Valerie Song, co-founder and CEO at AVA Technologies based in Vancouver, BC, joined Cascadia Report for an inspiring conversation about why she got into the food technology industry, what’s it’s like to be a woman in a STEM field, and the ongoing work she does in the community promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

AVA Technologies are on a mission to help millions of people who do not have access to outdoor space to grow their own food. Song is proud of the team they have assembled, and fresh from being featured in BC Business' ‘30 under 30’ last year, we were excited to hear about this exciting tech company with a youthful and diverse workforce. We figured what better way than to speak with one of the youngest CEOs we have featured in the Cascadia Report - Valerie Song gave us an insight into what her role at AVA Technologies looks like.

Valerie Song with the AVA Byte

“My role at AVA is the CEO and co-founder, and what that means on a day to day basis, could be very different. In general, a CEO for a startup, especially for a consumer hardware startup like ourselves, includes more managing the vision, the strategy, where the company's going, the people you need in that roadmap and making sure people are on track to accomplishing these vision and missions. It's a lot of just the strategy setting, and a big part of it is also fundraising, investor relations and that's it.”

“My favorite part of the role is growing people. A big part of my passion is diversity, inclusion, and people development. So, a big part of my role is not necessarily building the business itself. I think that comes with time, but investing in people and their growth, and once they start doing that, then everything else seems to fall into place. So that's what I love the most is to see people grow and thrive.”

Song and her co-founder Chase Ando founded AVA Technologies after they found they both shared the frustration of not being able to grow their own food while living in Vancouver. It is a story that many city-dwellers will identify with, and an oft-successful background to a successful startup - identifying a problem that no-one has made a solution for.

“We were both working in different aspects of food. He was a fine dining chef and I used to work as an organic food marketer in brand management and sales, and we met we talked about how we both wanted to grow something in Vancouver, but I lived in a basement and he lived in a shared living room and there's just no space to grow anything. I didn't have the luxury of a front yard or a back lawn. It was really hard to find the space to grow anything and when it came to growing indoors, living in the basement, I didn't have access to sunlight so things would die. Or there would be certain regulations around outdoor space or putting something on your patio. As a result, we were never able to really start growing things, but we really cared about doing it because as people who love to cook and eat the freshest tasting things. The best things to put in your body are grown closest to you in the most nutritious fashion. We really wanted to come up with a solution that could scratch our own itch, and we started to ask other people, 'do you have the same problem that we do?' and realized that a lot of people wanted to grow things, but didn't necessarily have the space time or knowledge to do so. So, we started embarking on a journey of creating our own product, and that ended up becoming AVA.”

The vision of the company has stayed the same since those early discussions between Song and Ando, and the mission to help people around the world start growing anything anywhere. From this clarity they set to work on creating a solution that has seen a number of iterations along the way, as Song says: “it's definitely taken a different form than we initially pictured” and the products have continued to evolve as the company has grown.

“We make a smart indoor gardening device [AVA Byte] that's like a nespresso machine for gardening. It uses plant pods, and they come in packs of five. You can scan the pod pack into the device, and away it grows. All you have to remember to do is add water, and even if you do forget that will remind you through our app, or through Google Home and Amazon Alexa.”

Just add water!

With people all over the world being forced to stay at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the initial shortages in grocery stores, AVA Technologies has seen a surge of interest in their indoor gardening products. We were keen to find out where Song sees the market going and how AVA fits within that space in the future.

“When it comes to taking control of your own food and understanding where it comes from, growing your own food at home is definitely a great solution to do that. With the increase in interest, we've seen, I think more and more people are going to start adopting growing at home. We've seen that similarly with grocery kits and bread makers, things that make you more self-sufficient. The future of AVA doesn't stop at AVA Byte - we have Megabyte, Gigabyte - we have different innovations coming about. We also want to launch new crop innovation. We’re going to have a new innovation at the end of the year. The idea is just to keep expanding on anything part of our mission: helping the world get growing anything anywhere. Anything means it can't just be leafy greens and herbs, it has to be other things that are also high value that people enjoy. It can start to supplement your diet and the goal one day is to have a garden in every home that can supplement your diet your entire diet by growing it yourself.”

These innovations - from the existing AVA Byte indoor garden will soon include a micro version for even smaller spaces, the Megabyte which should provide enough food to supplement a family’s diet, all the way up to the Gigabyte - which Song describes as “more of a vertical farm”. It is a story of rapid growth for the young entrepreneur, though one which has thrown up many challenges along the way.

“As a startup founder, issues and challenges emerge every single day. It's funny, I was just reading some other stories that you guys had shared, and I totally agree with the perspective. I think it was Elon Musk that said, it's kind of like chewing glass. Some people say it's like getting knocked down a lot and then seeing how many times you can get back up. For a lot of the time, it does feel like that, where you will have challenge after challenge, and you have to find solutions to the challenge and see failure or setbacks as a way to get closer to success or to another good thing that will happen. I think it's just part of the journey. And as an entrepreneur, you get to realize that that's all part of what you're supposed to experience.”

