What I Learned at…Cornell, Part 4

In our “What I Learned at…” series, MBAs discuss the tools and skills their business schools provided as they launched their careers.

Sandra Persing is the founder and farmer of Persing Woods LLC, a holistic wellness company that includes a working goat farm and apiary and that provides business development support for local farmers and other wellness professionals. Sandra believes that wellness is fundamental in living a good life. In this four-part series, Sandra reflects on how her business acumen and MBA education from the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University helped her turn this belief into a solution that future MBAs can embrace as part of their own life journey.

The most surprising moment for me at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell was when my entrepreneurship professor kindly requested that I come to his office to have a chat about my post-graduation plans. I expected a lively brainstorming conversation about my proposed venture and solid advice on how to make sure it would be a success. Instead, I felt as though my father had sat me down for a talking to. He was concerned about my future, because he thought I was wasting my MBA prospects by going into farming. In a gentle, encouraging tone, he advised me to push my farm plans aside for several years, while I gained real, meaningful experience with a major consulting firm—which he suggested would be a great outlet for my energy, smarts and passion. I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t quite figure out why it was folly to apply my learning and knowledge in organization, operations, financial management and presentation skills to raising and providing food and cultivating truly sustainable natural resources. And if my entrepreneurship professor, whom I deeply respected, was pointing this mistake out to me, maybe I was a naïve girl who needed to be set straight.

Doubt plagued me for weeks, and I reviewed my options again. I submitted my resume for traditional internships, hoping that I still had time to land a “proper job,” although it was nearly summer. I had the good fortune of finding an opening right in Elmira, where I lived, with the Cornell Cooperative Extension office. They needed someone to help them compile a resource database for entrepreneurs and small business owners in the Southern Tier District. The pay was near nothing, but I found this to be a great compromise between a proper office job and a way for me to continue to develop my own scheme. It was also a great way for me to do my own research and scout local resources.

For three months, I focused on filling out paperwork to establish the farm as a proper LLC and talked to goat breeders in the region to learn as much as I could about raising a herd. After deciding to include bees and raw honey as products to offer from the land, I procured equipment and found a local large animal veterinarian (which is unfortunately a dying profession), and tinkered with getting a business plan together for a bank loan. Persing Woods LLC was in business! Now I needed to get the marketing in place.

When I returned to school to complete my second year with an established LLC, it was easier to push aside the doubts and embrace my decision to apply my MBA in agripreneurship. I also believe that having the actual documents in hand, more than just talk, helped me to move forward. I knew that to market my business, products and ethos, I had to expand my network yet again outside the business school. I saw immense opportunity within the university, especially at Cornell’s Hotel School, across the street from the Johnson School. For me, farming is not just about the land and animals, but also about promoting holistic wellness for the community. Another industry that I was familiar with and saw true collaborative opportunities in was spa. I took a “Management in Spa” class that required me to work on a live consulting project for a major spa in Upstate New York. As a result, I got two major accounts to sell products to directly in Ithaca for the farm’s first two seasons.

Later on, in 2011, personal matters brought me to Hong Kong. The farm has therefore been in standby mode for a year now, managed by my parents, who originally regarded my venture with dread. They have since embraced it as a healthy lifestyle for retirees, and recently, we have been advising other local families and have even helped regional farms with dairy goat management by simply sharing our experience of being first-time farmers. I now look forward to returning to the farm to continue to develop this potential opportunity and to provide an farm start-up service for others wishing to do what I first dreamed of in 2009.

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