Six years ago, she founded the first community supported agriculture (CSA) farm in China. Today, organic farming pioneer, Shi Yan and her team serve hundreds of city dwellers in Beijing; and her thriving Shared Harvest Farm has inspired dozens of CSAs across China.
Shi Yan is one of a growing group of farmers in China who are bucking the trend of young workers abandoning agriculture and being drawn to cities like Beijing, one of the world’s largest conurbations. By helping bring young people back to the land and serving the growing demand for sustainable practices and organic food in China, Shi Yan has attracted the attention of major media outlets, NPR and the BBC.
On July 10th, I was invited to join BBC host, Fergus Nicoll on BBC World Service program, Business Matters to interview Shi Yan about her mission; and explore the economic and social drivers for organic produce in China.
Fergus Nicoll: We are going to devote much of the second half of the programme to environmental issues. We’ll hear about Community Supported Agriculture in China and our guest Shi Yan is with us from Beijing…Let’s welcome Alison van Diggelen of Fresh Dialogues. Alison, we’re going to leave your microphone open.
Alison, as anybody who knows her website Fresh Dialogues, is a professional asker of questions. Alison: jump in when you fancy and we’ll make this a three-way discussion.
Shi Yan, tell us a bit about Shared Harvest…and the concept of community supported agriculture.
Shi Yan: Our farm Shared Harvest is located in Tongzhou district of Beijing. Right now we have about 15 hectares of land we rented for 15 years. Most of our produce is vegetables and we also have almost 2000 chickens and 50 pigs. Every week we deliver our produce directly to our members. CSA is a way that links the farmers and the consumers directly and we build the trust between the consumers and the farmers. Right now we have about 600 families in Beijing; most of their food comes from our farm.
Fergus Nicoll: Is that entirely organic or are you allowed to sneak in some pesticides or herbicides?
Shi Yan: Actually we call our produce “organically produced” because we don’t have the organic certification but we don’t use any chemical fertilizer and pesticides.
Fergus Nicoll: What about the market for that, because in different countries the market for organic food has waned and grown depending on economic circumstances…a growing middle class wants a purer production mechanism…even if it’s not organic with a capital “O.”
Shi Yan: In China in the last seven years, organic agriculture is growing pretty fast because of issues related to food safety, environmental issues. When I started in 2009…very few consumers knew about the concept of CSA, but right now a lot of people in Beijing know this model.
Fergus Nicoll: A lot of people who buy organic face criticism from people who don’t. They’ll say: I go to the supermarket and I see a box of six perfectly produced apples, they all look 100% identical like clones, selling for “X” and next to that are organic apples that are kind of lumpy, they’re all different shapes and they cost “X plus” Do you ever get that complaint?
Shi Yan: If you order the vegetables from a CSA farm (in China) the price is about 2/3rds of the price in the supermarket. Right now, consumers care more about the food quality rather than the price. A lot of them are rethinking our food system because if you only look at the appearance of the fruit or vegetables…a lot of food (in non-organic farms) is wasted because of their appearance.
Alison van Diggelen: I’m curious about the drivers in China. Do you have a feel for your consumers…Is the impact of pesticides etc. on the environment is that a major driver? Or would you say the main drivers are food scares and the quality of produce?
Shi Yan: At the beginning the food safety issues…a lot of food scandals happened and people started looking for healthy food. But later they found the deep reason is not the market or the food itself, but a lot of problems happened in the rural (areas)…food comes from the village and in last 10 years, fewer and fewer young people stay in the village. Right now most of the farmers growing the food are above sixty years old, struggling for their livelihood. Can they really take the responsibility of producing healthy food? It’s a big problem.
Fergus Nicoll: Can I ask you about “labor shifting” consumers actually doing the farming themselves? Because they’re extremely motivated but may not know the best way to do it.
Shi Yan: We have two models: one part you can order our produce, we will deliver to your door. (Or) you can rent a piece of land: 30 square meters of land, as a farm. Every week you can come to your farm, grow your own food.
