Vertical Harvest, Inc., won a 2022 Tony Hsieh Award celebrating its pioneering Grow Well approach to customized, integrated employment.
Vertical Harvest practices Competitive Integrated Employment designed for the disability community. It’s based on competitive wages, opportunities for advancement, integration in the workplace, and access to full benefits. In practice, Grow Well not only cultivates meaningful careers, but also soft skills development that people who’ve been excluded from economic opportunity often haven’t had the chance to develop elsewhere. CEO Nona Yehia maintains their approach not only “delivers ‘good’ to the community but is also ‘good business” and a burgeoning body of research supports the company’s theory for change.
Accenture estimates that companies who champion disability inclusion achieved — on average — 28 percent higher revenue, double the net income and 30 percent higher economic profit margins. Additionally, in this era of labor shortages and quiet quitting, they estimate that if companies embraced disability inclusion, they would gain access to 10.7 million new employees. Similarly, the national GDP could get a boost up to $25 billion if just 1% more of persons with disabilities joined the U.S. labor force.
With unemployment rates nearly double that of the general population, Vertical Harvest provides five major types of training (on-boarding apprenticeship to CEA farming, career-specific and on-going job training, cross-training to expand skillsets across departments inclusive of managerial training, as well as non-career-specific life skills training, coaching and mentorship) in the fast-growing, green jobs-oriented AgTech sector. And for this, the Tony Hsieh Award recognizes their disruption of the $5 trillion agriculture industry.
Keith Ferrazzi, entrepreneur, thought-leader and close friend of the late Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, announced this year’s winners at Reid Hoffman’s Masters of Scale Conference last week. His call-to-action to the many start-up CEOs and tech luminaries in attendance was to “disrupt human capital models just like we’re disrupting business models. We need to get ahead of the curve and join these innovators on this journey and make sure … that while nobody can fill Tony’s shoes as many of us knew him … maybe hundreds and thousands of us coming together and building a movement in his legacy could begin to approach that.”
Björn Öste, founder of Oatly, recently remarked upon visiting the Jackson Hole greenhouse that he’d never seen anything like it. “Here, inclusion and equity aren’t buzz words, they’re the norm. And the interactions between employees are easy, comfortable and very honest, very real.”
Vertical Harvest’s Chief of Human Potential Caroline Croft Estay credits this to the customized employment approach being foundational to the company. “When Vertical Harvest was just starting, people encouraged Nona and me to open the greenhouse and implement inclusive employment afterward. But to her credit, that was non-negotiable. Not only because she has a brother with development disabilities but because she knew, in this case, our diversity was an asset and not a liability.”
By and large the CEA industry, and agriculture in general, has intense labor challenges and employment issues, and the Tony Hsieh Award recognizes that the management philosophies underpinning Vertical Harvest’s business model and company culture are clear differentiators. This exchange of loyalty and love flows through employees to customers and back into business and brand, as surely as the water in their hydroponic system. They also recognized outstanding start-up entrepreneurs such as Etienne Salborn, founder of SINA: The Social Innovation Academy; Ranil Piyaratna and Geetesh Goyal, co-founders of Human Bees; and established entrepreneurs and innovators Drew Houston, CEO of Dropbox, and Dylan Beynon, CEO of Mindbloom.
Image provided by Vertical Harvest
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