Grow North Welcomes New Executive Director
Minnesota’s food and ag sectors have a new “hype woman.”
Allison Hohn was recently appointed executive director of Grow North, a nonprofit which operates out of the University of Minnesota’s Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship and aims to support and advance food and agriculture startups in Minnesota. She brings with her expertise from former roles in food science and product development at Land O’Lakes and Target and says she intends to pick up where founder Lauren Pradhan, who stepped down in April, left off.
“Allison brings an amazing breadth of experience, as well as passion for our community and the food system,” Pradhan said. “I’m really excited to see where she takes Grow North and the impact she will have.”
Hohn hopes to expand Grow North’s reach beyond its traditional CPG [Consumer Packaged Goods] startups in order to better serve the state’s agriculture and restaurant sectors as well.
But, before she makes any major plays, she wants to hear from the communities that Grow North aims to serve.
“My first 90 days are really for listening to and learning what’s needed,” Hohn said. “Especially when it comes to agriculture and restaurants, because those are lesser known entities to me personally and also in terms of what Grow North has been doing historically.”
But one thing’s for sure: Hohn is ready to champion the state and show the rest of the country and world what the Land of 10,000 Lakes really has to offer in terms of food and agriculture.
“I view one of my roles as being the ‘hype woman’ for Minnesota,” Hohn said, “to draw attention and really show to the world: here’s all the things we have to offer, and here’s how they can all work together.”
(The following answers have been edited for length and clarity.)
Q | What led you to Grow North?
Hohn: “My track started out as a very typical science product development track. But then I realized that being on the bench, you don’t get to make any of the impactful decisions. So I got a second Master’s in supply chain management from Carlson [Hohn’s other Master’s degree is in food science], which for me, was a step out of the technical realm and into the business side of things.
I took those skills to Target, where working in product development is much different than a classic CPG company. You partner as closely as you want to with your buyer and your business team, and I made it a point to insert myself into the business unit. They were very gracious in letting me join, and they would tap me for strategy sessions and were open to looking at holistic categories instead of just doing product development. So I was exposed to a lot more of the business side. Then, I got connected with the consulting role at 15/16 Group, [a New York City-based agency supporting CPG programs looking to commercialize, streamline, and accelerate operations]. The consulting work is what brought me the most joy. So when I came upon Grow North, it was an opportunity to kind of tie all of those things I love together. Instead of helping startups on a one-off basis, I get to help amplify and magnify that impact across that entire ecosystem in Minnesota.”
Q | What is your vision for Grow North?
“At Grow North, our standing vision is still accurate—we want to act as the connector, aggregating resources and helping people navigate the ecosystem. It’s been heavily CPG-retail focused the last few years, which Lauren [Pradhan], my predecessor, did a fantastic job with. And, with the companies we have in town and CPG-retail startups being an easy point of entry, it made sense.
For today and the years to come, I would love to see us lean in on the agricultural front. We have such heavy hitters here, and agriculture is a mainstay of the Minnesota GDP in general, so finding ways for Grow North to really join the global stage and share our impact and innovation in that area is a big one.
Grow North is a nonprofit organization, so part of my role is to fundraise, and part of that fundraising is a way to support all of the events we do for the Food Ag Ideas Week (FAI), Grow North’s annual two-day conference. Another goal is to have the best panels and speakers we can possibly get for it. The goal of FAI is to essentially end up being the South by Southwest of food and ag, a destination for people where they know they’re going to be at the forefront of some of the hottest topics around. And the lens, obviously, will include how Minnesota has a direct line in and where we’re leading that innovation.
As far as more short term goals, I started with Grow North the day after George Floyd was murdered. There’s a lot of rebuilding that is happening in our BIPOC community, and there are already a ton of businesses and companies that exist but need some help. We want to figure out the short term needs of how we can help them, and then longer term as well: What are the things we can put in place to continue to build connections, keep the businesses going, and magnify them even more?”
Q | Given the struggles of restaurants and the interruption of farm distribution right now, how do you envision Grow North being able to help repair the Minnesota food and agriculture ecosystem?
“Our food system is a really complex landscape, and with Covid-19 hitting, obviously the resiliency of supply chains took a hit. The food service industry also took a huge hit, and you saw some people kind of trying to change up how they reach consumers. When we look at the focus of Grow North historically, it’s been more on things that are scalable and larger in size, so it had been harder to reach some of those more mom-and-pop, one-off shops. But, with everything going on, I think it would be remiss of us not to take into consideration how we can include those.
I’ve been on this virtual roadshow of meeting and greeting everyone in the ecosystem, and restaurants have been noticeably absent. So part of my goal is to get more involved in that and, specifically, determine what resources we can provide to smaller, one-off restaurants that are rebuilding or wanting to expand; maybe it’s not expanding to another restaurant, but rather marketing a signature sauce, for example, to get on retail shelves.
So I think there are a couple different in-roads of how we can support the growth of those businesses. I’m in a fact finding and info gathering stage right now to see what the real needs are. The last thing I want to do is to tell someone what I think they need. That’s why I’m currently focused on listening and learning.”
Q | What do you think sets the food and agriculture ecosystem in Minnesota apart from other places?
“We are in this unique position where we have a lot of the strongholds that I think other places have only a little bit of. We have a research land grant university, which makes research the foremost of everything it does. We also have a very broad and varied agricultural system in Minnesota. Even though we’re not a year-round ag system like California or other places in the south, we do a ton of production. And then we have that headquarters culture here that is just immense. We have Cargill, CHS, General Mills, Ecolab, Schwan’s, Hormel—it’s incredible the number we have. We just have all the pieces of this puzzle, and I feel like we don’t talk about how great we are enough—I think it’s that Minnesota Nice not wanting to brag.”
Q | Anything I didn’t ask about that you’d like to share?
“If people have ideas or anything, hit us up. Call me. Email me. We want to hear from the community about what’s truly needed. We’re also conducting a short, four-question survey about the needs of entrepreneurs which we’d love for more people to take.”