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Plenty’s Shireen Santosham on her Eclectic Career & Passion for Mission-Driven Companies

January 11, 2021

The Crunchbase “Female Founder Series,” is a series of stories, Q&As, and thought-leadership pieces from glass-ceiling-smashers who overcame the odds and are now leading successful companies.


Shireen Santosham is head of strategic initiatives at Plenty, an indoor vertical farming company that delivers fresh, flavorful, and pesticide-free produce. In this role, she is responsible for the company’s government and community programs as well as overseeing its responses to events such as the COVID pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Santosham has built a career on launching initiatives designed to impact underserved populations. Prior to Plenty, she served as the chief innovation officer for the mayor of San Jose and became the visionary behind the San Jose Digital Inclusion Fund, which helped expand 5G technology within the city and close the digital divide of 50,000 residents. She also previously worked at the GSMA where she advocated for closing the gender digital divide internationally. She launched the Center for Government while at McKinsey & Co. and secured $50 million to combat global overfishing while at Oceana. Santosham also stood up for the Allen Institute for Brain Science while an investor at Vulcan Capital.

Twice named to GovTech’s List of 25 Doers, Dreamers, and Drivers, her work has been featured in the New York Times, Bloomberg Technology, KQED, and Ars Technica. She holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, an MPA in International Development from Harvard Kennedy School, and a B.S. and B.A. with honors from the University of Pennsylvania.

In this Q&A she shares more about her eclectic career journey, her current role as head of strategic initiatives at Plenty, and how she networks, finds communities, and makes the connections needed in order to succeed. 

 

Q: Why did you choose to enter the ag-tech sector?

My career has spanned multiple industries from financial services and telcos to government innovation. Before Plenty, I was the chief innovation officer for the Mayor of San Jose where I led the Office of Technology and Innovation. My work in the public sector and working with underserved populations heightened my passion for creating a significant impact on societal issues. Researching global environmental strains eventually led me to the ag-tech industry. 

The ag-tech sector is like no other. Unlike many of today’s disruptors, agriculture is about the collective survival of people, plants, and the planet. To feed everyone a healthy diet, we need to grow 3 times more food with less land and water. That will require an agricultural revolution, and indoor vertical farming is a crucial part of the solution. We need to quickly and efficiently bring agriculture from the industrial age into the digital one. 

Out of interest and intrigue, I reached out to the CEO of Plenty. I found our goals for a sustainable planet and societal good-aligned. That paved the way for me to accept a position as head of strategic initiatives at Plenty — an indoor vertical farming company that is mission-driven and set to scale. 

Q: What are the main issues with your industry and what problems is Plenty trying to solve?

The U.S. has been the global leader in agricultural innovation for over 200 years. Our pioneering spirit has helped feed America and the world. Yet, over the last few decades, we have quadrupled our fruit and vegetable imports from 10 percent to over 50 percent, leaving us dependent on other nations for food. In addition to losing farmland, America has also been extracting groundwater at up to 300 times the natural replenishment rates since the electrification of irrigation in the mid-20th century. 

Further, 2020 has revealed how vulnerable our food supply can be — from COVID-19 to wildfires in the west. Our grocery store produce shelves stood empty as crops rotted in the field. This has highlighted the need to free our food supply from the constraints of weather, seasons, time, distance, pandemics, pests, natural disasters, seasons, and lack of control. 

Plenty can grow over 700 acres of crops in a building the size of a big-box retail location without cutting down a single tree while saving over 1 million gallons of water per week. Indoor and vertical farming can dramatically increase domestic farming capacity, curtail reliance on foreign food imports, and conserve precious natural resources. Plenty delivers locally, also cutting out the transportation footprint. 

Q: Plenty recently announced its latest funding round, how does the company plan to spend the money?

We raised $140 million as part of our Series D round. The investment will be used to fuel Plenty’s growth, including the execution of recently announced commercial collaborations with Albertsons and Driscoll’s, and the development of our new farm in Compton.

Q: What are the biggest accomplishments since joining Plenty?