Alison van Diggelen: I’m curious about how you’re delivering your food. Are you using electric cars, non polluting cars, delivery trucks?
Shi Yan: We use conventional small vans.
Fergus Nicoll: In the US, if I go and see friends in Davis, I know when we go down to the farmers market, there’ll be really good stuff. This is relatively well established, certainly in California?
Alison van Diggelen: Absolutely, yes, CSAs are very established here, since the 1980’s. Here’s an interesting anecdote for you, Fergus: I’ve been a subscriber to a local CSA called Planet Organics and just this month they’ve had to close up shop after 19 years. They’ve been squeezed out by major players. Walmart is getting into the organic food business. Wholefoods has been there a while. It’s becoming so mainstream that it’s hard for these CSAs to compete.
Fergus Nicoll: So they’re getting priced out of the market…
Malala Yousafzai is the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. An advocate for girls’ right to education via The Malala Fund, her name is now synonymous with courage, passion and hope after after a gunman shot her in the face; and she didn’t back down. In her short 17 years, she’s done more than most to change the world, and her remarkable life is the subject of a new documentary “He Named Me Malala” to be released in October.
On Friday, she joined her favorite author, Khaled Hosseini (of Kite Runner fame) at San Jose State University in Silicon Valley for a hard hitting conversation about Islam, education, and her dream of one day becoming Prime Minister of Pakistan. In his eloquent introduction, Hosseini described how the gunman boarded Malala’s school bus in 2012 and “shot the wrong girl.”
“Technically he shot the girl he was meant to shoot, but in every other way, he shot the wrong girl. The girl he shot at age 11 was already a fierce advocate for girls’ right to education. If the gunman thought he was going to quiet her with his bullet, then he was wrong. His victim became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. But what he was most wrong about was the apparent belief that human beings aught to settle their differences with bullets. Malala would school him later when she said, you must not treat others with cruelty but through peace, and through dialogue and through education.” Khaled Hosseini
Here are highlights of the conversation:
On why Malala is motivated to keep speaking out
If you want to change your society, if you want to see the change, then you have to step forward to bring the change. It was my duty to speak up. Either we just had to remain silent and live in that situation of terrorism forever or fight for our rights and try to bring the change. I felt I had a mission and had to continue. There was this feeling in my mind that something can happen to me, but I thought: the Taliban are cruel, but how would they take an 11 year old girl? Malala
On Islamic religion and culture
Cultures, traditions are not sent by God to us. They are not being written by him and saying, ‘these are the things you that you have to follow.’ We humans create them, so then we should have the right to change them…The traditions that go against basic human rights should not be protected and should be clearly denied. (For example) education is every child’s right, but the Taliban want to stop women being educated. They fear that if you allow girls to go to school, girls will become out of control. Some Pakistani scholars think girls like me are infidels, they don’t know I read the Koran. Malala
Hosseini points out that the Koran begins with a mandate for literacy:
The first word is ‘read.’ That Islam says the Koran is against girls being educated is perverse. Hosseini
On critics who say she’s being used by the West against Islam
There’s a lot of hopelessness, tragedy (in Pakistan) They’ve seen a lot of dishonest politicians, corruption…People lose hope. It’s a small minority who are critics. Pakistan has already supported me. When I was attacked they raised the banners “I am Malala.” They were speaking out (saying) “Shame on the Taliban” which was never ever said before. And people started their activism and to speak out for education.
