Posted on 9/16/2014. Interview by Howie Rhee and Marie-Angela Della Pia
Tell us about yourself
I am the Founder and Director of Rangeland Solutions. I was born and raised in Pleasantville, New York, a nice little suburban town outside of NYC. I decided to spend some time away from NY and attended Colby College in Waterville, Maine, where I majored in Biology and graduated in 2010.
My whole journey to this point really starts in 2009. During the spring semester of my junior year, I studied abroad in Tanzania with the School for International Training. While there, we examined the socioeconomic and ecological challenges of Tanzania. I came see the important role agriculture plays in providing livelihoods to impoverished households, but also the associated environmental costs.
This experience ignited my passion for sustainable agriculture/ natural resource management and sustainable development. Since 2010, I've been working in this field in one way or another.
Tell us about your time at Duke, what were you involved in?
My time at Duke went by in a flash, but it was full of great learning experiences and wonderful people. When I wasn't hitting the books, I was an active member of the Environmental Internship Fund and coordinated their annual Wild and Scenic Film Festival. The proceeds raised from the Festival are used to support students conducting summer internships in the environmental field.
I was also awarded a Whitney Chamberlain Fellowship Grant for my work with Rangeland Solutions and focus on community-based businesses.
What's your major/program and when will you be graduating? Tell us something about your educational experience at Duke.
I attended the Nicholas School of the Environment and graduated in May 2014, earning a Master of Environmental Management degree with a concentration in Ecosystem Science and Conservation. Even though my focus was environmental science, Duke enabled me to take to a number of business, economics and development courses due to which applied to my interest in environmental entrepreneurship and sustainable development.
Tell us about your idea.
In Kenya, livestock production provides livelihoods for ten million people, but is also a major driver of environmental degradation. The mission of Rangeland Solutions is to prevent overgrazing and desertification by providing pastoralists (those who raise livestock) the training and resources to implement sustainable grazing methods. Rangeland Solutions also works to improve market access and increase equity in the marketplace for pastoralists
This approach has the potential to improve pastoralists livelihoods and promote sustainable development, while reversing desertification and climate change.
How did you come up with your idea? When did you come up with it?
The idea first came to me while I was working in a community conservancy in northern Kenya during 2010 ( I still vividly remember the exact moment it hit me). The community was implementing a form of sustainable livestock management, called Holistic Management (HM), and I saw firsthand its potential to improve the environment and livelihoods. This inspired me to develop a market-based approach that would help scale up HM and make it accessible to more pastoralists in Africa.
How did you meet your team members?
I met my colleagues, Isaac Nemuta and Michael Kibue, last summer while conducting research on the livestock market in Kenya. I was looking for local research partners and we were introduced by the Savory Institute, an organization that promotes the practice of Holistic Management.
Michael and Isaac are highly regarded in their field and bring years of experience in the livestock sector with a focus on improving livestock production and market access for pastoralists. We make a great team and I feel very fortunate to be working with them.
How has the Duke Start-Up Challenge been helpful to you?
The process has been very helpful for us to identify gaps and make adjustments to the model. Putting pen to paper, thinking through processes and receiving feedback from judges has really strengthened our organization.
The Duke Start-Up Challenge provides a lot of feedback from over 100 judges. Can you talk about that experience of reviewing the feedback?
We were very eager to receive feedback from the judges and it has been a very positive experience with lots of constructive feedback. The judges have helped us identify potential weakness in our model and forced us to reevaluate our thinking and assumptions. We have really enjoyed the process.
Did you connect with any judges for advice, and if so, who were they and was it helpful? (we will check with the person to see if they are willing to be published)
We have been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of the judges and their willingness to help out. We would like to thank Steven Pal, John Groeschel and Johnny Yuen for the time they took to help us. Their advice was very helpful and we are really grateful.
What advice do you have for Duke students that are thinking of starting a company?
"A vision without execution is a hallucination". My business professor, Jesko Von Windheim, once said this to our class and it has stuck with me.
Before starting any endeavor, you must be confident in your ability to execute and deliver results. A startup should focus on linking complementary capacities and building the best possible team. The rest should follow.
At points you might struggle with execution, but persevere.
Anything else you’d like to say?
My colleagues and I would like to thank the organizers of the Duke Startup Challenge for the opportunity to compete and share our idea. We have really enjoyed the event and are very excited about our progress and prospects. Last, we want to congratulate the other teams and we wish them all the best.
Join us for the Grand Finale with Max Hodak ’12 for the 15th Annual Duke Start-Up Challenge on Friday, September 19th, 2014 at 8:00pm ET at Fuqua’s Geneen Auditorium. RSVP on SquadUp
Not able to attend in person? Watch the livestream on Duke’s YouTube channel.