Sunday Sitdown with Riana Lynn: Tilling a more diverse farm-to-table network

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Riana Lynn, founder and chief executive officer of FoodTrace, a software company that creates tools to help connect local farmers with restaurants and distributors, | James Foster / Sun-Times

Riana Lynn, 29, of Edgewater, is one of three entrepreneurs chosen from applicants nationwide for a Google-sponsored residency program for under-represented minority tech businesspeople.

The program is called CODE2040 — for the year people of color are expected to be the majority in the United States. She’s aiming to enhance her software platform, FoodTrace, which provides an online link for farmers and artisans to sell fresh meats, vegetables and other goods to chefs, restaurants, grocery stores and food distributors nationwide.

Lynn, who works out of the 1871 tech hub in the Merchandise Mart, spoke with Chicago Sun-Times reporter Sandra Guy. An edited transcript follows.

Question: You grew up in Evanston, went to a private prep school until eighth grade and, with other middle-schoolers, attended math and science classes Saturdays and during summers at Northwestern University. Most would see that as a privileged upbringing.

Answer: I grew up with a hard-working single mother who didn’t graduate from college. I wasn’t always eating the best food. There were times when I’d leave school and have chips for lunch or McDonald’s for dinner.

But whenever I’d go to my grandmother Mildred Pegues’ house in Evanston, she’d have an abundance of fresh vegetables. She grew up in central Alabama and moved here in the 1960s with her sisters. They kept their traditions. I learned to make zucchini, how to can fresh pickles and a range of growing techniques for tomatoes.

I was able to travel with school programs to some of the world’s poorest countries since I was in high school. I could see people living on less than $1 a day, selling and eating an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, whether it was in central Mexico or West Africa.

I started to dive deeper and discovered only 4 percent of our food is grown inside the state.

At the same time, my paternal grandmother, Gloria “Radha” McCartney, 82, had been teaching yoga internationally since the early 1970s and had been a vegetarian since before I was born. We had conversations about avoiding eating meat injected with hormones and using diet and physical activities as a basis of healthy living.

I earned my undergraduate degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in biology and African-American studies, with a minor in chemistry.

I was able to regularly visit my paternal grandfather, 97-year-old Lewis Callaway, who still sells meats every Saturday at the local market in Bedford, Virginia. I’ve gone hunting with him — everything from rabbits to wild turkey — and learned about fresh, non-factory meats.

I gained an immense appreciation for my grandfather’s relationships with local farmers.

I spent time researching what does an artisan — a spice company or an organic salsa maker — have to do to sell goods in more grocery stores. How does a farmer — especially an urban, indoor farmer in Chicago — sell to more restaurants, instead of people here having to buy meat from drought-stricken California?

By creating a platform where business owners pay subscriptions or yearly fees so they can grow their customer base, they can improve their operations based on insights from the data that’s collected.

We charge up to $99 per month for subscriptions. Revenues are increasing 30 percent month over month.

An indoor farmer in Chicago may be growing five herbs in September, yet restaurants have a big demand for basil, moreso than mint or rosemary.

Our platform can make sure local chefs and restaurateurs don’t run out of basil.

FoodTrace links 50,000 vendor locations with 6,000 subscribers to distribute more than 1,000 items.

Q: Where did you get the inspiration to earn your master’s degree in public health and public policy from Northwestern?

A: The year I started college, Facebook was launched. I got interested in creating my own presence online. I taught myself how to code and created a media company just to get invited to political events. My work caught the attention of Marcus Lemonis of CNBC’s “The Profit.” He brought me on as a consultant to businesses competing on the show.

I won a fellowship working for the assistant secretary of Health and Human Services and the director of research for the Office of Minority Health. I even served an internship working in First Lady Michelle Obama’s kitchen garden.

I decided entrepreneurship was my future, that I could influence health and nutrition through my own company.

Q: What progress have you made with funding?

A: We are working to close a $1.5 million seed fund.

FoodTrace employs seven, including interns, and plans to hire more as it expands its customer base.

During the Google residency, I’ve worked with leaders at 1871 to bring more minority entrepreneurs to the space and to big events like Techweek.

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Riana Lynn, founder and chief executive officer of FoodTrace, a software company that creates tools to help connect local farmers with restaurants and distributors, | James Foster / Sun-Times

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