To celebrate Women’s History Month and B Corp Month, I had the honor of sitting down with the founder of Happy Dirt, Sandi Kronick, and the founders of Firsthand Foods, Jennifer Curtis and Tina Prevatte Levy. It’s not everyday that you get facilitate and listen to the conversation between founders of two companies over coffee and pie. For almost two hours, the three women covered spoke vulnerably and passionately about a range of topics, including: why both companies decided to pursue B Corporation Certifications, hurdles they had to jump over as women in business, and how women tend to have a different approach to business.
I sat in awe of Sandi, Jennifer, and Tina, as they shared their experiences as women-founders and how they persevered through literal and figurative hurricanes. I wish you could’ve joined me to feel the electric energy and inspiration that I felt throughout our time, but I made sure to document so you could read at least a third of what I heard. As you read through the small portion of my interview with Sandi, Jennifer, and Tina, I hope you finish with some food for thought and feel empowered to “B the change”.
Why did you choose to pursue B Corp Certification?
Jennifer: Tina and I decided to pursue the B Corp certification for Firsthand Foods for many reasons, including that we wanted to tell our story very quickly with the simple logo on our products that says we stand for something. We go beyond. We also wanted to be in a network with a community of like-minded businesses.
Sandi: At Happy Dirt, we were already doing things operationally that would’ve helped us make the grade needed for B Corp certification. By deciding to invest the money and time into becoming a B Corp, we knew that it would help further the positive impact we have on our farmer partners, our customers, and the consumer.
What do you like about being a B Corporation? How has it impacted your company as a whole?
Tina: I think one of the nice things about the B Corporation is that it brings humanity into the business. It reminds us that we’re not just cogs and wheels. There are humans that work here.
Jennifer: It helped us think about things we needed to document that we were already doing and to develop policies that we hadn’t yet considered.. For example, one of the questions asked was if we had a breastfeeding policy for mothers. And I was like, okay, yeah, we have to think about this. It made me think in advance about things like that.
Sandi: I like how the goalposts for companies seeking certification or renewing a certification keep moving. You want the standards for this type of certification to get harder and harder. The work of healing and growing is continuous. Another thing I like about being a B Corp is that it shows us that we can commit to economic, environmental, and social sustainability, or the triple bottom line, and be a legitimate business in a capitalist, for-profit economy. We don’t have to compromise our financial existence to do good in the world.
As far as how it’s impacted our company, I’ll say that the power of being part of an economic network of other B Corporations has opened doors. It’s similar to being a woman and connecting with woman-owned businesses. There’s this powerful network of people that you can tap into and brainstorm with, which can also add more positive pressure. I mean, for me, a part of our success has always been the pressure, like kind of peer pressure of not failing farmers.
Sandi, you mentioned being a woman and the power of being able to connect with women-owned businesses, which is the perfect segue to my next question.
What are some hurdles you’ve had to overcome and lessons you’ve learned as women-owned businesses, especially in the agricultural sector, that ultimately have led to your success?
Jennifer: I mean, what we talk about a lot is how challenging it was to build trust in the farm community. The first five years of the business, we were building our network of farmers. Neither of us are farmers. Neither of us grew up on farms. We’re women in a male dominated industry. And, we walk out on their pastures and they’re like, “Why should I trust you? Why should I sell my animals to you?” They might be that way about any newcomer, but it always felt like even just a little bit more effort was required because we were women.
Tina: Especially since we’re positioning ourselves as someone they should do business with. And so there’s like, do these girls really have what it takes? It took a while to establish credibility in that way.
Jennifer: Now they’ve been with us for 12 years.
Sandi: I think a big learning curve for me was after Hurricane Florence. We were very reliant on North Carolina, a few farms, and sweet potatoes. We lost a lot of product in the middle of the calendar year. In trying to go through our recovery process, one of our bank lenders stopped me in the hallway at a national food hub conference and asked if he could talk to me. Hundreds of people were walking around. I said, “Yea, what’s going on?” And he said, “You know, I just want to say it’s been a great run. Like you should close it up because you’ve been around for more than ten years. You have so much to be proud of. If you just sell off your assets, you can close up and be really proud of yourself. For ten years you created something that lasted and really supported farmers.” I was like you would not say that to me if I was a man. It was said at the wrong place at the wrong time. But also, if I was a man, could you imagine him saying, “Hey, it’s time to pack up. You’ve done a great job, but go back to…”
It sounds like establishing your credibility and your value as women in business was a common hurdle that you had to overcome.
