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Interview with the New Executive Director of Grow North

Grow North has grown significantly since its 2017 inception. Part of the Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Minnesota, Grow North is dedicated to actively supporting food and ag entrepreneurship and innovation in Minnesota. Now, with a new Executive Director, Grow North is poised to take the next step in its evolution.

Grow North’s new Executive Director, Allison Hohn, recently spoke with AURI about her role in leading strategy and growth for the organization.

What does the public need to know about Grow North?

Grow North is here to serve the food and ag community by providing education, resources, connectivity and opportunity. We are working to make scaling and growth more achievable for local companies. We have many small companies that are doing really well and have jumped from commercial kitchens to co-man[ufacturing], and ultimately to their own processing. Some big barriers can inhibit this critical process, so we are rallying greater investment in scaling this community to create more successful acquisitions and exits, like the BOOMCHICKAPOP and the Talenti successes.

Why did you want to serve as Grow North’s Executive Director?

I discovered that coaching and mentoring and just generally helping people were where I found meaning and joy, and this was a unique opportunity to be a coach and “Hype Woman” for a community I am passionate about. It began when I started coaching soccer about a decade ago. In the last five years, I found more opportunities to mentor startups through accelerators at companies I worked at and through consulting. And I absolutely loved it because this is the real-world application of my expertise as a food scientist and business leader, in a coaching scenario. To use a Target-ism, “it’s what brought me joy!” So being able to do that for an entire ecosystem really was a no brainer for me. It was a way to not just help one-off here and there, but an opportunity to actually scale that impact across the entire food and ag community.

How will your background and professional experience help you support Grown North’s mission?

I spent much of my former career as a diehard food scientist at both Land O’Lakes Inc. and Target. So, I have a very deep and abiding appreciation for just how much work goes into product development and bringing products to life both on the science side, but also as an entire supply chain.

I transitioned to Target after I earned my second master’s degree in supply chain and gained much more experience in developing and executing business strategies and how to manage an entire area in the grocery store. It was a lot of the decision making that happens at the shelf at a big-box retailer.

I come to Grow North with experience across the food value chain; from the co-op, agriculture, and CPG companies to the big-box retailer; and sprinkled in there is the intimate knowledge of the unsexy side of the connected supply chains and the layers of startup mentoring. It’s a unique mix of experience and passion that positioned me for this role and to speak to all the different aspects a company has to deal with. It puts me in a good position to help companies and to understand what they’re experiencing.

As Grow North’s new leader, what are your biggest goals and priorities?

Growing Food | Ag | Ideas Week is a big one and with COVID, this year’s event will look a little different being virtual. But the goal is to maintain the level of depth and quality of content this
community expects.

Another priority is sharing with the entire community what resources are available and accessible and lifting up and serving underserved communities. Many people know about Grow North, but barriers exist. I want to remove those barriers, so everyone has access. Additionally, we will launch a membership model for the community-at-large, so preparing for that would be a huge step for doubling down on connectivity and convening for this ecosystem.

Finally, we want to expand access to early-stage capital across the Minnesota food and ag community. Many companies can’t make the jump from friends and family financing to growing beyond. We are working toward a more targeted approach on how we can engage pre-seed and seed investors from outside the area to invest money here or build it up internally.

How can Grow North and AURI work together?

A history of deep partnership between the two organizations exists today, and I expect that will only continue in the future.

What I learned in my first two to three months was there’s amazing work going on. Several people are doing similar things and it’s just about connecting those dots so we can work smarter, not harder. The partnership we have with AURI is one way we can do that. Instead of reinventing the wheel, we partner on delivering educational content and sharing the messaging in different circles.

What do you think is the future of food and agriculture in Minnesota?

Minnesota is in a position to lead the world in food and agriculture. We have the right tools to create a world-class industry hub: sector Fortune 500 HQ’s, a solid talent pool, a research land grant University of Minnesota, and an incredible legacy of innovation here. Food and ag is written deep into the roots of Minnesota and I feel like it’s time for us to lean in and own that expertise and let it shine for the world to see. I’m excited to see innovations like Kernza® and the other Forever Green Initiatives that are tackling the root problems we face in ag and soil erosion. I think we will need to invest more in infrastructure both on the agricultural side and in manufacturing and processing. That will really allow our ecosystem to reach its max potential.

How is Grow North working to make Minnesota a globally recognized leader in entrepreneurship and innovation in food and agriculture?

FAI [Food | Ag | Ideas Week] will be a key lever to gain a wider audience and recognition of everything going on here and where we are a leader in the food [and] ag space. Strategic partnerships with organizations like MBold, who work toward that goal as well, will be key to elevating Minnesota’s status on the global stage. I see Grow North as a conduit that provides a platform and a voice for the many innovative companies and products grown here and helping to showcase those efforts to the world.

Is there anything else you feel AURI’s audience needs to know about you and Grow North?

Every person I connect with and talk to has exciting things going on and it just makes me want to add to this ever-growing list of all the awesome things that could be done. I want to harness and converge efforts where overlap exists, so people with similar interests can combine efforts and the ecosystem works smarter, not harder. A lot of brilliant people here work tirelessly day in and day out. And I’d love to lower as many barriers and make as many connections as possible so all that work can get done faster and Minnesota can embrace its role as a global leader in food and agriculture innovation.