A Love Letter to Kentucky
Before August, I had never stepped foot in Kentucky.
For the past eight months I lived in Louisville while working on Village Capital’s Agriculture US program. The people I met and lessons I learned far surpass the justice a blog post can deliver, but nevertheless I will try.
Four years ago we chose Louisville as a home base for Village Capital’s food and agriculture work. Why? Kentucky has a great agriculture economy, and it’s been better able than most parts of the country to withstand farmland consolidation. The average size of a farm in Kentucky is 164 acres — well below the national average. This network of small farms provides a unique opportunity for experimentation and innovation, especially as the region transitions out of tobacco.
Kentucky is also a logistics hub and home to a major UPS packaging facility. So much of agriculture today is actually about transportation, and this state is literally in the middle of everything.
Most importantly, though, I quickly learned that Kentucky is home to a strong and intentional entrepreneur ecosystem filled with people who are passionate about real change. So many people are enthusiastic about helping entrepreneurs in Louisville, many of them founders who want to give back the advice they once received. Unlike Silicon Valley and other major startup hubs, Louisville’s entrepreneurs seek to build each other up, rather than beat each other out.
I knew no one when I arrived. It was a Friday afternoon when I pulled into my driveway with a car filled to the brim with belongings. I was dragging my futon frame across my front lawn when the mailman approached me, set down his mail bag, grabbed the other end of my futon and helped me carry it inside. That set the tempo for the next eight months: people doing good because they genuinely want to, with no ulterior motives, expecting nothing in return. Here are a few of them.
As Village Capital’s Agriculture Practice Manager, Whitney Muse led by example in everything she did. Her dedication to fostering a community of support surrounding Village Capital in Louisville, to the entrepreneurs, to sustainable agriculture, and to me and my development as an employee is something that no book or college course can teach someone.
Bryce Butler is a man who sums up why I love Louisville so much. He pours himself into his community and the relationships he has within it. As founder and CEO of Access Ventures, Bryce is a huge part of building this entrepreneurial ecosystem in Louisville. Access Ventures is all about creating more inclusive economies. They do this by investing in companies like Scarlet’s Bakery, a bakery that gives second chance employment opportunities to women who have been subjected to human trafficking and spaces like The Park, a coworking space that breeds collaboration and community between a wide range of entrepreneurs, as well as our team at Village Capital.
The intentionality of Bryce’s work, and the impact of their investments at Access on the community, is tangible and incredibly commendable. Whether it’s discussing strategy behind the Agriculture Program which he was a partner for, watching him lecture to his social enterprise class at the University of Kentucky, or playing dominoes with him and his family on a Saturday night, it’s the same Bryce — 100% authentic 100% of the time. Which holds true for so many people I met in Kentucky. The passion for what people are doing and the relationships they have extend far beyond the 9–5 workday.
When talking about passion and innovation in Louisville, I’d be doing a disservice by not mentioning some of the sensational entrepreneurs that have built their companies here. Fin Gourmet is one of our portfolio companies out of Paducah, KY supplies wild-caught Asian Carp to American households. Fin Gourmet’s founder, Lula Luu, makes a point to hire people who have previously been incarcerated or have been through domestic violence and are in need of a second chance employment. The company recently opened a new factory, and they were featured in Bloomberg Businessweek.
Speaking of passion, Chad Rosen, a Village Capital alumnus and founder and CEO of Victory Hemp Foods, puts his heart and soul into his company, which has created a supply chain for domestically grown hemp. Chad does what he does because he knows the benefit his company can have on the people that eat hemp and experience the direct health benefits (myself included), and the farmers in Kentucky who are transitioning out of tobacco and looking for a more sustainable and higher value crop.
I was lucky enough to spend a couple days working with Chad at Victory Hemp Foods and seeing what the day to day life of three-person startup looks like, getting my hands dirty packaging hemp oil, hearts, and protein. It’s these types of entrepreneurs that inspire me and make me so thankful to work for Village Capital.
There are so many more people that I could talk about. Ultimately, it’s the passion, authenticity, community support and maybe a little bourbon that makes Kentucky the perfect place to foster innovation and real change. So many cities in the United States get overlooked but have an incredible amount of potential. Louisville will always have a hold on my heart as place that taught me how to think beyond my previously limited lens of what makes a startup hub.