Keeping my courage and ambitions strong…the support from Pakistan and all over the world overcomes all this hatred… it becomes “like nothing.” I have to stay strong and believe in myself and know that what I’m doing is right: it’s for the education of girls. Malala
Our own people are our harshest critics. Hosseini
On the violence of her gunman
I have forgiven him. That boy, he was only 15. The terrorists did not believe in the freedom of women, they did not believe in women’s rights, to get an education… They’ve been radicalized…they need some education so they can be helped… know the real value of Islam and justice, know that Islam is not about killing. Islam is used to support Jihad. When they’re told “it’s God’s message” people will obey. Malala
On the Malala Fund & Her 10 year Goals
I’m hopeful I will have gone back to my home in Pakistan… I’m hopeful The Malala fund will have educated hundreds of thousands of girls by then – in Nigeria, in Kenya, in Jordan (for Syrian refugees), in Pakistan….I’m hopeful through your support we can achieve these goals. It’s when we all come together, we make our voices stronger…We will do it together: see that every child will be getting quality education. Malala
On Becoming the Prime Minister of Pakistan
When I met the (Pakistan) Prime Minister, I was frustrated by his ‘talk talk’ I wanted to have his power… If I get an opportunity to help my country through politics I will. It’s good to have big dreams. Malala
Many people worry about the consequences of tech innovation, in particular: how will automation and robots impact our jobs? I sat down to explore the impact of robots and the chance of “robo-apocalypse” with social robot pioneer Cynthia Breazeal, founder of the Jibo Robot and professor at MIT. Jibo is a desk top robot that acts like a personal assistant for the family. It can see, hear, speak, dance, and according to its makers, it can even “relate to people.” Imagine a cross between R2D2, an iPad and the Pixar lamp. Breazeal explains how she sees the big “value add” of social robots and why she thinks the potential unintended consequences of robots demands a thoughtful dialogue between robot experts.
Excerpts of this interview were featured on my BBC World Service Report: Elon Musk, Cynthia Breazeal Explain Why Robots Are Coming To Your Home
Here are highlights of our discussion (comments have been shortened for length and clarity):
van Diggelen: Will robots take our jobs, and why are we obsessed by that?
Breazeal: When robotics first came onto the market, it was about replacing human labor, so that’s been the assumption: When any robot is introduced, “it’s about replacing people.”
Social robotics as a whole research discipline has been about a very different paradigm, which is about partnership. It’s about robots that can support and collaborate with people. Jibo is not being designed to replace anyone or anything. Sometimes peole talk about it’s going to replace my dog….it’s not about that. Jibo creates a different kind of relationship.
van Diggelen: What is Jibo?
Breazeal: Jibo breaks down barriers (for people uncomfortable with tech gadgets) by feeling much more like a someone than a something. In my research at MIT, we’ve put very sophisticated humanoid robots, you name it, but when you create that experience for people, that familiar, warm experience, people respond to it. I think Jibo has an appeal across a much broader demographic.
Jibo is about supporting the family, supporting those who help care for the family, doctors and nurses…helps make the whole human and technological network stronger and better able to serve human values. That’s the big “value add” of this kind of technology and that’s certainly where my heart is because certainly as a mom, I completely understand the value and importance of the human connection and the human relationships. And we have human responsibilities to each other. Technology should not be mitigating that or interfering with that. We want technology to really support that.
Breazeal: In many ways, it’s a tool that we use as a culture to ask the question: What does it mean to be human? I really think it stems from that. So whether it’s aliens or killer viruses or robots, it is that “otherness” that pushes up against our humanity; that causes us to reflect upon the human condition. For robots, because they have existed in our science fiction long before we could actually build them, this is our cultural undercurrent people can’t help but go there no matter what.
van Diggelen: But the difference is, it’s not some luddites who’re saying this: it’s people like Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates…warning people about the dangers of artificial intelligence.
Breazeal: Right so…there’s a difference between the apocalypse versus there could be unintended consequences that we need to be mindful of. So I’m agreeing that with any technology capable of tremendous impact on how we live our lives, there’s always those two sectors. Certainly with robotics, I certainly believe that it’s going to become a pervasive technology in our lives, so it is worth considering, how do we go for the good and avoid the bad?
van Diggelen: But how do you do that? From where you’re sitting, does it need government regulation, standards? What’s the best way to proceed?
