Dr. Pam Marrone is a long-time supporter of CAST as an individual member. In 2006 she founded Marrone Bio Innovations (MBI), a company that offers sustainable and effective bio-based solutions for pest management and plant health. In another interview, Marrone stated, “Post Marrone Bio Innovations, I wanted to continue to have an impact in moving agriculture to become more sustainable and bio-intensive.” Marrone has started several other companies, and she has some great insights into corporate culture (video links can be found in the second to last question). Read on to learn more about her.
What were your interests and background growing up?
I suppose I was a weird child because I was interested in insects starting at age 7 or 8. I grew up in the country on 40 beautiful acres in southern CT in the woods with a large mouth bass fishing pond, a large vegetable garden, and a mom who is a Master Gardener. She still lives there and gardens at almost 94 years old!
How did that impact your decision to accept your current (and old) job position?
I always wanted to be an entomologist so I majored in entomology at Cornell. Then onto North Carolina State University for graduate school. While at NCSU, the Entomology Dept had a large NSF grant to characterize NC soybean farms as an “agroecosystem.” It was cutting edge research because it was the first time that agriculture was seen from an ecology standpoint. I am glad to see that ecologically based agriculture is seen as critical today. After graduate school in entomology, I was seeking a position in an industry where I could create products that would help increase ag sustainability. It just so happened that in 1983 Monsanto was looking to distance itself from its chemical legacy and was just beginning to work on engineering crops with Bt proteins. I was hired to set up a new unit exploring new ways to control insect pests. I set up a high throughout, automated screening system to discover microbial natural products (one of the first in the industry, if not the first). I knew that was what I wanted to do for my career–tap into nature to find and commercialize natural products like drug companies have done for decades. After spending 7 years there, I had the opportunity to move to Davis, CA to become an entrepreneur, as I learned that it takes too long in a corporate setting to get things done at the speed I wanted.
What are you looking forward to most when advising the startups?
The entrepreneurial ecosystem is like no other. Entrepreneurs are totally focused on creating something to change the world and there is no time for time-wasting and soul draining politics. The entrepreneurs I work with are open and honest in asking for help and we roll up our sleeves to solve problems and move the business forward. There are no egos. It’s all about moving the business forward. So unlike some of the experiences I have had where it’s a dog and pony in the board room or meeting and heaven forbid you ask for help and show any vulnerability!
Did MBI turn out how you envisioned it when you first started the company or did you have to pivot from your original idea?
I am pleased to say that the mission, vision, and strategy have generally endured for the entire 14 years since I started it. There have been tweaks along the way, but the idea to develop a broad portfolio of effective products based on natural product chemistry from microbes and plants has served the company well. The pivots have been around people and culture and those are more important than anything else.
What’s your best piece of general advice?
Pay constant attention to culture and values–hire employees or accept investors who share your values and fit into the culture you are creating. A positive, healthy corporate culture that has taken years to build, rooted in values of integrity, teamwork, fairness, courage, agility, innovation and diversity, can go away overnight in response to fear and self-interest. Here are some links to my recent videos on this topic: Pam’s Goodbye video, Corporate Culture video, and Corporate Culture Part 2 video.
What’s your best piece of advice for someone who’s an entrepreneur/creating a startup?
There are many big problems still to solve in food and ag. COVID-19 has shown that even more. It’s a great time to be an entrepreneur! Stay true to yourself and believe in yourself. This is especially true for women; women have a narrower range of acceptable behaviors and are criticized for being too strong. You have to be strong to be an entrepreneur, founder, or CEO/founder. There will be a lot of naysayers and negative people giving advice. Compartmentalize the bad from the good and keep moving forward. Sort through all the advice you get and see if there are patterns then address the common themes. If you make a bad hire, don’t waste time in letting the person go as it can hobble your startup. A team aligned around shared values is unstoppable!
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