Give a person a fish, and you feed them for a day. Teach a person to fish, and you feed them for a lifetime. You often find that you can do many tasks better or faster than new people on your team. At a certain point though, you realize there is definitely no “I” in team and if you are a one-person show, you will begin to make mistakes and eventually burn out. Everybody needs a little help along the way and making the upfront investment in a person should be a priority for any good manager.
As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kathryn Radovan.
Kathryn is the VP of Business Development & Strategy at Terra Vera, a revolutionary agricultural technology company founded to replace conventional pesticides that are damaging the environment and linked to serious health issues. Prior to joining Terra Vera, Kathryn was one of the first employees of iAnthus, a multi-state operator of licensed cannabis facilities throughout the United States. She has also worked in healthcare services investment banking at J.P. Morgan.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
When I left banking to join a cannabis startup as its fourth employee, I had no idea what the next few years would look like, but I was excited by the emerging industry. Over the course of a few years, I had the opportunity to wear so many different hats, from M&A, to investor relations, to eventually landing at one of the portfolio companies as part of the executive team. Needless to say, it was exciting, but exhausting. So, in early 2019 I decided to leave and take some time off to take care of family. When Carlos Perea, my former manager at the cannabis MSO, asked me to join Terra Vera, I was intrigued but slightly hesitant about jumping into another startup. While I was in the process of applying and interviewing for jobs at Fortune 500 companies, thinking this was the route I wanted to take for stability, it dawned of me that the entrepreneur bug bit me years ago and there was no turning back. With the blessing of my then-boyfriend (now husband), I called Carlos and told him that I was ready to help build the next disruptor in agriculture.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
Our mission atTerra Vera is to preserve the earth for future generations. Our team is dedicated to eliminating the world’s dependency on conventional pesticides. Nearly 5.6 billion pounds of pesticides are used worldwide and 1 billion of those are used solely in the United States. It’s pretty clear that pesticides are bad for plants, humans, and the environment. But at the end of the day, if companies don’t spray pesticides, then they may lose upwards of 50 percent of their crops, which severely impacts populations with limited access to fresh produce. Terra Vera is trying to solve this dilemma with a solution that doesn’t incur tradeoffs. We want the business, the consumer, and the environment to win. As I’ve learned through the development of Terra Vera, it’s easy to inactivate pathogens; however, it’s fairly difficult to do so without harming everything around it. Simply put, the cure is sometimes more toxic than the disease itself.
Terra Vera is based on a patented technology that mimics our body’s auto immune system by converting organic salts and amino acids into an antimicrobial solution effective at inactivating viruses, bacteria, and fungi without harming the living tissue. After its job is done, the chemistry degrades back into the harmless compounds that naturally occur in the environment. With Terra Vera, businesses can reduce their waste by only generating the chemistry that they need, as well as create a safer work environment, make food cleaner and more accessible through better yield and quality preservation, and protect our waterways and animals from toxic runoff that disrupt ecological systems and poison plant, animal, and human populations alike. I grew up in South Florida whereI’ve seen firsthand the effects of agriculture on our oceans, beaches, and lakes. I can’t think of any other disruption right now that could be more positively impactful for my friends, family, and generations to come.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Because of Covid-19, the Terra Vera team has had to be deliberate in how we travel and service customers. When it became clear that we would be signing up our first customer in Florida, we debated whether we would fly our Chief Technology Officer, Justin Sanchez,out to install and commission the system or have me drive a few hours north to do it myself. The team put their faith in me, and I got a crash course in plumbing and electrical work. During pre-commissioning, all looked good besides a leak to the water line, which I just assumed was because of my water line’s aging hose bib. I actually ended up overtightening it to stop the leak with no success and needed my husband to help pry it out. I didn’t think much of it and simply bought a new hose bib for the installation. During the installation, everything was going well except the water line kept leaking. With enough plumbing tape (and NOT overtightening), I was able to get the leak to stop. My lesson? Never doubt the power of plumbing tape. Our customer also thanked me for the care in the details that day since many of their other vendors would never have fixed the leak themselves.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
- Patti Yoon: When I first started my career in the banking sector in New York City, I quickly realized it was going to be quite the rat race. Patti made me realize out of the gates that mentorship couldn’t be forced — it has to be natural on both sides. We quickly developed our mentor/mentee relationship when she stayed at work very late with me one night, until 1am,) to go over a financial model. This may not seem like a big deal, but she had two young kids at home and didn’t live in the city. I’ll never forget that gesture and because of that, I’ve tried to pay it forward in my own career, whether it’s someone new to the team or new to the process and system, you have to make time for your team.
