Master SMGB | ALUMNI - Libby's vertical farms to make schools greener
“A social enterprise that strives to bring agriculture education back to our schools in the form of IOT-controlled vertical food fields accompanied by a rich, experiential, well-tested educational program.”.
This is the mission of Grow HIGH, the startup that Libby Leshem, Alumna of the Master in Strategic Management for Global Business (SMGB), has recently launched.
Libby attended the Master in year 2015-16 as a senior student: Israeli by birth, three children and previous experience in media relations and business development for the Israeli Commercial Office in Milan, when she joined the Master, she had a strong passion for environment and sustainability, hi-tech solutions for agriculture and entrepreneurship. Despite her passion, she admits “I felt that I lacked professional tools to realize the ideas that I had in the sector”, and therefore she chose to attend the Master SMGB at the Università Cattolica.
Two years after graduation we interviewed her to know more about Grow HIGH and understand what role the Master played in transforming her idea into reality.
What was the source of inspiration for Grow HIGH?
The first time I saw a large-scale vertical farm was during the Universal Exposition held in Milan in 2015. I was working at the Israeli commercial office, which was which supported Israeli companies that were showcasing their products and services at the national pavilion of the Expo.
The main theme of the Expo was "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life": it was focused on making energy and food available to the world’s growing population, that will reach 9.6 billion by 2050, according to a United Nations report, and will be concentrated in mega cities. The sight of that huge vertical farm where food like wheat, corn, and rice was growing, was a wonder to me.
A few months after I accomplished my degree at the Università Cattolica, I was looking for a school for my eldest son. My husband and I visited some of the most expensive private schools in Milan and all of them had a “grey feeling”: the children I saw looked grey, the buildings were grey, even the teachers seemed grey.
I remember the tour at the last “grey” school that we went to see, I looked at the headmaster and asked if the students sometimes went outside, if they had any gardening project, planted trees or something similar. The headmaster looked at me, embarrassed, and said that one of the teachers expressed the same idea not long before.
That day, I realized that we must start talking to the children, to the next generations, explaining to them why we need to bring nature back in the city and offer them vertical farming as a future alternative to urban agriculture.
What is your target client?
My first clients are the students: I want to raise their interest. It is important to create a rich, practical, innovative and interesting program for them. Let them experience themselves in the process of cultivating and doing. Moreover, beyond the students, there is the whole community around them: teachers are important partners and no process could be actualized without them, the management of the school, the parents, the local and national regulators.
The wishful long-term vision is that one day vertical farmss will be a standard in every school.
How was your pilot project and what are your future plans?
Over the past year I started my company here in Italy, Grow HIGH. One of the main challenges was facing the Italian bureaucracy. Sitting and writing the business plan alone at home during a few long weeks was not a simple part either.
But as soon as the pilot project kicked off in a school with an amazing management and teachers who were real partners, I knew that the enjoyable part was coming.
Today I am very busy in developing and trying to expand the business finding more partners.
Grow HIGH claim is “Education, Environment, Community”. Can you tell us something more about the your vision of sustainability?
Educating and empowering younger generations is the key to sustainability. We wish to empower the students and put them at the center because, as studies have already proved, if they “grow higher” they will realize that changing the world is in their hands and they will take responsibility.
Also, we consider environment not only as our natural local surroundings but also as a community of people involved in preserving the planet, bringing back nature in our cities, developing more urban farming. Cultivation as a tool to connect people to each other and to the place they live in.
And what about the financial sustainability?
A major part of the business development process for me is finding as many funding sources as possible.
Instead of going to knock at each school’s door, the target is to “think big” and reach the decision makers at the urban level. Another challenge when working with regulators is to find the budgetary section that the project can match.
You have attended the master as a “senior student”, i.e. you had already a previous significant job experience. What has the Master added to your knowledge base that you found most useful?
I think the course that I found most useful and from which I got the most was the course in entrepreneurship. The course has taught me the process of entrepreneurial thinking and other concepts such as lean business model which I took with me. The course gave gave me what I needed to set my project in motion
Education, Environment, Community, Hi-Tech… we wish Libby’s social enterprise to grow…high!