I joined the team in January 2020, at the start of the pandemic. One of my first tasks was to lead Plenty’s COVID response team. We worked quickly to develop and implement policies, procedures, and work shifts that prioritize employees’ safety and well-being daily. The Plenty farm was already a clean, safe environment with protective gear in place. But we rapidly enhanced the company’s safety protocols and operating procedures, which ensured Plenty could ramp up production to keep up with the demand from grocery stores and food banks. 

Despite COVID-19, the company experienced 3 times growth during the pandemic. Plenty’s indoor environment offered unique protection against COVID-19 and supply chain threats, which meant our products were delivered to all grocery retailers and food banks without interruption. 

I’m also so proud of the work we have done in shaping our Black Lives Matter position: Plenty believes that food justice is racial justice. Plenty is opening its next farm in Compton, California, next year, which has kept me busy. I’ve been working to secure partnerships with the city to help develop agricultural programs for schools, healthy food initiatives, and job initiatives, all in line with Plenty’s mission to improve the lives of people, plants, and the planet.

Q: How do you network, find communities, and make the connections you need to succeed?

Starting a conversation is often easier said than done. It can be quite a daunting task for some. I’m not your stereotypical networker, but I do push myself out there. Over the years, I have learned to follow my curiosity and eventually act on it. I always make sure to ask questions and listen for new perspectives. 

I found my networks and communities by opening the doors in front of me. For example, I attend college alumni events. In the current climate, I participate in virtual and online conferences and meetups. If I receive an invitation to an event, I’ll accept — most of the time — because I never know who I’ll meet. 

Be curious enough to break new paths and be confronted with new opportunities. I landed my role at Plenty, for example, because I messaged the co-founder and CEO, Matt Barnard directly via LinkedIn and asked him if he would be interested in a meeting. I loved the company’s mission and I wanted to know more. Three breakfast meetings later and I got a job offer. To make the connections you’ll need to succeed, you have to be bold.

Q: What is your advice for other female executives at the beginning of their career journeys?

Be a good advocate for yourself and stay true to your vision. Don’t believe people when they tell you that you can’t do things. For example, you might not have any technical skills, you might not be a coder or an engineer, but that does not mean you can’t have a career in technology or work for a technology company. Embrace the stretch to the next level. Maybe you don’t have every qualification asked on the job description but don’t self-eliminate. Explore your options. Focus on carving out your role and making your mark. 

Q: What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned throughout your career?

If you aren’t ruffling feathers a little bit you’re not doing your job; don’t be afraid of hard conversations. We often fear the discomfort we or others may feel during a difficult conversation and, as a result, conflicts are avoided, left unresolved, and opportunities are missed. 

Difficult conversations don’t need to be fearful. We make them fearful. Instead, I believe we should use these moments in our careers — whatever your level — to “Explore, Focus, and Grow.” Explore the challenge or conflict, Focus on constructive feedback, and use the information to Grow, learn, and move on. 

Q: Do you have a favorite quote or “personal mantra” you use to keep yourself motivated?

In the words of the late Sir Ken Robinson: “Curiosity is the engine of achievement.”

Q: What challenges are you most proud of overcoming in your career?

During my time as chief innovation officer for the Mayor of San Jose, I created and spearheaded the city’s first $20 million-plus Digital Inclusion Fund, which helped expand 5G technology in the city and close the digital divide for 50,000 residents. 

I also developed the first comprehensive citywide digital privacy policy to govern digital data use across all city services and city-serving vendors. The project helped improve residents’ quality of life after years of underinvestment. 

As a result, San Jose was recognized as one of America’s most innovative cities by the Center for Digital Government. Most recently, San Jose was awarded the most tech-forward city in the country as a result of my — and the team’s — work over the last several years. 

Q: Any thoughts/advice for executives in the current economic climate?

Put people first. Don’t cut corners when it comes to COVID safety. The strategy you choose will make or break your organization and will shape the public’s perception of you for years to come. 

It will take time, but businesses will bounce back. 

And finally, be kind.