magazine. In this capacity she writes and assigns stories to educate readers about social media; digital integration; gadgets, apps, and software for business and professional development; minority tech startups; and careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). In 2012, she received two Salute to Excellence Awards from the National Association of Black Journalists and was recognized by Blacks in Technology (BiT) as one of the Top 10 Black achievers in the tech arena for 2011 at SXSW in Austin, Texas. She has spoken about technology on panels for New York Social Media Week, at The 2012 Rainbow/PUSH Wall Street Summit, as well as at Black Enterprise’s Entrepreneurs Conference and Women of Power Summit. In 2011, chose her as one of 28 People of Color Impacting the Social Web, and through crowdsourcing she was listed as one of BlackWeb2.0's/HP's 50 Most Notable African American Tastemakers in Social Media and Technology for 2010. Since taking on the role of Tech editor in September 2010, she has conceived and produced five cover stories on Technology and/or STEM and countless articles, videos, and slideshows online. Before joining as an interactive general assignment reporter in 2008, she freelanced with Black Enterprise beginning in 2003 while working as the technical editor at Prepared Foods magazine. There she further honed her writing skills and became an authority on food ingredients, including ingredients used in food fortification and enrichment. Meanwhile, her freelancing with Black Enterprise and helped her stay current on issues pertaining to the financial and business welfare of African Americans. As a general reporter for Black Enterprise she attended and reported on the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, where she interviewed Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor and assistant to President Barack Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Marcia has a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture with an emphasis in food science from the University of Minnesota, and a Master of Science degree in journalism from Roosevelt University in Chicago. En route to her secondary degree, she served as the editor-in-chief of the Roosevelt University Torch, a weekly, student-run newspaper. An avid photographer and videographer, Marcia is one of several employees at BLACK ENTERPRISE who interned for the publishing company as a college student. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, a food scientist; her seventeen-month-old daughter; and “The Cat”, but still considers Chicago home.