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Farming for Change

During her undergraduate career at Barnard College, Columbia University, Poole College of Management Jenkins MBA candidate Olivia Watkins tested soil, studied food justice, did consultancy research and worked with farmers across the nation and globe only to recognize a consistent theme: a lack of access to capital for black farmers.

Listening to various community leaders and farmers, she considered how to help – which led her to co-found Black Farmer Fund, a community investment fund for black farmers and food businesses in the state of New York.

The fund was a step forward in building a more equitable world – and it earned Watkins a spot on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list for social impact.

“Coming from the food justice space, I was extremely excited about this recognition – it feels great to give this cause – and a program that means so much to me – a larger platform,” Watkins says.

Incorporated in 2019, Black Farmer Fund’s mission is to create a more equitable and resilient food system by investing in black farmers and food equity in New York. The organization aims to advocate for pools of money to support farmers of color, empower others through education and support other politically active organizations. Today, the organization collaborates with five other organizations in New York serving the food system – Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, Soul Fire Farm, Farm School NYC, and Corbin Hill Food Project.

“Through collaboration with these other organizations, we’re working to build out a robust pipeline to share resources with people,” Watkins says. “Ultimately, Black Farmer Fund functions as the fundraising arm.”

Though she continues to work in New York, Watkins currently calls North Carolina “home” – which is what led her to NC State for her MBA.

“My family has land in North Carolina and I’m currently stewarding that land for my family, so I’ve made North Carolina into a home. Since I’m setting roots here, I wanted to find a program where people intend on staying in the area,” Watkins explains.

“I was also interested in NC State as a land-grant university with an extension arm – and was drawn to the Jenkins program because of its historic strengths in supply chain management, which is really helpful for understanding processes and systems in agriculture.”

Since beginning the Jenkins MBA program, Watkins has appreciated that her time in the classroom has allowed her to invest even more into Black Farmer Fund.

I’ve really appreciated the entrepreneurship elements of the program. I can bring examples of my business into the classroom and receive feedback and support for concepts I’m trying to think through.

Watkins pointed to associate professor of finance Srini Krishnamurthy and director of Business Sustainability Collaborative Jessica Thomas as two professors who have been particularly influential during her time at Poole College.

Srini Krishnamurthy is a great finance teacher I’ve taken several courses with. I’ve been able to apply what I’m learning from him not only to the operations of the business but the due diligence with our applicants for funding,” she says. “And Jessica Thomas has helped me understand sustainability on a corporate level and how to use those metrics. It’s been very valuable in the development of our business.”

In addition to learning from her professors, Watkins has found opportunities to learn from fellow classmates as well.

I’ve enjoyed the diversity of students in the Jenkins MBA program – the diversity of thoughts, opinions and beliefs. Though I grew up in a really diverse area, most people’s beliefs were quite similar to mine. Moving to the south has given me a different perspective of how people think and live and see the world, and it’s important for me to understand these other perspectives – especially if I want to be a leader.

This May, Watkins will complete her time at Jenkins and move into a full-time capacity with Black Farmer Fund.

“I’m looking forward to continuing to grow our organizational capacity to meet the financing demand we’re seeing now to better serve our community and ensure that people are getting their needs met.”

This post was originally published in Jenkins MBA News.