SVI 2013: Ilana Labow, Fresh Roots Urban Farm

“Entrepreneurial spirit is that willingness to take on risk, blended with vision and courage”

Ilana Labow has a lot to say about ingredients.  As the founder and co-director of Fresh Roots Urban Farm Society, she can tell you just what it takes to make a delicious, fresh salad literally from the ground up.  And as a first time entrepreneur, she also knows what goes into running her own business and making it grow – no pun intended.

SVI Hollyhock

Ilana, along with Fresh Roots’ co-director Marc Schutzbank, will be presenting their organization as one of three case studies at this year’s Social Venture Institute at Hollyhock, September 18-22.  The case study format follows the tried-and-true SVI model:  after Ilana and Marc presents their business challenge to the full conference group, they’ll answer a series of clarifying questions posed first by a pre-briefed panel of experts and then the entire group; finally, the panel and whole group will, in order, offer their best advice to Ilana and Marc.

After growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, Ilana got into farming through her work in community development and social justice, studying sustainable agriculture at a multi-national peace institute in the Middle East, and working with nonprofits like Growing Power that use urban agriculture as a tool to build community. A relative newcomer to the world of business, Ilana sees the entrepreneurial experience as contradictory.  “It’s the most community-involved, yet sometimes lonely, experience of my life so far,” she says.  “I know 80 gazillion people, yet at points I feel completely isolated because of the time and devotion it takes to grow and develop and design something new.”  While she’s quick to acknowledge the many people she’s worked with who have been integral in getting pieces off the ground, and the close friends she’s made bringing this social enterprise to life, Ilana has — up until now — relied most heavily on her own “entrepreneurial spirit” to move things forward.

No Excuses, No Barriers

“Entrepreneurial spirit is that willingness to take on risk, blended with vision and courage – words I think a lot of entrepreneurs wouldn’t necessarily use to describe themselves,” Ilana explains. “Entrepreneurs are willing to visualize something and believe there are no barriers to bringing it to life.  At some point I began to realize, hey, not everybody has that!”

Ilana adds that her desire to “meet people where they’re at” has been another essential element in moving her business forward.  She’s found this to be true especially in the nonprofit world, where “there are many diverse stakeholders with many different needs.” Ilana’s ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ is what keeps her knocking on doors to make sure that as many of those needs get met as possible.

From Fresh Roots’ humble beginnings four years ago growing gardens in people’s backyards, Ilana’s passion has led her to launch the Schoolyard Market Gardens project, a Fresh Roots partnership with the Vancouver School Board, and supported by numerous companies and organizations including Vancity, the Real Estate Foundation of BC, and Vancouver Foundation. Ilana and her team have created commercially producing spaces on three school grounds, the largest of which is at David Thompson Secondary School.  These market gardens serve the dual purpose of acting as a space for outdoor learning programs, and growing produce to sell to school cafeterias and neighbourhood residents.  On the curriculum side, the program has brought together teachers and students from different disciplines, who don’t normally work together, into creative collaborations, or as Ilana would say, surprising examples of “cross pollination.”

Learning Through Growth

The two greatest lessons Ilana says she’s learned as an entrepreneur are, “Don’t take anything personally, and let things go.”  And she’ll be the first to admit, these are lessons that need to be learned over and over again. Now that Fresh Roots is transitioning from its start-up to growth phase, Ilana is grappling with identifying the right skill sets needed to keep the organization on its trajectory.  She knows this may mean changing her own role.  “I’ve started wondering, what’s the appropriate role for this entrepreneurial spirit of mine?  Where does Fresh Roots need me, and where does it need other skills that I can’t offer?”  You can be sure that these will be some of the questions the SVI community will have to look forward to considering.

Ilana gives credit for Fresh Roots’ success to her willingness to ask for help, in large part from people she’s met through SVI. “SVI has played a huge role in my life and in Fresh Roots’ growth.  The connections we’ve made there over the past three years are ones I’ve gone back to and asked for guidance and counsel, and people have been really willing to share.”

She pauses and then, sounding like the farmer that she is, adds, “Those nutrients are what make a lot of the fertile soil that Fresh Roots – and I — get to grow from.”


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