“We've experienced a lot of setbacks, and especially as a minority female founder and Canadian founder, there are certain vices that already stand in our way. But now, after having experienced these hardships, by getting through them, it gives me more confidence that every hardship if you just keep pushing, there's always a way to find a solution. There's always a way to be creative, and that's the job of an entrepreneur is to get over these obstacles and find those creative solutions. I'm grateful for the opportunity to become more confident with every path that we take and to learn and grow ourselves every step of the way.”

It is a very positive outlook which appears to be a key strength in Song’s approach to business. As a minority and a female founder and CEO, she has spoken publicly about the value of diversity in the workplace and has mentored others in an effort to give something back to the community. We asked Song how her personal experiences had formed her approach to leading the team at AVA, and why she feels that achieving diversity in the workplace is so important.

“It means a lot when we are hiring, when we're developing our team, and especially for executive team members. So how that plays out in our team, both in the team as well as outside of work - we really encourage speaking and volunteering opportunities. Most of our executive members are diverse, whether that's different ethnicity or different gender, and so we really want to have more faces that are like ourselves out in the world speaking about entrepreneurship and showing other people, especially the younger people that it is possible that people are doing it every single day.

“Within the company itself, we're very cognizant about hiring. For instance, in an application, a lot of women identifying people, they might have less confidence about having all the requirements needed to make an application. In our applications, we might say ‘even though you don't have all the requirements, or you don't think you meet other requirements, apply anyway.’ That way it encourages more people who might not have the most confidence or might not be extroverted to put everything they have together. We have a bigger picture, more people coming through the funnel in the beginning, and as a result, we can look at a more diverse pool of candidates. We had a lot of great candidates - even with a team that has scientists and engineers - a lot of our technical staff just happened to be outstanding women, who are very good at what they do. I think it's a bit of a mixture of making sure we don't have a lot of those hiring biases upfront, incorporating the personal development side. Investing in our staff for conferences, training, feedback and strategy sessions and really being aware of removing those vices during all the processes.”

Achieving a truly diverse team in a typically male-dominated industry is rightfully a source of pride for Song, especially leading a technical team that is ‘80% women’. Additionally, hiring people from a variety of cultures has created a workplace where almost everyone speaks a second language and while she is keen to point out it wasn’t something they did intentionally it has helped them to have a “more diverse perspective” as a team.

As a relatively new startup based in Vancouver, BC, we were keen to find out which tech companies AVA had connected with in the Cascadia Corridor, and also give Song the opportunity to shoutout any products or services in the region she would like to hear more about in the region.

“We have collaborated with a lot of companies. More as a founder supporting other founders than an official business partnership amongst startups. One thing that I really love to do - and it usually happens in a more casual setting - is that founders get together. I have a women founder group, and we meet up every now and then we talk about our challenges over lunch or dinner, and we go through each other's problems and see if we can find some good solutions or suggestions. Support groups like that where we can meet up and just share some advice that is super helpful."

"Locally, I try to support local businesses, whether that's in fashion, or products, and I try to buy their products whenever I can. I think one of the best ways to support local businesses is with your dollars. I like to buy local products, and especially if they're female owned and run as a personal passion. In that sense we do support each other. I'd like to see more consumer hardware companies, it's something that is less seen in Canada. Locally, we do have some in BC, for instance, with Zoa, Sepura, Roblox. We do have that kind of consumer tech, but it's very few and far between. When it comes to having resources to support one another, or sharing advice, it'd be helpful to have more products locally so we can share more things with each other.”

Speaking to Song about her industry and peers in the Northwest it is quickly apparent that she has a clear vision for where she wants AVA Technologies to be, and how she wants the journey there to look. We asked her what advice she would give to other young, potential entrepreneurs - given all the things she has had to learn in such a short space of time, and the many hurdles she has had to overcome.

“The big thing would be to ask yourself if you're starting a business for the sake of starting a business, or if it's actually solving a problem or pain point that you really care about. That's number one. A lot of young entrepreneurs start jumping into things without thinking about the long-term impact and if that would actually be a business they care to work on over the next few years.

Another great piece of advice is work where possible; don't raise equity dollars until you've exhausted your non-dilutive options. Non-dilutive funding could come from the government, it could come from friends and family, it could come from competition awards, it could come from your university - it could come from so many different sources before you need to raise money. It could even come from early sales revenues. Having a solid foundation of non-dilutive funding is great for your business. A final piece of advice would be that having a more diverse mix of co-founders produces statistically better results for both your revenue and growth. I really highly encourage people to think about diversity amongst co-founders when they start out.”

You can find out more about Valerie Song and AVA Technologies here: https://www.avagrows.com/