Tina: Yeah. I feel like as women, we have to tell our story loud and clear and put those numbers out there for anybody to see you. For example, we were having a conversation with someone and they were asking about who would be good partners for them. Jennifer and I were like we would, but they couldn’t see us. We were right in front of their face, but they could not see us. They said, “well, what about these guys?” We were like wow unless there’s a cowboy involved here, you cannot see us as a legit, viable partner. And it’s like you have to put those numbers out there because they speak for themselves. That’s when they’re like, “oh shoot, they are really doing stuff.”
Sandi: If people knew how many millions of dollars we’ve given to farmers in the state of North Carolina in the last 15 years, they would be blown away. But, it’s like we shouldn’t even need to show off the numbers.
As women entrepreneurs and business owners, have you noticed if women generally have a different approach to business?
Sandi: This is a generalization, but I believe for women-owned businesses, and more specifically around businesses that are set up to do something good, we have a lot of crossover about the way we move through the world. It makes it less likely that we are comfortable with, much less know how to self-promote. It’s easier for me to just be humble, to have stage-manager energy, and to just promote the chefs, restaurants, grocery stores, and the farmers like they’re all the rock stars. But promoting the business itself, I feel like that’s been another huge learning curve. I’m still figuring it out.
I think there’s a lot of women-run businesses that stay under the radar because we run our businesses like our personality. And, we are generally thinking of community more. Thinking of impact, network, and how to bring people together.
Jennifer: I say that can also be a strength. You can use it as a grounding orientation. Caring for others and thinking of others is your way into also telling your story. If you just tell your story, it’s not going to work. You need to center yourself in the community and then tell your story.
Tina: I was just going back through my MBA coursework recently. I took business plan analysis classes, and men would come in with these numbers and an inflated sense of what they were going to achieve. We tend to be realistic, modest, and incremental. And because we tend to approach business differently, we are told that we aren’t good business people.
And, what are some shared challenges among women?
Tina: So, this thing about enough-ism. It makes me think about how you have to be really clear about what you want. When is enough? And, I think that’s a challenge for women because we’re not used to thinking about what we want. We’re asking what’s going to be best for my family? What’s going to be best for our farmers and our customers? So, it’s been hard for us to define what’s enough and what we want because we don’t get to sit with it everyday.
Jennifer: I think that is the number one challenge for women, asking “What do I want?”
To wrap up, do you have any last thoughts or a motto you would like to share?
Sandi: There is like a women-led business revolution that is in the making that’s like very, very much B Corp. But, it’s prioritizing all of these things. We have to make this work with all legs of the stool (environmental, social, and economic) in order to literally exist. That’s why I love “B the change”. We literally need to exist. We need to live in the world that we’re committed to. And, if we don’t treat the supply chain of food like it’s actually a supply chain of people, then we won’t have food.
Jennifer: I’m definitely pretty addicted to growth and learning. And, that leads me towards always remembering to stay really curious and open. I’ll also share our company motto that I use at the bottom of my email signature, I “To some it’s a supply chain. To us, it’s a relationship.”
Tina: I have this drawing on my desk – I don’t know exactly what it is – but it’s this idea that you plant a seed and it will blossom later. I’m a perfectionist. So, I’m always thinking about the seeds that I’m planting. It’s a visual reminder of motivation because the reward isn’t in the day to day all the time. The reward will often come five to ten years later.
Firsthand Foods is a food hub that sells local meats from North Carolina farms. Jennifer Curtis and Tina Prevatte Levy founded the company in 2010 with a shared interest in the well-being of family farmers and in preserving the state’s natural beauty and agricultural heritage. The company received its B Corp Certification in June 2022.
Happy Dirt is a farmer- and staff-owned wholesale produce distributor. The company started in 2004 with the goal of helping transition tobacco farmers into organic vegetable production to meet an increasing need for local and organic produce in the marketplace. Happy Dirt has been B Corp Certified since August 2016.
B Lab Global leads the network of nonprofit organizations behind the B Corp movement. With a mission to transform the global economy to benefit all people, communities, and the planet, B Lab creates standards, policies, tools, and programs for business, and it certifies companies — known as B Corps — who are leading the way. To date, B Lab has impacted over 500,000 workers in over 6,000 B Corps across 80 countries and 150 industries, and more than 200,000 companies manage their impact with the B Impact Assessment and the SDG Action Manager. The company has created and led efforts to pass over 50 corporate statutes globally that enable any business to embed stakeholder governance, with over 10,000 companies using our legal framework. If you want to learn more about B Lab and the B Corp movement, visit www.bcorporation.net.