Champions of Change Blog

  • Veteran Entrepreneurs Honored as White House Champions of Change

    Ed. note: This is cross-posted on the Small Business Administration's blog. See the original post here.

    The energy in the room was inspiring as 11 veteran and veteran spouse entrepreneurs took the stage to be honored as Champions of Change on August 27. Invited to the White House to be honored for their extraordinary achievements, these “Champions” are community leaders who empower veterans and give back to the veteran community.

    Throughout the event, there was one constant theme: Veterans are natural leaders. Military training provides veterans with a skillset that translates directly to entrepreneurship. “People might learn leadership in various ways, but there’s no place like the military,” said Champion Louisa Long Jaffe, who attributes the problem-solving skills taught in the military as one of many reasons veterans not only make successful entrepreneurs but also great employees.

    The Champions also spoke of their passion to serve; a passion that has evolved from serving their country in uniform, to serving their communities by creating jobs, providing solutions, and contributing to economic growth.

  • Nominate a White House Champion of Change for Disability Employment

    People with disabilities, including significant disabilities, have the skills and talent to make meaningful contributions within America’s workplaces. Advancing employment opportunities and expectations for people with disabilities strengthens not only our economy, but also our society. It creates a more inclusive America where people with disabilities benefit from the intrinsic value of work and develop pride in knowing that they too play a role in the growth and success of our Nation. This Administration has worked steadfastly to address the persistent barriers to employment for people with disabilities and shift the conversation about disability employment from one focused on whether people with disabilities can work, to one more aptly focused on what we can do to ensure that people with disabilities are given the chance to succeed in our nation’s workforce and lift themselves into the middle class and beyond.

    While the President will continue to do everything he can to increase the employment rates of people with disabilities, we know efforts to spur hiring at the state and local levels – by small business owners, large companies, philanthropic organizations and self-employed entrepreneurs often have the most impact. The leaders who are creating change know that people with disabilities are an important part of the American workforce. Every day, these individuals are stepping up in big ways in our communities to make sure that all Americans with disabilities have equal opportunities and a pathway to the middle class.

    Today, we’re asking you to help us identify and honor innovators who are breaking down barriers to the middle class by providing employment opportunities for workers with disabilities, including workers with significant disabilities. These extraordinary leaders will be invited to the White House to celebrate their accomplishments and showcase their actions to ensure that individuals with significant disabilities have a fair shot at succeeding in good jobs and careers. Please nominate a Champion of Change by midnight on Sunday, September 14, 2014.  We are seeking Champions who reflect the diversity of our nation, including diversity of types/visibility of disabilities and veterans with disabilities.  Nominees may include the following types of individuals:  

    • Small business owners who have lead efforts to hire workers with disabilities, including workers with significant disabilities, and who have hired and retained one or more workers with significant disabilities and a worker(s) who are helping to build that business while gaining middle class security.   
    • Managers within large or medium sized employers who have developed effective initiatives for the hiring, retention and/or promotion of people with disabilities, including workers with significant disabilities.
    • Entrepreneurs with significant disabilities who have established successful businesses and are now employing others in a successful venture.
    • Leader within companies or organizations who have disclosed hidden disabilities and have initiated efforts to educate others about employment of people with disabilities. 
    • Public/private partnerships between employers and a state or local governments, colleges, foundations, or other entities that have developed effective collaborative initiatives focused on increasing competitive integrated employment for people with disabilities, including people with significant disabilities.

    Click on the link below to submit your nomination (be sure to choose Disability Employment in the "Theme of Service" field of the nomination form).

    Nominate a Disability Employment Champion of Change

    We are looking forward to hosting this event and to highlighting the great work communities across the country are doing to advance the employment of people with disabilities

    Taryn Williams is an Associate Director in the Office of Public Engagement. 

  • Growing a Legacy

    Ryan and Tiffany Batalden

    Ryan and Tiffany Batalden are being honored as a Future of American Agriculture Champions of Change.

    It is an honor for us to be selected White House Future of American Agriculture Champions of Change. It is particularly appropriate that the White House is recognizing people out in the countryside who are thinking long and hard about the "future of American agriculture." There are many of us who see great opportunities in agriculture, but also recognize some of the significant barriers beginning farmers face if they are to get established successfully on the land.

    Overcoming these barriers will require recognition on the part of all of us that diverse family farms play a key role in the economic, environmental and even social health of our communities.  On our farm here in Southwestern Minnesota, we constantly ask the question, "What will be your farm’s legacy?" We often think of our legacy as related to our farm's financial success. Our legacy will show how we were able to weather hard times -- floods, droughts, bad weather, low prices, pests, weeds, changes in production methods, and other enormous challenges. Our legacy will show that not only did our farm survive, it prospered. Maybe it even grew in numbers of acres or livestock.

    These are all important parts of our legacies. But what is our legacy in relation to our community? What is our legacy in relation to all of those pieces of our community that make it the place we love, and make it what it is? What is the legacy we leave for those who wish to move to or live in our area? What is the legacy we want to leave for the next generation of farmers?

