How to be a mission-driven COO

At Farmer’s Fridge, Shayna Harris finds the value in listening and purpose.

By Dylan Walsh  |  February 13, 2018

Shayna Harris

Farmer’s Fridge COO Shayna Harris

Why It Matters

In a growing company, leaders who focus on priorities, mission, and culture help define what the organization is about — and what its future holds.

When’s the last time you browsed a vending machine and ended up selecting the Greek salad freshly made with spinach, cucumber, feta, red onion, Kalamata olives, cherry tomatoes, romaine lettuce, whole wheat orzo, and toasted almonds?

Shayna Harris wants to change your answer.

Harris, who graduated from MIT Sloan in 2011, has long been interested in “breaking models in the food system.” As a manager at Oxfam, she was instrumental in establishing a sustainable coffee sourcing program that influenced major companies, like Starbucks. After earning her MBA, she spent almost five years at the food giant Mars, overhauling the company’s sourcing practices for raw ingredients like cocoa, and investing in sustainable tools and training to strengthen the supply chain and meet growing demand. In February of 2016, she made her most recent move, becoming the chief operating officer at Farmer’s Fridge.

Founded in 2013, Farmer’s Fridge is a network of automated, self-serve micro-restaurants, offering wholesome, vegetable-forward dishes that are prepared at the Farmer's Fridge kitchen daily and delivered fresh to their fridges every morning. Each fridge measures 12 square feet and lives in strategic locations around Chicago and Milwaukee, where fresh food may be scarce. The company has roughly 80 employees and 100 fridges, and is growing by the day. As Harris enters her second year there, she reflected on a few principles that guide her leadership in a small and rapidly growing enterprise.

Nail down your priorities
Whether you oversee a Fortune 100 or a family-owned diner, the need to prioritize is universal. But this need is heavily magnified when a company is young. “In a startup, the possibilities are so open and endless that you need to be very purposeful in your learning and action,” Harris said.

For Harris, establishing priorities started with listening. Her first few weeks on the job she spent hours in discussion with the CEO and founder of Farmer’s Fridge, Luke Saunders. She worked to understand not only his vision for the company, but also his broader mission of how the company might be used to improve people’s health, resolve issues of food waste, and create universal access to fresh and healthy food in the U.S. Because the founder possessed a clear sense of what he wished the company to be, this part was relatively straightforward. (These conversations can be difficult if the CEO has given no thought to a company’s intrinsic purpose.) “The real work,” Harris said, “was to figure out how we align ourselves with these principles.”

Filter strategy through principle
Understanding the values that define a company is one thing. Acting with consistency on those values is another. Harris noted that it would be easy, and no doubt profitable, for Farmer’s Fridge to stock its refrigerators with products that taste good but don’t carry much nutritional value. “But that’s not what we’re about,” she said.

Instead, Farmer’s Fridge maps its founding principles of fresh, healthy, and accessible food for all into explicit rules informing how the company makes decisions. For instance, Harris described “nutritional guardrails” to assure that products under development align with the company’s claims. As Farmer’s Fridge expands its offerings from salads to other dishes — such as quinoa and pasta — the guardrails assure that each new meal meets self-imposed nutritional expectations. “These guardrails are critical to how we grow,” she said. “The mission of the company is actually driving all of our research and development.”

Farmer's Fridge saladFarmer’s Fridge salads are part of the company’s vegetable-forward menu that is prepared daily and delivered to self-serve fridges each morning.

Building a strategy rooted in purpose is important for two reasons. First, referring back to mission provides a template for decision-making: Is the question or challenge before me relevant given what we’re trying to accomplish? And, if so, how can I respond in a way that’s faithful to our roots? “This keeps you grounded when you come upon the inevitable million and one decisions that a start-up leader makes throughout the day to shape the business,” Harris said. Second, a purpose-driven organization motivates current employees and spurs recruitment, as employees can see that they are investing their time in something meaningful.

Keeping a company’s mission front-of-mind can also give rise to unconventional opportunities. Because Farmer’s Fridge wants to provide healthy and sustainable food for all, meals that don’t sell by the end of the day are donated to the Greater Chicago Food Depository (food scraps that can’t be donated are composted). This wide-angle vision of what a company is about — not selling food, but changing how we get healthy food — speaks to Harris’s final thought.

Think of culture beyond your company
Though plenty busy with the daily operations of Farmer’s Fridge, a part of Harris’s responsibilities extend beyond the specific role of COO at a single corporation. She also needs to think about building the workplace of the future.

“We’re at a time in history when women are increasingly being recognized as leaders of industries and organizations,” she said. “I’m excited to be a part of the conversation about how we evolve and adapt the workplace to support excellence in work: No matter what walk of life, no matter what gender, no matter what orientation, and so on, the focus is on meaningful contributions.”

Harris attributes her success in part to mentors who encouraged her to “break mental models and ignore the mold of what pedigree you should hold for a certain position.” This proved to be invaluable support; now she’s paying it back and doing the same for others. Thinking beyond your seat and immediate workplace to the broader impact that you can have on an industry is something that Harris encourages leaders of every organization to embrace.