Breazeal: I’m not sure we honestly know…the bottom line is: it starts with us and having thoughtful dialogue and discussion to try to really understand what the opportunities and the unintended consequences really could be, before we start jumping to conclusions. I think the most important thing we can do right now is to have this thoughtful dialogue. Even things we started off with, like peoples’ assumptions (that) all robots are about replacing people versus this other side: robots are about supporting people.
Are women in Silicon Valley tech doomed? Do they need to “lean in” more?
After Ellen Pao lost her discrimination case against Kleiner Perkins last week, some said the discussion was closed. On the contrary, her case has spotlighted an important issue and sparked a lively conversation about the dearth of women in Silicon Valley tech companies and what can be done about it.
The program was hosted by Manuela Saragosa and included a report by Gianna Palmer about the impact of Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In. My Letter from Silicon Valley starts at 07:00.
Saragosa: There is a perception that women are still not being treated as equals in the tech industry in the US. It all came to a head in Ellen Pao’s gender discrimination case against her former employer KPCB, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm. She lost her case last week but despite that, it’s highlighted concerns about the lack of diversity in the tech sector in the U.S. So just how bad is it? Over to our commentator, Alison van Diggelen in Silicon Valley…
“Women in Silicon Valley tech are doomed!”
That’s one of the comments I heard at a recent gathering of female executives here in Silicon Valley. It came from a manager who’s spent 20 years working in tech human resources. She and her colleagues described the double standard they’ve witnessed at tech firms: women being passed over for promotion, paid less than men and treated as second class citizens.
Last year, major tech companies like Google, Facebook and LinkedIn published their diversity figures, which underline the sad fact that – at best – 15% of their tech engineering teams are female. The number of women choosing to study computer science is now half of what it was in the ‘80s.
It’s hard to find a woman in Silicon Valley tech who hasn’t experienced some biased treatment at work, because of her sex. Women are expected to be agreeable, generous collaborators, and always look good. One female executive talked about traditional expectations: “We’re supposed to be at home, nuzzling newborns,” she said.
Why does all this matter?
Gender imbalance in tech is a problem for everyone and it needs to be tackled for three vital reasons: innovation, competitive advantage and the bottom line.
1. Studies show, the more diverse your team, the more innovative it is. Since Silicon Valley’s whole modus operandi is innovation and inventing the future, making tech teams more diverse should be a no brainer.
2.Given tech companies are making products for a diverse world population, the more teams are representative of their market, the more chance it’ll make consumer-pleasing products and gain a competitive advantage.
3. There’s a correlation between the number of female executives and success rates of companies. A recent study by the Kauffman Foundation found that companies with the highest representation of women in their top management achieved better financial performance than other companies.
“Inclusivity is more than a buzzword, it’s a recipe for 21st century success.”
The fact that companies are “coming out” about their diversity stats, and acknowledging there’s a problem, is a great first step.
But much more should be done.
Facebook, LinkedIn and the Anita Borg Institute recently announced a partnership to support female tech students at college and increase the number of women joining the tech ranks.
The pipeline issue is crucial. Encouraging more women to choose computer science at college will help reverse current trends. Megan Smith, America’s Chief Technology Officer is right when she says mandatory computer science needs to start in second grade.
But it’s going to take strong leadership within companies to bolster these efforts and provide an inclusive environment that’s welcoming to women and gives them the respect and opportunities they deserve.
LinkedIn’s CEO Jeff Weiner says that with two young daughters, gender imbalance is now a personal matter for him. He and other SV leaders must commit to real change for the long term.
No. Women in Silicon Valley tech are not doomed.
I remain hopeful that the valley will mature and get beyond this ugly adolescent phase…
For the BBC World Service in Silicon Valley, this is Alison van Diggelen
Many thanks to all the wise women who contributed to this Letter from Silicon Valley. I hope the conversation will continue and the issue of bias (both conscious and unconscious) and gender discrimination will be tackled head on.
To read more on this topic at Fresh Dialogues, click here
van Diggelen: You teach entrepreneurship at Stanford University: What are the top 5 lessons for being a successful entrepreneur?