    We were able to farm for two simple reasons. Reason number one: our family supported us. However, the family farm was not big enough to support two families, so we had to find land to rent. And so the other reason we were able to farm was because of three landowners who valued helping a young farmer as much as they valued getting "top dollar." In return, we have treated their land with the care and respect we would as if we owned it. Because of this, and because we raise crops for specialty markets, these landowners have been rewarded financially as well.

    This is just one small example of landowners letting their values guide their decision making, and benefitting a beginning farm family in the process. When land changes hands, is it done in a way that reflects a community's values? Without creative transition solutions, where will the next generation of farmers worship, shop, and send their kids to school? Will your neighbor's farm become a home for a new family of entrepreneurs, or simply one more field to till for a larger operation in the area? What are some ways we can show our values and ensure our legacy -- not just financially, but also in other ways -- when we transition our farm to the next generation?

    Such questions can be hard to answer. However, as groups like the Land Stewardship Project have been able to show, there is a growing number of creative ways that retiring farmers have found to transition their land in ways that ensure that their farm's financial, family, and community legacy is preserved. If we look hard enough, we can all find ways to ensure our legacies in ways that truly reflect our values.

    Ryan and Tiffany Batalden are fifth generation beginning farmers in Cottonwood County, Minnesota. Ryan serves on the Land Stewardship Project's Land Access Committee. 

  • Feeding Our Neighbors and the World

    Quint Pottinger

    Quint Pottinger is being honored as a Future of American Agriculture Champion of Change.

    When I was three my favorite thing to do was to go riding in the combine with my dad cutting soybeans. When I think back, I can still feel that warm fall setting sun beaming through the cab. I can smell the soybean dust and see the header reel rotate bringing the crop in. That is when I decided I wanted to “spend my life doing what dad does.”  My love for farming grew as my responsibilities grew. My love for agriculture began when my high school agriculture teacher opened my eyes about the diverse industry. She challenged me to think outside the box and to explore opportunities outside of my comfort zone. It was there that my passion for agriculture began leading me to attend the University of Kentucky.

    One of my professional goals, as well as personal passions, is the need to create solutions for the growing world hunger. When I began to think about how I could be a driving force in creating this change, I turned to my wife for new consumer perspective. Together we decided to build a farm brand to make the American farmer real for our customers. Affinity Farms was established with the initial goal to grow soybeans, corn, and vegetables. By marketing our corn to local distilleries and vegetables at the farmers market, we opened a dialog with our consumers and community about the American agriculture industry.

    The American consumer wants to know their farmer and they want to know that the farmer is using safe and sustainable farming practices. By creating this open dialogue, we connect with our consumers. While this is a very important initiative on our farm, it is only one of many goals that my wife and I have set out to accomplish. The world’s population is growing at a quick pace. We cannot and will not feed the world in 2050 with 2015 farming practices. Using cutting edge technology and biotechnology, we can achieve the increased production that will pull us out of this world food dilemma.

    Technology is a big piece of the puzzle, but it is not the only piece. Three years ago I had the opportunity to travel to the Panama Canal and to several Colombian soybean buyers and processors. This visit allowed me to see how American soybeans are being used to make fishmeal healthier, higher in protein, and decreasing the inputs making it more affordable for consumers. American agriculture and American farmers are making huge investment in infrastructure to help move more food into hungry foreign markets. In January 2014, I traveled to South Africa to learn about the growing need for food and the challenges they have to push food up through the continent. Being an American farmer and seeing the challenges to feed this world, I can tell you that it will not be easy. We have a tough row to hoe.

    Farming is something I love. The dirt does not just stain our hands; it runs deep in our blood. I will be resolute in reaching out to my community to put a face on the farmer. I can speak with certainty that the American farmer is meeting the world food crisis head on, and we will feed this world whether it is through our commodities, production education, or infrastructure development.

    Quint Pottinger is member of the Kentucky Soybean Association (KSA), sitting on the KSA board in an educational role with the DuPont Young Leader program. He is also serving with the Corn Growers Coalition promoting young family farmers and a member of the Kentucky Agriculture Leadership Program Class X.

  • Agriculture…Imagine What You Can Do

    Pierre Sleiman

    Pierre Sleiman is being honored as a Future of American Agriculture Champion of Change.

    As a little boy, I was always fascinated with science and technology, often preferring to play with wires and circuits rather than other toys. When I was about 15 years old, I discovered an old study on hydroponics (growing plants in water instead of soil) in my dad’s office that had been abandoned. My imagination went wild. What happens when farming goes high-tech?  Imagine what you can do…

    Today, I am a farmer. However, four years ago neither I nor anyone in my family lineage was a farmer. My undergraduate degree is in computer science and my master’s degree is in business. During a business class in college, we were studying how high-tech companies are decentralizing. Again, agriculture came to mind. Most agricultural production in America is concentrated in relatively small regions and then trucked across the country. What is holding us back from putting small local farms in every city? What are the challenges that can be turned into opportunities? And thus, Go Green Agriculture was born.

