Two roads diverged in a wood and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.
The above quote, as cliché as it may sound, perfectly exemplifies my personal and professional predicament in early July 2018. Towards the final leg of my year-long MS in Finance program at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, I was bent upon hitting the refresh button in my life. Having pursued 18 full-time courses, a part-time job at the Carey IT Help Desk, and a director position with the Johns Hopkins PEVC Club concurrently, my life was unconditionally biased towards academic rigor. This, coupled with the stress of professional placement, had made me somewhat bitter and skeptical of my path in life. The need to pivot was becoming ever more imperative. And right when I least expected it, a life-reviving avenue presented itself.
One fine day in March, I was at my part-time IT Help Desk job, troubleshooting a routine software update issue, when I came to know about an information session on campus. A current (at the time) Carey MBA student, Anna Fitzgibbon, had recently ideated a farm collaboration startup to empower young sustainable farming ventures across the nation. Out of sheer curiosity and intrigue, I left my campus IT chores by asking my supervisor to excuse me for about half an hour. I dropped in at the info session, which was in full swing. Along with other participants, I was greeted by a prim and enticing presentation about Anna’s startup offering. By joining OutGrowth—the immersive Ag-Collaboration StartUp—undergrad and grad students from different majors could live a one of a kind “out-of-office” learning experience: a 1-month long farm internship with sustainable farming setups. It was unlike anything I had ever heard of or explored. Several questions were percolating in my head, “A farm internship? Will I be mowing lawns and driving tractors? Will I be seeding and tilling fields? What is this?” The feeling of ambiguity was soon subdued by excitement about the prospects of an adventurous expedition. The prospect of living for 1 month with a local Maryland family on a farm in a water-shore community was enticing.
I dove right in and submitted my application to the program. I met in person with Anna and had in-depth discussions on my career aspirations and outdoor interests. After a thorough assessment interview, Anna connected me with a Sustainable Agriculture Commercial Clamming operation, named Know Good Farm. Know Good is a young farming venture, operating by a husband-wife duo in the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a part of the state where I had never been. I was informed that this farm could elicit good use of my skill-set within financial management and business strategy. My role at the farm would entail part-time farming and part-time financial consulting. There was also time rationed for recreation and tourism in the region.
With the conclusion of my Master’s program, I ventured to Wittman, a small community in the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The first drive from Baltimore to the Chesapeake Bay facing Talbot County presented a riveting sensory experience. I was amazed to witness less traffic, less pollution, bay-side vistas, and all-round greenery—hallmarks of the region. Upon reaching my farm host’s residence, reality sank in. The biggest feature of that reality was no cell phone reception. The 9-acre property housed a diverse vegetable farm, animal shelters, a greenhouse, a storage barn, a boat workshop, and an outdoor Jacuzzi. Having never lived in the country-side, these facilities were all novel to me.
During the first week, I did an in-depth analysis of business operations, supply chain, and revenue streams. The farm operation at large was operated in a lean, efficient way and was driven by 100% organic marketing. The venture commanded multiple revenue streams, such as a farmer’s market operation, a CSA-subscription model, wholesale supplies, and Farm & Food Tours. However, the farm lacked certain business-best practices such as regular book-keeping, thorough expense tracking and invoicing, systematic product pricing, and inventory logging. The produce side of the operation was struggling of late due to inclement weather and lack of automated business systems that hindered accurate insights and prevented scaling the business. These operational deficiencies were the barriers to growth but were right up my alley to fix. Hence, this internship avenue served as a proving ground for my recently acquired finance skill set.
After an initial business primer, I dove right in, adding one automated system after another. The host, coming from a marketing background, was initially reluctant to immerse into financial figures. Continued persistence and the beauty of modern-day technology did the trick. The ease of auto-capturing and tagging expense receipts, generating branded invoices using the Wave web app, filing for a Maryland Trade Name online, and prepping a lean business plan in matter of minutes all had the hosts hooked to the business end of things. After an initial demonstration of the systems I helped setup, the hosts started viewing farm business as a holistic practice that goes beyond producing and selling crops. Moving ahead, I introduced them to the idea of search engine optimization for their business listing. The prospect of having their entity fetched on top of search results for “generic keywords” for free was an instant magnet. They self-compiled a list of prospective agri-based keywords and metatags for their website and suggested retaining a digital marketer to implement that.
Additionally, my hosts taught me farming chores—the techniques of farm weeding, seeding, tilling, and produce harvesting. As part of the experience, getting my hands around a tractor was a daring experience. Feeding the turkeys, geese, and ducks every morning was even more fulfilling. Moreover, doing weekly CSA drop-offs enabled me to meet customers of the enterprise and observe their gastronomy, and the practice of personally managing a farmers’ market stall (as a sales-man) was another first for me.
On the leisure front, I enjoyed countless activities and forged many new acquaintances. My hosts indulged me with Maryland favorites—crab, clams, and oysters. The husband, being a commercial waterman, treated me to recreational water activities like kayaking, tubing, and surf-boarding. On the host’s birthday, my farm hosts and I prepared an elaborated bash, catering to 50+ guests from the surrounding county. Also, an important mention would be my tour of Lyon in St. Michael’s—a local distillery that specializes in infusing flavored rums. It was a town favorite and I was lucky enough to become friends with the founders during an outdoor community event. Being extroverted, I was able to forge friendships with neighborhood residents and farm owners. The perk of it was getting a free pool diving training session from the neighborhood kids one afternoon. Other afternoons involved enjoying a book on the farm hammock or a leisurely bike ride to the nearby wharf.
Overall, the designated one month passed in no time. I can safely conclude that this decision to pursue an off-beat career opportunity really paid off. It empowered me to implement my academic skillset in a real business environment and simultaneously enrich myself culturally and personally by immersing in the quintessential all-American summer. The biggest takeaway from this experience for all current Carey aspirants is to develop risk-tolerance and step out of your comfort zones. Voluntarily seeking off-the-beaten-path experiences will help you develop diverse perspectives and a respect for others.
Editor’s Note: If Yash’s journey has inspired a sense of adventure and learning outside of the box, I strongly encourage you to check out the Carey Business School Office of Experiential Learning for similar opportunities to take your skills out in the real world.