Mercaris Trades Agricultural Commodities Online

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Lena Benjamin, founder and CEO here at EmpowerHER Global recently had the pleasure of speaking with  Kellee James, founder, and CEO of Mercaris, a comprehensive market data information service and online trading platform for agricultural commodities that are organic or non-GMO. Subscribe for Progress.

Kellee James has an extensive resume and in 2009 was named by then President Obama as a 40 under 40 rising leaders. Prior to founding Mercaris, Kellee spent five years at the Chicago Climate Exchange.

Kellee and Mercaris are based in Washington DC, in the United States of America.

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Welcome, Kelly. Let me begin by congratulating you on being recognized by Vanity Fair as one of the 26 women of color diversifying entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley, the media and beyond. What does this recognition mean to you?

It was wonderful being in the room with these women. Some I knew, some I had only read about and others were completely new to me. It was immediately apparent that we were a sisterhood and it was inspirational spending the day with these women.

Although, we did remark at one point or another that it was a shame that we could all fit in just one medium-sized room and that we recognised and hoped that we are the first of many and that next year and the year after that we won’t be able to be contained in just a single room.

That’s fantastic. How did you find out you had been selected?

You know I am part of a network called Digital Undivided founded by Kathryn Finney. She is an entrepreneur and in fact, one of the first women of color to found a tech start-up company, hers being Budget Fashionista.

Kathryn has made it her mission to collect the stories and data on the women who have walked the same path so we were actually contacted by Digital Undivided. I don’t know how the whole origin of how the article came about but I know Digital Undivided was key in connecting me anyway and several other women with Vanity Fair.

Could you give us a little more information about Digital Undivided? 

It’s a group that specifically supports black and Latina women founders of technology start-up companies whether they choose to seek venture capital financing or not. It is many things – It’s a support network it runs an incubator called the big incubator for minority women founding companies publishes stats and analyses stats on black women founders specifically.

Is this specifically in the USA?

Yes, it’s located in Atlanta Georgia. I know they definitely track black women or Latina women who are not US citizens but their companies are located in the USA so in that sense, it is the US focused.

How has technology empowered both your clients and your business?

The problem we are trying to solve is two-fold and both of them are related to technology. The first is the old-fashioned way of doing business if say you were a farmer wanting to sell your crop or if you were a flour mill and you were looking to buy wheat to mill for bread is you would simply pick up the phone and call around and find someone to buy and sell sometimes you might blast out emails. It’s a very time intensive inefficient way of making a market. And so Mercaris uses technology to bring all of that business that was you know happening as a handshake or over the phone and bring it onto an online trading platform. So, in this case, the technology is key to getting more participants into the marketplace and more participants mean more options for our customers more chances to sell more of an ability to buy the commodities that they need so that’s one-way technology empowers our customers.

The other is the information itself.  So organic agriculture is nothing new and people are out there planting crops and buying and selling and doing all sorts of things but they were doing it in a bit of a vacuum so we centralized the reporting capabilities and people can individuals and companies can report in the prices they are seeing in the market. We collect it like a neutral third party that can collect that information. Give people the safety of confidentiality no one wants to give up the information of what they are individually paying so instead we collect it to make it anonymous and confidential and publish it as independent and objective market reports.

 Which you sell to various different organizations like government organizations or to your members?

We do sell it so for our members who are actively inputting information into the system they get a lot of info for free. So it’s a very symbiotic relationship in that sense.

To others who are not part of the survey like you say such as government organizations, trade associations, banks, could be food companies who are not yet in the organic area or sell something organic but not everything is organic so they can subscribe to our reports for a monthly or an annual fee.

This is brilliant, so, is this specifically in the US or is this cross-border trading?

So the nice thing about technology is it’s agnostic, anyone who has access to the internet can get online and look at prices and buy and sell. We started in the US  which is the largest organic food market in the world. So we do have a lot of US customers. However, we have expanded into Canada where we have been quite active. Our first customers in Europe and Asia are interested and looking at the data although we don’t have anyone on the trading platform yet from those countries.

I can imagine that Africa would also be another potential continent to look at

Possibly, we are active in grains and oilseeds. We did one pilot auction. We had farmers in Northern Uganda who were growing organic and rotational sesame, cotton and chilly peppers and they used our auction platform to sell into the United States market for the first time. This was a pilot and I learned a lot from that in that in most cases the organic sesame goes to the European market. There is a reason for that as the Europeans invested much more in sesame processing capacity. In the USA we tend to buy the oil once it has already been crushed and refined rather than the raw sesame so it was a lesson learned for sure.

So you spoke about expanding into certain countries like Uganda have you got any other global growth plans both personally and professionally?

