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.
BlackEnterprise.com 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.
BlackEnterprise.com: 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.