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SISTEM one-on-one with Kellee James, Founder and CEO of Mercaris, a market data service and online trading platform for organic non-genetically modified organism commodities.

Kellee James

Kellee James is Founder and CEO of Mercaris, a market data service and trading platform for organic, non-GMO and other identity-preserved agricultural commodities. Prior to Mercaris, Kellee spent five years at the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX), the first electronic trading platform and registry for spot, futures and options contracts on carbon, sulfur, clean energy and other environmental products. In 2009, she was appointed by President Barack Obama as a White House Fellow where she advised members of the administration on environmental markets. She has also worked with coffee farmers and commodity banks in Latin America on risk management and income diversification strategies. Kellee was named by both Black Enterprise Magazine and Crain's Chicago Business Magazine as a '40 under 40' rising leader. Ms. James is an Aspen Institute Catto Environmental Fellow and has also served on the board of Net Impact, a membership organization of more than 12,000 MBA professionals committed to sustainability. She is currently a non-resident senior fellow at the Joint Center for Political & Economic Studies, a think tank in Washington, DC. Kellee received her MBA and MA in International Development from American University and completed a BA in Spanish from the University of Kentucky.

Q: Please tell us about yourself and your educational background, as well as the path that led you to create Mercaris.


James: I went to the University of Kentucky and majored in Spanish and International Economics. I then attended grad school at American University and got an MA International Development and an MBA. Mercaris really the culmination of so many formative experiences for me: as a grad student I worked with coffee farmers during a time of very low commodity prices and saw how it impacted them. Shortly after that, I was an early-hire at a commodity exchange for greenhouse gas credits and other environmental contracts. I believe market mechanisms can be a tool to achieve environmental and social benefits, and Mercaris is an expression of that.

Q: In a few words, tell us about Mercaris, its products, services and customers.

James: Mercaris provides two things: We are a market data service that produces detailed market reports for organic and non-GMO agricultural commodities on supply, demand, price, trade volumes, and other fundamental analysis. We also run an electronic trading platform where buyers and sellers can trade those same organic commodities. Our customers range from organic grain farmers, to mills, food processors and consumer packaged goods companies, to financial institutions.

Q: Mercaris is at the intersection of the organic non-genetically modified organism (non-GMO) agricultural sector, organic non-GMO commodity trading/exchanges, the market place and technology. Please elaborate on the role(s) that Mercaris plays in this intersection, and the way these roles potentially overlap and conflate?

James: As organizations, from farms to food companies, adjust to meet growing consumer demand for organic food, we noted a lack of information, transparency and support along the supply chain. We're helping to address that need. Overall, Mercaris helps to increase the efficiency of that supply chain, which should ultimately benefit everyone ‘from farm to fork’.

Q: Mercaris recently held its first online auction that enabled small local Ugandan organic grain farmers to access North American buyers, tell us about this experience as well as the potential for future comparable auctions involving additional African growers.

James: We held the auction as a pilot, a way to link growers in Africa with consumers in the US and Canada. It marked a number of 'firsts' for us. One of the benefits of using technology in this way is that it enables more direct links and thus can enable growers to get higher compensation for their crops. But, it also taught us valuable lessons--getting the contract specifications 'right' and understanding buyer requirements across different geographies is important. While the majority of our work is still between markets within North America, as we grow our team we hope to be able to hold more auctions with African buyers and sellers.

Q: As a market data service and online trading platform for organic non-genetically modified organism commodities, can you briefly explain the challenges and opportunities Mercaris faces?

James: Creating a new company takes a lot of energy--from finding the financial resources, to building a team and gaining customers. You have to draw on support from within--your own determination and creativity and abilities; as well as your community - mentors, investors, advisors, friends, colleagues. Our challenge is to build a successful company, and one that supports and influences one the most important sectors; our food.

We've gotten good at producing a few 'cheap' commodities (corn and soybeans), while not accounting for things like water quality, soil quality, biodiversity, diversity of crops, etc. What's needed is a fuller accounting of the various benefits and costs involved in food production. Mercaris is one response to the need for better information. By bringing market data and transparency to the sector, we help lower transaction costs - from producer to processor to retailer. We help the supply chain get more efficient.

Q: Where do you see Mercaris and the industries in which it operates over the next decade?

James: The growth of the organic and the non-GMO food sector is a result of consumer demand for more sustainably grown food and information about that food. It’s a good bet that this trend will continue. Mercaris is the place to go for the most sophisticated, data-rich view of a dynamic sector. And, although we started by covering organic and non-GMO, there are other 'identity-preserved' commodities that are growing but lack transparency.

Q: Finally, what advice do you have for students of diverse backgrounds who want to emulate you and follow your footsteps?

James: Be relentless–entrepreneurship is difficult but rewarding. You really have to have both passion for the company you’re building and in-depth knowledge of your field. It’s harder being a woman of color in this field but there are a growing number of resources out there for minority entrepreneurs. Don’t hold back. If this is your dream, do the research and build the network to give yourself the best chance for success.

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