We do and these markets are already global and as we go into additional crops and if you think about where there is a food commodity there is its organic counterpart and so we can’t cover all of them. There are several that are big enough and interesting so coffee for example – the ground research, market research on organic coffee is being done and showcases growth globally, and that would mean that we are looking at Latin America and Eastern Africa where that crop is important [economically] so that is one way of expanding into additional crop market grown outside of the USA.

In terms of other crops will you be extending your focus by trading rice and sugar online?

So there is a potential to do that. This is always the challenge with a start-up. You wake up most days and think that you could be doing so many different things but it is important to really concentrate and focus your energy. So we started in grains and oilseeds so at the moment we focus on organic corn, wheat, soya beans, oats, barley, and rye as well as non-GMO corn and soya beans that has kept us very busy for the last two years. We are at the point of expansion so to your point -we are looking into rice and sugar and also cocoa and coffee. The next phase is to move into dairy. The European market is very active in dairy and so we held our very first auction for powered dairy last month and that was really successful. We have an industry working group to focus our efforts in order to build out our platform for organic dairy.

Interesting, so how come powered Milk and not straight from the cow?

Our methodology is starting simple and then to get “fancy”. Fluid milk is actually much harder to work from our perspective because it is perishable and the USA you have a 72-hour rule and so logistically. Powered on the other hand is storable and so we decided to do a powered auction. And some of that was opportunistic and with the working group of about a dozen industry participants they wanted to an auction of powdered milk and so we said sure we will do what the customer wants.

In what way do you think technology will empower women in business over the next 5 years?

Coming from a commodities background I look at the exchanges – Chicago Mercantile Exchange and Chicago Board of Trade where all the trading used to be in pits and it was a very physical environment and so you had an edge if you were an ex-Football player [talking American Football] and so women were part of that world but there was a physical barrier and so technology now levels the playing field {no pun intended}. It’s about who can write the best algorithm now, rather than who can shout the loudest or elbow their way to the center of the pit or the edge of a pit and so I think technology helps to overcome that in my line of work. As a caveat, I also think technology is a tool at the end of the day so whatever bias’ or barriers there are for women technology sometimes can overcome but sometimes it serves as an extension for those biases – so we still need strong voices advocating for women. So just because there is technology doesn’t mean women will be at the table.

I listened to Gabrielle Union and loved her take on being at the table and she said I don’t want a seat at the table I’m building my own table and so there is much to say about technology and the way we are being, doing and working in the twenty-first century. That you can make your own opportunities. I think technology is the way forward for women to enhance and empower opportunities. I mean right now I’m in London in the United Kingdom and you are in Washington DC, in the USA and we are having a conversation utilizing technology and we are talking about the empowerment of women in business which is absolutely brilliant.

Where does your inspiration come from Kellee?

Oh gosh, well at a very basic level I would say my faith. Entrepreneurship comes with its challenges and as a black woman, it comes with its own special challenges. My Christian faith has been a source of respite and you know support as I’ve taken on these challenges. My family and I know that is a cliche and you know women traditionally are a support to our communities and of our families but then the question is who supports us. In my case, I’m happy to support my family but my family has been financially and from a mental health perspective. Mentally supportive a source of advice and encouragement and so I would say my family has been a source of inspiration and the practical things like my husband taking our 2 year old and keeping the household running and supporting in that shares that burden with me, This has freed me to do some things in the world of entrepreneurship that I might not have been able to do or would have been harder for me to do had that not been the case.

Brilliant, so God, Family, and Husband have been the pinnacles of your inspiration and that has empowered you which is absolutely brilliant. Any other last words of wisdom for our listeners.

I would just say being an entrepreneur is such a curious mix of being able to listen and being able to perceive problems in a way that you can change them and be very attuned to that. But also not listening because if you listen to every little critic I would never have done any of this. There were plenty of no’s and so it is a balance. It is the ability to be able to compartmentalize and being able to understand that this is difficult and that there will be people that will not see what you see and yet still plow ahead and create something amazing so my hat is off to all those women entrepreneurs on this path or thinking about this path.

Perfect, well thank you so much, Kellee James, founder, and CEO at Mercaris a comprehensive market data information service and online trading platform for agricultural commodities that are organic or non-GMO.

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Note: Currently EmpowerHER Global resides at lenabenjamin.com/empowerherglobal and not the site indicated in the interview

About the Author

Lena Benjamin

Lena Benjamin’s focus is to Empower business success. Tapping into 20 years of business experience combined with common sense and passion. She’s a forward-thinking and strategic entrepreneur, involved in a number of ventures. Visit: lenabenjamin.com