- Carlos Perea: I’m very fortunate to be able to work with my mentor for a second time. You could say Carlos is the person you always want in your corner. He gives you the space to make your own decisions, covers for you when you make mistakes, and sings your praises when you succeed. This was very true at iAnthus when he was COO and promoted me into a role that I may have been a few years behind in experience to take on, but he saw something I didn’t at the time and bet on me. He takes an active and emotional investment in you as a person, pushing you to develop in ways you never could have imagined. Without Carlos, I most likely would have ended up in business school and joined another large company. I’m very happy that I didn’t.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
Change is great. However, without weighing the costs and benefits for not just today, but for 10, 25, and even 50 years out, change could be a step backwards rather than forward. Technology has allowed us to advance agriculture in such a short period of time. Many operations can be large scale and even controlled remotely. While new advancements in technology can be seen as a huge positive in that we can feed more people, it has also put many family-owned farms out of business, increased the reliance on toxic pesticides, and led to GMO crops in our supermarkets. Disruption can lead to many unintended consequences; however, if decision-making is rooted with impact over profits, then the disruption could be a sustainable part of the new system for generations to come.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
- At a company talk at JPM, someone from the audience asked Jimmy Lee (former Head of Investment Banking at JPM), how he decided who to hire or promote into a managerial role. He responded that he chooses the individual that he would want his kids to work for. I’ve had the opportunity to manage people, both younger and older than me. I’ve always tried to be a manager that one day my future kids would want to work for. If you respect, engage, and listen to your team, there shouldn’t be much of an issue with the details. Everyone makes mistakes and there will be difficult discussions; however, you always have to put yourself in their shoes and treat them like you’d like to be treated.
- Give a person a fish, and you feed them for a day. Teach a person to fish, and you feed them for a lifetime. You often find that you can do many tasks better or faster than new people on your team. At a certain point though, you realize there is definitely no “I” in team and if you are a one-person show, you will begin to make mistakes and eventually burn out. Everybody needs a little help along the way and making the upfront investment in a person should be a priority for any good manager.
- Avoid Kiddie Soccer, Focus on the Big Rocks. It’s very easy to be reactive rather than proactive in a startup. There isalmost always a laundry list of tasks to tackle each week, but maybe one or two move the needle most for the team. Planning and prioritizing how your individual contributions fold into the team’s greater goals is critical in the earliest stages of a startup.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
We’re definitely not done. Beyond cannabis within the United States, we’re hoping to replace conventional pesticides in wine, hops, hemp, and other food crops, and eventually expand throughout the world. It’s a big goal to have, but I hope we eliminate the use of conventional pesticides throughout the world’s agricultural systems. There’s a lot of work to be done to preserve the Earth, and I know we’re taking one giant leap in the right direction with Terra Vera.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
This is a very loaded question, but in general, I feel like women often face a double standard of being seen as too meek or too intimidating and can’t seem to strike a balance between the two. Often women in leadership positions aren’t seen as relatable by either their female or male counterparts. I think this is rapidly changing as men take on more family-oriented roles and women, now more than ever, are taking leadership roles within companies. Many men across various industries are also beginning to mentor women, which a few decades ago would not have been the norm. Overall, I think the biggest challenges women disruptors face are common for anybody trying to alter the existing system: their own self-doubt and whether or not they are deserving of the opportunities in front of them. Yes, there are certain years of experience that you often see as a qualification, but you can’t reduce people to what you see on a spreadsheet where everything is formulaic. There are certain X factors that can’t be taught or quantified, and that’s what makes someone the next leader or disruptor in their field.
Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?
When Breath becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
I used to switch between fiction and non-fiction books to pass the time on the subway. When I had to choose a non-fiction book, I saw this book about a young doctor, top of his game, who was diagnosed with a terminal illness in his specialty. Once diagnosed, the doctor began his writing to discuss his feelings, regrets, and desires for his friends and family after he’s gone. It was an acceptance that his time was limited, and it really hit home for me. We’re not meant to live forever, but I do think that we forget this as the days go by. I try to make the most of each day, and actively strike a balance between family, health, and work (in that order). If you’re working at the right company, they’ll always want the same balance for you.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’d definitely encourage others to join Terra Vera’s movement in creating more sustainable agriculture. Anyone can pitch in. Whether you’re using sustainable practices in your home garden, or supporting local organic farmers, we can all demand more from how our food is produced. After joining Terra Vera, I can’t look at a strawberry the same way knowing that it was sprayed with 10-plus different pesticides. I’m excited to be part of this movement and hope others are inspired to join in.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Wayne Gretzky: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
It’s a simple yet very relevant mindset in both my career and personal life. You can’t succeed unless you try. I’ve found that it’s easy to shy away from new opportunities because of the potential of failure, judgement, and all the unknowns. It has taken a while, and I’m still working on it, but I try to focus on the “what if things go my way” scenario instead of “what if they don’t.” Everything from applying to my alma mater The University of Chicago (thinking no way I’d get in) to jumping into a startup that may not work out. I’ve had very few regrets in my life because of this mindset — every failure has been a learning opportunity, and every success has been another step forward towards my life goals.
How can our readers follow you online?
Learn more about Terra Vera by visiting terravera.com and connect on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kathryn-radovan/
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!