Roizen: When we study and meet with successful entrepreneurs, while each has a different path to success, they all exhibit similar mindsets. For one, they seem to go through life looking at problems as things for which there can be a solution — i.e. they do not accept the status quo, no matter how ingrained. Second, they are not afraid to iterate (or ‘fail’, i.e. learn from a mistake, course correct, and move on.) They tend to be tenacious, that is, they view the failures along the way as necessary steps in getting to success — not as indicators that they should stop. They tend to be very good at telling their stories, building a narrative about the problem, the solution, and what it takes to get there. Finally, successful entrepreneurs tend to know the importance of finding and motivating awesome people to join them in their journey.
van Diggelen: Talk about the importance of networks and the do’s and don’ts of finding and being a good mentor.
Roizen: Let me answer this by starting at the 100,000 foot level. I’ve done a lot of reading about human happiness and I boil the answer down to having meaningful work and meaningful relationships. I believe that if you can do meaningful work with others you build even more meaningful relationships. I hate the word “network” as it almost has a negative connotation — none of us want to be cornered by a ‘networker’ at an industry cocktail party! But, instead I think of ‘building a network’ as a lifelong process of forming relationships with people, finding ‘fellow travelers’ who may share a passion for the same problem that needs to be solved, a skillset that is complementary but appreciated, someone with good common sense to bounce ideas off of — whatever brings value and meaning to each of us in a human connection. For me, those people and those relationships — new and old — help me to keep learning and keep finding new opportunities for work, for growth, for meaning.
As for finding and being a mentor, my main piece of advice, for either the mentor or the mentee, is the relationship only works if there are shared values/ethics, and if there is something meaningful to work on together. That is why I personally believe asking someone to simply ‘be my mentor’ is far less productive than finding for example someone to work for who you can also see as becoming your mentor.
van Diggelen: What do you mean by “living a relationship driven life” versus “a transaction driven life”? Can you give some examples?
Roizen: I’m a big believer in leading a relationship-driven life and I’ve blogged about it here. In short, if you believe what I said above about meaningful relationships being the key to happiness (a big ask I know!) then it makes sense that every transaction in which there are one or more others involved becomes an opportunity to build a relationship. From my life experience, I run into the same people working in this industry over and over and over, so the quality of every transaction is important because it builds a relationship that transcends any individual transaction.
In business school, we learned that a negotiation should be viewed as ‘an opportunity to find the maximal intersection of mutual need.’ I love this concept, instead of a transaction being ‘zero sum’, we can actually achieve a better result for both of us by putting our two heads together to solve both our problems.
van Diggelen: What’s been your hardest challenge as an entrepreneur and how did you overcome it?
Roizen: Almost running out of money many times. Microsoft entering our market. Shipping a product with a lot of bugs. Emotional disagreements with cofounders and key contributors. In other words, there really is no hardest challenge in entrepreneurship, rather there are a whole series of ‘near-death’ experiences. They key is to not let them become ‘death’ experiences! There’s no overcoming, just pushing through, getting back up, learning from your mistakes, mending fences, and moving on. And if you fail in the big picture and your company ends up going out of business, do it with empathy and honor and in Silicon Valley, you will usually get another at-bat.
van Diggelen: How do you see Silicon Valley changing in the next 5-10 years?
Roizen: I think what makes Silicon Valley so special will continue to fuel our next 5-10 and many more years. I do think the valley is changing in a few ways. For one, we are spreading our attention from ‘the next cool iPhone app’ to solving some of the world’s bigger problems, which I find very exciting and frankly more fulfilling. We are seeing technology have a far greater impact on those diverse big problems — from health to food to energy. I am really excited to see what the next 20 years brings about!
Hillary Clinton came to Silicon Valley last week and the women-in-tech community gave her a warm welcome. Her message of inclusivity, diversity and wage equality in Silicon Valley earned a standing ovation from the gathering of over 5,000 women from the worlds of tech, media and fashion. On Friday, I reported on Hillary’s speech and the drive to increase the number of women in tech for the BBC World Service programme, Business Matters. It starts at 37:10 on the BBC podcast and below.
