Inniskillin Changemaker: Valerie Song
“Choosing decision-makers in the business world is almost as important as electing your political leaders – who are in those driving seat roles and are they diverse enough to represent the whole?”
In partnership with Inniskillin, Canada’s first estate winery, Startup Canada is celebrating and spotlighting leading entrepreneurial changemakers and disruptors across Canada. Startup Canada was pleased to sit down with Valerie Song, Co-Founder and CEO of AVA, to learn about their journey and the impact of their work.
BC 30 Under 30 winner Valerie Song is the CEO of AVA, a startup making smart indoor gardens to help people grow food at home. Valerie is a passionate and bold leader that loves growing both plants and people. While working in brand management and sales at blue-chip consumer product companies, she found a passion for brand building. She launched, marketed, and sold products from organic granola to craft beer. Under her leadership, AVA has gone to raise $180K in crowdfunding, $3M in funding, and 15 different awards around the world. Outside of work, Valerie is a proud advocate for diversity and inclusion, volunteering as guest speaker and mentor to youth and women in STEM.
SC: In one sentence, what does being an entrepreneurial changemaker mean to you?
VS: I think an entrepreneurial changemaker is somebody who is ready to lead by their values and hold steadfast to what they believe in in order to make changes in the world that otherwise may not have happened.
SC: Tell us about your entrepreneurial venture(s) – what do you do? What role has it played in your life?
VS: AVA is a company that is on a mission to help the world Get Growing and we’re doing that through creating indoor gardening technology. So not just from a physical garden perspective, or hardware perspective, but also the software and plant science needed to grow plants indoors all year round.
In terms of what role AVA has played in my life – I think entrepreneurship in general has taught me a lot about my core values and how that reflects into my life. That includes how I interact with people and how I lead, how I accomplish goals, and how I overcome setbacks. It’s definitely been a huge piece of my life and has included discovering myself, my strengths and weaknesses, and knowing what changes I want to make in the world.
SC: What motivated you to become an entrepreneur?
VS: I think it’s because of my parents – they were entrepreneurs when they were younger. So my first bit of inspiration was hearing about their story and how they launched their business, overcoming a lot of setbacks to get to where they are today, and being able to move to a new country and provide for my brother and I. So that was definitely the first motivation and a second piece was, you know, really looking at the role models out there for entrepreneurship and not seeing a lot of people like me. I wanted to see if I could become a part of that movement or change so that more young Asian women or women of colour can grow up seeing more female role models that are different from the typical “Elon Musk’s” of the world.
SC: What are you most proud of related to your venture(s)?
VS: I’m most proud of our ability to grow a team according to our values and culture. I think that’s something that has always been very important to me. After being through some job opportunities that weren’t necessarily like that, fostering a safe and inclusive environment for all of our stuff is definitely something I’m very proud of. I think we have a very tight knit family. Our values align and we all love food and we celebrate our wins together and we put our heads together to overcome challenges. Yeah, I love the team for sure.
SC: Tell us about your biggest hurdle – what was it and how did you persevere through it?
VS: In entrepreneurship there are always big hurdles. I think the biggest hurdle to date was probably getting to that first investment. Being a first time founder and still being in my early 20s at the time, I barely had any experience running the business, let alone fundraising. For a business like ours, hardware is very, very expensive, so it’s important to get the right financing in place. But as a first time founder, it’s almost contradictory because usually you don’t have the same access to capital as someone who has more life experience or has more ability to take on debt. We persevered through it with sheer hard work and a lot of mentorship and guidance from different programs and advisors. We really had to cry a little, sweat a little, and bleed a little but we ended up getting there through a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work. The hurdle culminated at a competition where we pitched and didn’t win – I thought our company was going to go under and the next day we got that investment.
SC: What has your biggest learning been along the way?
VS: There’s so many, but my favourite and most relevant one is “you get what you tolerate”. When I heard that line, it was at one of my all time lows. Going through those hurdles it just felt like I couldn’t move any further in what I wanted to do. You get what you tolerate on your team, but you also get what you tolerate in yourself as well. I have learned that if I’m tolerating what other people are saying about myself and constantly hearing “no’s”, I tend to think about that personally instead of really thinking through the constructive criticism. I learned that there are so many ways to get around it instead of dwelling on the past and really trying to move forward and make decisions to get past that. So yeah, you get what you tolerate has been a really good guiding principle for me – I see it as never taking no as an answer, keeping up with the hustle, and always believing in yourself.
SC: What drives your motivation when things get tough?
VS: I think the most important thing is our mission of helping the world Get Growing. I think that is such an important role to play in a world where COVID just happened last year. A lot of people were spending more time indoors and there was a big shock to the food system where some people couldn’t get, you know, fresh produce for a little while, or the prices may have been a little bit different. I think we’ve started to realize that our food systems are broken and there’s a lot of waste involved. There are a lot of hands that our food goes through, so taking ownership of what we produce and consume is so important for not just today but generations to come. That’s really the driver in why we got into making these gardens and this company in the first place – we want to make sure that the next generation can have the tools to grow food at home without needing to spend thousands of hours getting the same knowledge as a farmer would.
SC: Where can people go to learn more about your journey and organization?
VS: I have a LinkedIn that people can connect with me on. I also talk a lot about my journey in different events.
Organization wise, you can follow us on Instagram, Facebook or LinkedIn at @avasmartgarden or on our website at www.avagrows.com.
SC: What is your ideal vision for Canada’s entrepreneurship community over the next 20 years?
VS: My ideal vision for the community is in three different buckets. Number one is capital. In order for Canadian entrepreneurs to not just survive but thrive in a global environment, it’s important to have enough capital invested, especially in the early stages, so that companies aren’t forced to sell too early. So I think number one is driving more capital and investment, especially in the early business stages.
For the second piece, I would like to see more interaction and support between companies. Fostering a global but also local community where we can exchange a lot of contacts, advice, and tools with each other. In a day and age where we’re living in a mostly virtual world, can we leverage the tools that we have today to keep building stronger digital communities so that physical presence and borders don’t matter anymore?
For the third one, ideally I would like to see more diversity and inclusion, especially in the leadership, investment and board levels. I think a diverse outlook is so important to how we frame the future of not just entrepreneurship and business as a community, but industries as a whole and economies as a whole. If you have people who are too similar driving what the future will look like, it might not be representative of the whole population and where we all want it to go. It’s almost as important as electing your political leaders – who are in those driving roles and are they diverse enough to represent the whole?
SC: What do you think today’s entrepreneurs should be focused on for a better, brighter future?
VS: I think entrepreneurs should be focused on launching businesses that are in their Ikigai. Ikigai is the Japanese way of saying your life’s purpose – something that you’re passionate about and that you’re good at, but also something you can be paid for and that the world needs. I think a lot of times entrepreneurs just focus on one or two buckets, not all four. That results in maybe a lot of passion but no impact or vice versa. I think it’s important to find that really sweet spot where you’re doing what you’re great at but it is something the world actually needs. Giving back to the earth is a really big piece of why we have that mission of helping the world Get Growing. You know, we chose something that we care about as people who love food and who love to eat it, but are also conscious about what we’re putting in our bodies and the impact that it has based on our consumption habits. So if more entrepreneurs can focus on picking that thing that really matters to them and guiding their company based on those core values, I think that would be really great.
Are you an avid supporter of Canada’s entrepreneurship community? Share Valerie’s story or showcase your OWN entrepreneurial changemaker across social platforms with the hashtag #CheersToTheChangeMakers!