Meet Christine Su, CommonBond’s 2014 Social Impact Award Winner
On July 24, we announced the winner of the inaugural CommonBond Social Impact Award: Christine Su, CEO and Co-Founder of Summer Technologies. We sat down with Christine to hear, in her own words, how her business is making a difference and what comes next for her sustainable agriculture technology.
Please tell us a little about who you are and how your idea for Summer Technologies came about.
I believe that safe, healthy food should be accessible to everyone.
My co-founder, Jennifer Tsau, and I both suffered from food allergies growing up, which made us more conscious about making healthy food decisions. I started reading about where our food comes from while dealing with my allergies as a Stanford undergraduate. What I learned about the industrial food system and its destructive effects on human health and on the environment was deeply upsetting. After college, I moved to Hong Kong to work at McKinsey and then KKR. It was so hard to source safe, healthy food in Asia for myself, and for my parents in Shanghai. I was frustrated that families in China couldn’t trust what they were feeding to loved ones. Bribery is everywhere in China – even for food safety inspections and organic labeling – and those who don’t play dirty are outcompeted.
If we want to eat well, we need to help our farmers grow clean food and make money doing it. So I applied to business school with an essay about applying cutting edge, scalable technology to help sustainable farmers scale up. I enrolled in a joint Master’s in Land Use and Agriculture at Stanford. As soon as I left private equity, I sent myself to a Japanese dairy to herd cows just to make sure I could handle getting my hands (not to mention arms, legs, and hair) dirty working in agriculture. I’ve never looked back!
How did you evolve the idea for Summer Technologies?
The concepts evoked by our company name, Summer – warmth, freedom, abundance, community, open skies and green landscapes – are everything we want for ourselves and our families. I knew I wanted to empower sustainable farmers, and Jennifer wanted to use technology to create elegant solutions with large-scale positive impact. We enrolled in Steve Blank’s entrepreneurship class and interviewed over 150 farmers and ranchers over 5 months.
We tested over 30 different ideas with users over this period! Spending lots of time with ranchers made us realize that they’re really busy working out in the field, and that they have to manage a lot of information to run their business, often manually or in Excel. Adopting sustainable practices like management intensive grazing is more work and data management, which can be a barrier to adopting these methods.
All this led us to the concepts behind our core product, PastureMap – it’s designed for ranchers to use in the field, not in an office. It simplifies tedious parts of pasture management, like paddock planning and land monitoring. It collects measurable data to help ranchers take better care of their land and soil.
What’s next for Summer Technologies in the upcoming year?
We’re building and launching our beta platform in the next 3 months, which is very exciting! In the next year, we aim to get hundreds of ranchers in several countries on our platform.
Ultimately, I want to look back and see that we helped create a tidal change in the food system. We need to innovate to meet a global food crisis: how to feed 10 billion humans and increasing food production by 50-100% by 2050, without exploiting our land resources beyond repair. I want us to create a world in which technology is used to empower networks of farmers to feed us all safe and healthy food while regenerating the land.
Why do you think future entrepreneurs should consider social impact?
If you choose to spend your precious time on this earth founding a startup, you’re not taking the easy way out. You’re taking the path of more hardship and high risk of failure, but the potential for more growth, freedom, and the satisfaction of something to call your own. You’re already all in, so why waste your time on something that doesn’t have the potential to change the world?
Jennifer and I are really fortunate to be living in the first world, to be educated, and to have the freedom to choose what to do with our lives. There’s really no excuse not to spend our lives trying to make a huge positive impact. If not us, then who? We’re also both driven, restless, and ambitious people who get bored without constant new challenges. I would encourage others who recognize these qualities in yourself to tackle real, tough, systemic challenges with potential for large scale impact. Find a meaty global challenge (no pun intended!) and dive in. You’ll shortchange yourself and the world pursuing a traditional career.
What’s your favorite part of leading a startup as a CEO?
I didn’t know if I wanted to be a CEO, but a seasoned entrepreneur in business school changed my perspective on leading an organization. He said, “The only person who can truly steer the company’s strategic direction and shape its culture is the founder or CEO.” Leading the team and shaping company culture is the main reason I considered being CEO. That, and Jennifer is a much better CTO than I could ever be!
I also love the absolute freedom and absolute responsibility, which are two sides of the same coin. If we have a vision about doing anything – whether it’s piloting with sheep growers in New Zealand or hiring our first developer – it’s up to me and Jennifer to make it happen. It’s exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.
What made you decide to apply for the CommonBond Social Impact Award?
We heard about the award through a Stanford mailing list and thought this could be the first time a sustainable agriculture startup would win a national social impact award. People know that our education and healthcare need fixing, and there are many smart people tackling those issues. Lots of people don’t know that our global food system is headed for trouble. This could be really important in getting the word out, and getting more smart people innovating for change for our food system. That’s why we did it, and thanks so much to CommonBond for the award and the opportunity to spread the word about sustainable food.
What will you do with the $5,000 prize of the CommonBond Social Impact Award?
The prize will go to hiring our first full-time developer, which is huge for us – this will help us develop PastureMap that much faster. Thank you, CommonBond!
If readers support your mission, how can they help?
Ask questions about where your food comes from. Talk to farmers if you can. Change is driven by all of us, and especially by consumers buying food that’s socially and environmentally responsible.
We’re launching our beta platform in the fall, as well as a Kickstarter campaign, so stay tuned for that. We’re also launching a blog soon to talk about sustainable food and share stories from our ranchers. Sign up at www.pasturemap.com to stay updated!
Kaitlin Butler is Content Manager at CommonBond, a student lending platform that provides a better student loan experience through lower rates, superior service, and a strong commitment to community. CommonBond is also the first company to bring the 1-for-1 model to education.