Here is a transcript of my conversation with BBC host, Dominic Laurie. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Laurie: Alison…you’ve been at a conference…the Lead On Watermark Conference in Silicon Valley, part of the drive to achieve more diversity in the tech industry. The thing is, when I think of some of the big tech companies that have really made global success, there is quite a lot of diversity in those companies, so what’s the problem?
van Diggelen: Well, the problem is: the stats are not echoing what you just said. 11% of executives in Silicon Valley are women, 20% of software developers overall are women. You’re in the minority if you’re a woman in tech.
Laurie: Are you talking about gender diversity, rather than ethnic diversity?
van Diggelen: Ethnic diversity is even worse. The stats for Google are: 1% of their employee workforce is black…17% is female, 83% male. So yes, it’s pretty dire.
At this conference, the energy was high. It was electrifying actually. 5000 female executives gathered in Silicon Valley, from the worlds of tech, media and fashion. We had keynotes including Hillary Clinton, Diane von Furstenberg, Jill Abramson, Brene Brown, as well as tech luminaries like Renee James of Intel…I have a clip from Hillary’s speech where she outlined the challenges women face in the tech industry and why this is important for the wider economy, to get more women in tech.
Clinton: Inclusivity is more than a buzz word or a box to check. It is a recipe for success in the 21st Century. Bringing different perspectives and life experiences into corporate offices, engineering labs and venture funds is likely to bring fresh ideas and higher revenues. And in our increasingly multicultural country, in our increasingly interdependent world, building a more diverse talent pool can’t be just a nice to do for business, it has to be a must do.
It is still shocking: the numbers are sobering…just 11% of executives in Silicon Valley and only about 20% of software developers overall are women. One recent report on the gender pay gap in the valley found that a woman with a bachelor’s degree here tends to make 60% less than a man with the same degree. We’re going backwards in a field that is supposed to be all about moving forward.
Laurie: She’s quite a talker isn’t she? Very eloquent woman, Hillary Clinton. Alison I guess the problem is…you listed some very eminent women who were talking, and I guess inspiring people in the conference, but do some people feel that those women are so high achieving that perhaps they’re out of reach? Did you manage to speak to more “normal” people who’ve made it in tech?
van Diggelen: Yes, I spoke to a number of women in tech.* I spoke to the CEO of Watermark, Marlene Williamson and she emphasized the need for women to do it (Lead On) for themselves, do it for other women. That’s how we get economies of scale, that’s how you build your power base. I also spoke with Kimberly Bryant who feels so strongly about this that she wants to help create a pipeline of young tech entrepreneurs and in particular, young black girls. Her nonprofit is called Black Girls Code and her whole mission is to get more black girls from (age) 7-17 exposed to computer science, get them into classes, get them into summer camps and feed the pipeline for young entrepreneurs going into tech. Ones who’re female and ready to change the world…like Zuckerberg.
Bryant: We think there’s a huge need for creating this pipeline of young tech entrepreneurs that are women. But one of my personal goals is: I really want to see a girl or woman leading a major tech company like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, or Apple….I think that having a women at the head of a tech company, a founder of a tech company of that level would do so much to really change the whole image of the whole industry being male dominated. This movement for diversity and inclusion is not just a good thing to do, I think it’s the right thing to do, (from a social equity and as a business imperative…to remain competitive.)
Laurie: I took a look at Kimberly’s website. It’s quite a cool website: Black Girls Code. Lots of interesting information…
van Diggelen: She’s doing a lot of good work and she’s actually bringing it to London…they’re hoping to seed a chapter in London this summer.
Laurie: Maybe we could have a chat to her…
Thank you so much Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues.
*Check back soon for my next report from the Watermark Lead On Conference, including interviews with Vicky Pynchon of SheNegotiates, Millennial Kate Brunkhorst of DCR Workforce and Laura Chicurel of Nextinit.