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Interview with Ramya Ravishankar at Bowery Farming
I met Ramya Ravishankar last year and I was struck with how unusual it was for South Asian lawyers to get involved in farming, so I wanted to share her story:
Tell me a little bit about your role and your company.
I am Associate General Counsel at Bowery Farming, the largest indoor vertical farming company in the United States. We are a venture-backed startup, headquartered in New York City. While I support all areas of the business, my main responsibilities are strategic transactions, commercial partnerships, IP, and government relations. I joined the company two years ago and have helped it grow through its $325 million Series C fundraise last year as well as its recent acquisition of Traptic, a California-based AI and robotics company. Bowery builds smart indoor vertical farms near cities, growing fresh, pesticide-free produce year-round. We use software, hardware, AI, computer vision systems, and robotics to operate our farms. We mostly grow leafy greens and herbs, and recently starting growing strawberries!
So what was the opportunity you saw in joining this indoor vertical farming company - why did you take this risk?
I left my career as a Wall Street regulatory enforcement lawyer in March 2020, two days before New York City shut down, to be the second lawyer at an indoor vertical farming startup. This was always going to be a big change: not only was I going from firm to in- house, trading the stability of established clients for that bumpy startup life, I also was pivoting from a regulatory/litigation practice to that of a corporate generalist. Between giving notice and actually starting at Bowery, I wasn’t sure if my new job would still exist. Everyone was boarding up. Startups were going under.
But I waded into these unknown waters because I wanted the growth opportunity. Becoming a generalist was like learning a whole new language, And Bowery’s mission and technology drew me. Before law school, I was an environmental scientist studying climate change. It’s an area I’ve long been passionate about, and when it came time to leave my firm, I knew I wanted to use my legal expertise to help solve a big environmental problem. Traditional agriculture is extremely resource intensive and wasteful, and indoor vertical farming technology can help address these shortcomings. So, I came to Bowery, where I am helping build farms that create less waste and use a fraction of the water and land.
What broader trends do you think indoor vertical farming represents?
Apart from the search for a more environmentally sustainable alternative to traditional farming, indoor vertical farming can help alleviate food insecurity. We’ve seen what global shocks like a pandemic or geopolitical conflict can have on food supply chains (think long lines for the supermarket, empty shelves, farmers dumping gallons of unsold grain, etc.). Indoor vertical farming technology allows farms to be placed anywhere. By placing them directly beside the communities that rely on them, we can shorten the food supply chain, reduce the food waste associated with long shipping journeys, and secure local food production, thereby reducing our reliance on distant or international growers/suppliers.
On a micro level, this ability to place farms anywhere also means indoor vertical farming can help address food insecurity and inequity within communities. Millions of (predominantly low-income and BIPOC) Americans live in areas that lack healthy food providers and are instead oversaturated with unhealthy dining options such as fast food restaurants. Indoor vertical farms have the potential to be next door to these communities and provide them access to fresh, nutritious produce.
What does winning look like for Bowery Farming and how does the world change if Bowery Farming wins?
To me, this looks like three key things:
1. Flavor - by growing indoors, Bowery can focus on selecting for flavor-forward crops rather than those that are pest or weather resistant, unlike traditional agriculture. That means we can grow food commercially that tastes like nothing else that’s out in the market, like arugula that gives you a fiery wasabi headrush or green sorrel whose tartness makes you pucker in joy. Consumers can experience new sensory diversity in their produce!
2. Beyond Leafy Greens - the next stage in Bowery’s growth is moving beyond lettuces and herbs to grow fruiting and vine crops. We just launched a limited release featuring two cultivars of Bowery Strawberries, but who knows, the sky is literally the limit to what we could grow in our farms!
3. Expansion – we currently have commercial operations out of New Jersey and Maryland, and farms coming up in Pennsylvania, Texas, and Georgia. Bringing Bowery’s delicious produce to more communities across the country and eventually the globe would be a testament to the value of its technology and the importance of its mission. More folks would have access to our delicious produce and more resources can be conserved in the important task of feeding our planet.
How would the industry change if more people like you joined it?
Here, I think a lot about the concept of “food design,” which defines the set of decisions that go into what we eat: what a farmer grows, how they grow it, what ingredients make up our food, how distinct they are, and what aspects of a food is wasted. Having more diverse folks in the industry would allow us to expand our thinking behind these questions, introduce new flavors and ingredients to the collective palate, which, in turn, could help increase biodiversity and make agriculture more sustainable. I get to issue spot and mitigate risk as the company lawyer, but I also get to weigh in on business decisions, and I know my perspective has a lot of tangible impact on Bowery’s food design thinking.
How has your new role changed you?
Believe it or not, this role has connected me back to my roots (pun unintended). My late grandfather was a civil servant and litigator before the Madras High Court in a newly independent India. His commitment to public service and dogged advocacy were part of the family lore and inspired me to become a lawyer. When he retired, he turned to farming. He bought a small plot of land in the South Indian countryside, which he turned into a successful experiment in regenerative agriculture. I can still picture him, scythe in hand, with a makeshift turban and rolled up veshti, bringing over a fresh coconut he’d hacked open or a basket of tomatoes he wanted us to pickle. Working at Bowery feels like an extension of his legacy. It makes me feel closer to him and his values, and it has made me more committed to the mission of giving back to the earth more than we take.
The purpose of Pani Cooler is to build direct connections between South Asian lawyers. A key part of that is getting South Asian lawyers hired and promoted. The below roles include direct contact information for your colleagues. Reach out to these lawyers in a manner consistent with the goals of building community on this platform.
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