Being a tech entrepreneur wasn’t Kellee James’s first career choice. She dreamed of being a champion horsewoman and trained for it until she broke her back and had to make other plans.
Today she is founder and CEO of Mercaris, an online tracking program and market data service for organic food and non-GMO commodities. The organic food market is estimated to be a $31 billion business.
Before launching Mercaris, James spent five years at the startup company Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX), a greenhouse gas emission reduction program. It was the first electronic trading platform and registry for spot, futures, and options on carbon, sulfur, clean energy and other environmental derivatives.
In 2009, then-President Barack Obama appointed James as a White House Fellow.
As a young girl, James dreamed of working with horses. She wanted to be the first African American horse rider to compete in the Olympics. An Army brat, she moved all over. She attended the University of Kentucky, mainly because of its renowned horse riding program.
Her parents had other ideas. James majored in Spanish, then took a job working with a world-class horse trainer. Soon after, she was flipped off a horse and broke her back.
Trying to figure out what to do next, James entered a three-year program at American University to earn an MBA and a master’s in international development. Simultaneously, she was giving riding lessons.
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After taking a job at the Chicago Climate Exchange, James learned that there is a $31 billion market for organic products, but companies need data to develop the necessary products. That’s when she got the idea for her business, Mercaris.
The company took off almost immediately, landing Whole Foods is it first data subscriber.
Mercaris has secured more than $3 million in funding, according to Crunchbase. Investors include Kapor Capital and Precursor Ventures — firms with a mission to make sure more startup founders from diverse backgrounds get an equal chance for venture capital investment.
James talked to Moguldom about why she took a leap into entrepreneurship.
Moguldom: How did you raise funding for your venture?’
Kellee James: We’ve raised $4 million to date. Mercaris has raised two rounds: a seed (convertible note) round, and an A round from about a dozen investors — a mix of angels, family, and venture capital funds. Our lead investor for our A round was S2G Ventures, a food and agriculture-focused fund.
Moguldom: Women are notoriously underfunded when it comes to tech startups, and Black women, even more so. How did you overcome this problem?
Kellee James: It’s definitely a struggle. So much of it is network. I didn’t have family or friends to fund, but I did rely on my network from past professional contacts through work and fellowships. Fellowships, in particular, were important for me to grow my network. I was a White House Fellow and an Aspen Institute Catto (Environmental) Fellow. Both of those programs were key to getting introductions to our first funders and board members.
Moguldom: What advice do they have for other Black tech founders?
Kellee James: There’s a lot of emphasis on venture capital funding, but funding is really just part of the story. There’s often less focus on all of the other factors needed to build a successful company, but that’s where the bulk of your energy, time and focus will (or should be) spent. So, looking for resources to support other critical functions — management, product development, marketing — is critical.
Moguldom: How do you think Black women can overcome lack of diversity in tech, not just in raising capital, but in tech leadership positions?
Kellee James: It’s a complex problem which will have multiple solutions. There are already some great programs that develop talented people — Black Girls Code, for example. People should consider supporting these organizations. But pressure both within and from outside tech companies needs to continue. There are biases, both subtle and overt, that are built into the industry at every level, and those have to be addressed. I know too many talented, experienced, brilliant Black women who still feel like they’re running into a concrete wall when trying to advance in their respective fields. On an individual level, I’m aware I’m breaking a new path in a field that doesn’t have a lot of Black women–agricultural fintech. I’m always on the lookout for other underrepresented professionals that I can help. Maybe it’s an introduction or feedback on a pitch deck, or brainstorming on customer retention.
Moguldom: How did you get into tech?
Kellee James: Tech for me is a means to an end. It helps accomplish goals for our customers of risk management, price discovery, and other things that are critical in agricultural markets. I have a background in economics and worked at a tech startup in Chicago that created new electronic markets for carbon, renewable energy, and other environmental products. It was my introduction to startups, and it’s also where I met my co-founder (Chris Duesing).
Moguldom: What do you like the most about what you do?
Kellee James: I love that we’re creating something totally new for our customers. The mission definitely drives me. But it’s also been an amazing experience for me, getting to build something from the ground up. It’s also the most difficult thing, professionally, that I’ve ever done. Starting a company is not something to take lightly, but it’s an irresistible challenge to take on.