    As I learned more about agriculture, I quickly realized that farmers today are facing big challenges in supplying a rapidly growing population. Challenges including weather, diminishing arable farmland, pests, disease, food security, and, of course, limited water and other natural resources. Some other statistics also impacted me; for example, the average age of farmers has been rising over the past decades.  Today the average farmer is in their late 50s.  This tells me that there are few new farmers entering the industry.  Let’s face it; the average kid doesn’t think farming is a “cool” profession.

    As a person who loves science, technology, engineering and math, I have discovered that farming is the new frontier of untapped potential in these fields. Chemistry, biology, robotics, automation, engineering and computer science are only a few fields that are deeply applicable. From growing food for astronauts in space, producing biofuels that power cars and aircraft, discovering new medical uses for plants, to designing highly productive urban farms in the middle of big cities…the opportunities for creative thinking and innovation are limitless.

    The only way to truly exploit the incredible potential of agriculture is to get our youth excited about it. We do not just want agronomy and horticulture college majors to become farmers. We need chemists, engineers, computer scientists, biologists, and more. Interdisciplinary collaboration between diverse groups of people will invigorate creative thinking to produce solutions to challenges that could otherwise not be solved by looking at a problem from just one perspective.  The more diversified the better.  I am living proof that a computer scientist can become a successful farmer.

    Within Go Green Agriculture, we encourage diversity, creative thinking, and ideas from every employee.  Externally, I teach and inspire youth, in all fields of study, about the exciting opportunities for creativity and innovation in agriculture.  Imagine what you could do… 

    Pierre Sleiman is the founder and CEO of Go Green Agriculture, an innovative company that grows produce inside high-tech greenhouses using hydroponics. Go Green’s mission is to setup greenhouses across the country to provide local jobs and fresh, delicious, and nutritious produce to the community.

  • Producing Future Agriculture Business Owners - with a Side of Vanilla Ice Cream

    Melinda Litvinas

    Melinda Litvinas is being honored as a Future of American Agriculture Champion of Change.

    I am truly honored to be named a Champion of Change for the Future of American Agriculture. Although I grew up in urban Philadelphia, I am a very enthusiastic supporter of any farm market, local foods, and slow food movements, even from a young age.  Growing up, I discovered the importance of food not only as a creative outlet but as a field that is ever changing with new challenges every day - especially the challenge of how to feed our population while conserving our natural resources. 

    As I finished college at Syracuse University, my two main career goals evolved: to operate a successful business and to leave my mark in the food world in positive and influential way. I worked many positions in the food service and culinary management field until I discovered the UDairy Creamery Manager's position in 2010. I knew if I was hired, not only could I fill the University of Delaware's needs for an operations manager but also fulfill my personal goals. As a former food science teaching assistant, I also I found the possibility of teaching students again to be most appealing.

    The University of Delaware’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources has had an operating dairy farm for decades prior to the development of the UDairy Creamery. In 2008, a group of four students and one professor wrote and proposed a business plan to open a creamery in order to help subsidize the costs incurred by operating a research dairy farm. The need to make ends meet in the dairy industry has been an ever-growing issue – and many dairy farmers turn to value-added products, like cheese or dairy, to help diversify their income streams.  We received an internal grant from the University called a Unidel Grant, in 2009 for half the cost of the Creamery. The remainder was funded by private donations. I was hired in late 2010 and we opened 6 months later in April of 2011.

    In June of 2013, I worked with student interns to partner with the Horn Program for Entrepreneurship within the University’s Lerner School of Business to become the first University with an ice cream truck.  The “Moo Mobile” was purchased not only to serve other parts of campus and events, but as a teaching tool for Agriculture and Entrepreneurship students to run a “business for a day.”  So far, we have been involved in three courses and several high school outreach programs within Delaware.

    The last three years have been a whirlwind of ice cream production, growing store sales, and hundreds of events in which we have been able to share our sustainable story with the University and outside communities. As a non-profit business, all proceeds from ice cream sales go directly to supporting the dairy farm and its teaching programs. I could pride myself in the amount of ice cream we produce or probably the world record amount of homemade waffle cones we have sold or how successful the Creamery has become while I was the manager for three years. It is, however, not what I feel most proud of.

    Since 2010, I have had the honor to teach, mentor and work very hard with 24 student interns and over 95 student employees. These students applied to the Creamery not just for an ice cream job but to gain hands on experience in the agriculture and entrepreneurship fields. My students have become food scientists, veterinarians, farmers, small business owners, creamery managers and creamery owners.

    I am currently working on plans to start a cheese manufacturing component to the UDairy Creamery, which will become the basis of a new pilot plant. I do hope to expand the Creamery into a full dairy pasteurization plant with an extensive product line. The food science industry is on a steady incline as our enrollment of food science students continues to grow. As the Creamery expands, the hands on experience in the areas in dairy, food, and animal science also expand. I pride myself in producing workforce-ready graduates that will continue to battle and solve the challenges of the food industry today. The students are the real product of the Creamery.

    Melinda Litvinas is the University of Delaware’s UDairy Creamery Manager within the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources providing training, teaching and mentoring in entrepreneurship and agribusiness management to University students and community members.