Encourage a culture of challenging assumptions, while always maintaining respectful relationships. Managers and reports should both question each other’s assumptions in order to arrive to the right conclusion and the optimal decision for the organization.
David Rosenberg co-founded and leads AeroFarms, a clean-technology company that builds and operates advanced vertical farms in urban environments.
AeroFarms has been recognized as a Circular Economy 100 company, was listed on Fast Company’s 2019 global list of Most Innovative Companies, and Inc. Magazine’s list of the 25 Most Disruptive Companies. AeroFarms also received the New Jersey Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence and was voted as the Best Growth Company to invest in at the Wall Street Journal’s ECO:nomics conference in addition to being a finalist for The Circular Awards at the World Economic Forum. Most recently, AeroFarms received the inaugural Global SDG Award for Zero Hunger as well as being named a THRIVE Top 50 leading AgTech company.
David dedicates his time to a number of local and international organizations. As a member of the World Economic Forum, David co-chairs the Young Global Leaders Circular Economy Taskforce and is a member of the WEF Global IoT Council. David is also a member of the U.S. delegation to the B20 Sustainable Food System Taskforce, which advises the G20. In addition, David serves as a Managing Trustee of New Jersey’s Liberty Science Center – a prominent U.S. interactive science museum. David was also privileged to co-chair New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s Agriculture Transition Committee. In 2018, David was honored as Ernst & Young’s (NJ) Entrepreneur of the Year (Food and Beverage).
David received his BA from UNC Chapel Hill and holds an MBA from Columbia University. He competed for the U.S. in fencing where he was a finalist at a world cup and represented the NYAC, winning three U.S. National Team Fencing Championships and two individual silver medals.
Where did the idea for AeroFarms come from?
The idea for AeroFarms began when I was a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Water Security. I learned that 70% of fresh water is used for agriculture and that approximately 70% of freshwater pollution comes from agriculture. Separately and by UN estimates, we will need approximately 50% more food to feed the world’s population by 2050. To solve for water and food security, I realized that agriculture needed to be dramatically transformed. Through later findings, I learned that vertical farming would be key to both solve our water crisis and feed our growing population due to improvements to light-emitting diodes, which serve as the light source to grow our plants. Haitz’s law forecasts that every decade, the amount of light generated per LED increases by a factor of 20, while the cost per lumen falls by a factor of 10.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I view my role as helping set the strategy and organizational structure of the company. This involves setting priorities, identifying what problems there are to solve, and making sure we have our people in the right positions with the right resources. This all being said, I dedicate about 75% of my time during the day to these internal items. The remaining 25% I spend on business development and board- and investor-related items that are more external-facing.
How do you bring ideas to life?
To set our goals, we implement a system of OKRs, or Objectives and Key Results. In so much as an idea fits into our objectives and within our priorities, we then decide whether or not to pursue it. If we do decide to take on an initiative, we make sure there is an owner with clear objectives, we ensure inter-departmental transparency, we bring in the right resources, and we actively track the progress.
What’s one trend that excites you?
People are increasingly more and more aware of what they’re eating and how their food is grown. Consumers are actively researching where their food is sourced and what it is exactly that they are putting in their bodies. This gives rise to a trend of better-quality food, better human health, better processes, and better accountability. Presumably, the good actors will be rewarded and good behavior is incentivized.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Having a level of resiliency and not being afraid of failure. This mentality and approach contribute greatly to my own productivity as an entrepreneur as well as to creating an organization that brings people together and excites them along a common purpose.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I would tell my younger self to prioritize cultural fit over experience in the hiring process. While experience is undoubtedly highly relevant, I did not give cultural fit the weight that it deserved in the earlier stages of my career.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
During the hiring process, I tend to prioritize high intellectual problem-solving capacity over experience. In start-ups, one is not hiring for the problem immediately at hand, but rather looking for someone who can solve multiple and different problems.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I encourage a culture of challenging assumptions and having thick skin. By this I mean that it is important to ask the right questions and to have engaging, respectful dialogue in order to arrive to the right conclusion. Challenging assumptions should come not only from managers but also from their reports who are often the first to identify issues and opportunities.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Identifying where the important milestones for value creation are and sequencing them. To grow a business, one shouldn’t try solving every problem at once. For example, if we need to have a customer at a certain price point, then let’s begin with identifying the key risks we need to retire and developing a process.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
One failure I’ve had in my previous companies is making sure we had the right investors and capital for the process and business. When working on a change-the-world solution that requires significant time and efforts, one needs patient capital. To find the right investors, I learned to ask the right questions to ensure that there’s alignment and to talk to investors’ references in the same way that investors talk to companies’ references.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
I believe businesses with higher environmental awareness have good potential – specifically businesses around products as services. For example, instead of selling light bulbs, one could charge for lumens. Another example would be selling hours a customer spends in a car as opposed to the actual vehicle.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
As a company, we recently purchased cards that have our mission, which is “to grow the best plants possible for the betterment of humanity”, printed directly on them. These cards clip right into our lanyards that also hold our key cards, so team members can always carry our mission and be reminded of it throughout the day.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
Shared calendars, while a common tool in today’s workplace, are extremely valuable in coordinating our team’s schedules. This has become even more valuable as we have expanded to over 130 team members.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Measure What Matters by John Doerr. We actually purchased copies of this book to company managers when we began adopting Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). It provides great insights on a truly effective goal-setting system that encourages quantifiable processes and both transparency and collaboration between all levels and departments.
What is your favorite quote?
“You don’t have to be right going into a meeting. You have to be right going out.”
- Have systems and processes in place for goal-setting and general items. Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) allow for quantifiable gates and encourage both transparency and collaboration between all levels and departments of an organization.
- Encourage a culture of challenging assumptions, while always maintaining respectful relationships. Managers and reports should both question each other’s assumptions in order to arrive to the right conclusion and the optimal decision for the organization.
- Prioritize culture and problem-solving. An organization will grow significantly when team members are excited along a common purpose while also having the right resources to support their work.