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Hero’s Journey Series | Michelle Kurian, The Harvest Fund

Filed in Hero's Journey Series — July 7, 2020

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In Joseph Campbell’s landmark book entitled The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he illustrates common patterns running through hero myths and stories from around the world.  He discovered several basic stages that almost every hero-quest goes through, and we could not fail to notice the many client leaders we serve follow a similar arc in their journey toward impact.  

It is our pleasure to continue our Black Fox Philanthropy series entitled “The Hero’s Journey”, profiling these extraordinary leaders and their hero’s journey.  Today’s spotlight is on Michelle Kurian of The Harvest Fund, who was chosen for her vision and leadership in investing in the future of female farmers.  


Michelle Kurian | Co-Founder & Executive Director | The Harvest Fund
Black Fox Philanthropy’s “The Hero’s Journey” Series


Part I: A Call to Adventure/The Quest

Why is your work uniquely yours to do? Is there something in your background that would point to your caring deeply about your mission?  What was the transformative moment you realized you must respond to a call to action, and where did that call to action come from?  

From a young age, I knew I wanted to do something “international” and that there was a life beyond what I grew up seeing in the small town of Bowie, MD. I spent my college and business school breaks (and racked up more student loans!) working or studying in Spain, Brazil, Tanzania, India, UAE, and China. I envisioned myself in an “international business” role at a major multinational company but, despite my degrees, I faced tremendous difficulties building a career after the 2008 recession. Disheartening setbacks required me to take a hard look at my values, how I wanted to put my skills to use, and where I wanted to take my life. Taking a leap of faith, I made a high-risk career transition and joined TechnoServe’s Fellows program. I soon found myself fascinated with agriculture in the Global South. The complexities of the agricultural markets in countries like Zambia were unlike any other problem or project I had tried to solve in my earlier career. There was a compelling mix of policy, science, business, and economics at play which, coincidentally, were all of the areas of my schooling – from my science and technology high school program in Prince George’s County, MD to my economics studies at Duke University to my MBA at Columbia University. 

Part II: Obstacles

What was one of your greatest obstacles? (Examples:  Cultural, Environmental, Political, Financial —- FGC, filthy water, religious-centered gender-based violence, war, repressive laws, and on and on.)

Share two of the greatest obstacles you’ve encountered, one that was a defeat, and another where you prevailed.

One of the first agriculture projects that I managed was a soy program in Ndola, Zambia. I remember the enthusiasm with which the farmers approached the program yet, when it came time to purchase the soy seed, less than 25% could afford them. I was shocked because they were committed to the program yet there were absolutely no cost-effective ways for them to purchase these seeds on credit. There were no neighbors, let alone microfinance institutes, to help pay for these inputs. Unfortunately, this major setback and lack of financing solution stymied the program.

I later found myself in a variety of agricultural technology roles in Maputo, Seattle, and San Francisco and amazed at the innovations that were being developed for smallscale farmers. I knew that some of these technologies could drastically change the lives of the farmers I had worked with but if they couldn’t even afford a bag of soy seed at $25, how on earth would they afford a solar pump priced at $750??!

After a devastating career blow in 2018, I found myself hopeless and depressed but my thoughts whirled…I thought of some of the vulnerable women farmers I had met with in Honduras, Nigeria, and Zambia. They worked together so well, leaning on each other for knowledge and encouraging each other to save. DING! The lightbulb went off: Couldn’t we leverage the power of women’s farming cooperatives to collectively acquire appropriate agricultural technologies and adopt modern climate-resilient farming practices?

After all, well-known USAID and UN FAO research states the importance of women in rural development. Neven Mimica, the former EU Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development, even stated “”We know that agricultural yields would rise by almost a third if women had the same access to resources as men. As a result, there would be up to 150 million fewer hungry people in the world. And we know that children have significantly better prospects for the future when their mothers are healthy, [economically stable], and educated. Especially during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life.”

Part III: Supreme Initiation/Helper or Guide

What do you consider your point of “entry into the unknown?”  Who were the most inspirational people/allies who helped guide you on your journey, and how did they help you on your quest (funders, consultants, mentors – people who entered your story at certain inflection points of your journey)?

After losing my job in San Francisco and surrounded by peers who worked in technology, it was internally very difficult to not jump on the bandwagon. Around New Year’s Day 2020, a few months after the launch of The Harvest Fund, I coincidentally found myself on vacation in the same town as two good friends, Brad and Courtney. After they heard what I had started with The Harvest Fund, they gently nudged me to read Moment of Lift. I felt motivated to keep going with my idea especially after seeing that Melinda French Gates devoted a whole chapter to the agricultural gender gap.

However, a few months after that happy meeting with Brad and Courtney, the coronavirus pandemic hit and the economy collapsed, and The Harvest Fund’s prior fundraising strategy became invalid. To get through the mental doubts exacerbated by the shutdown, I have to give credit to my husband who was always willing to invest in me. I also credit an optimistic co-founder Ackson, who balances my tendency to self-doubt. It has also been a joy to have business partners, such as VITALITE, who have confidence in our model and partnership, and who themselves possess a very inspirational social entrepreneurial journey.

Part IV: Hero’s Return/Transformation

What was one of your most significant transformations? (For the people you are serving and in community with, but also your own)

While this is often a difficult question for nonprofit leaders, most of whom embody humility, please share what you consider to be one of your most heroic accomplishments for your mission.

As any entrepreneur, I panicked about how to survive the first year, especially amidst a global pandemic. However, I saw signs of hope with our initial cohort’s harvest. These women farmers had only produced 0.6 tons of maize during the prior season, a time when The Harvest Fund had not even been established. Yet, after our program, their harvest tripled. And, with the new storage technologies that we had introduced to them, we project their harvest income to increase 10X as compared to last year (without our intervention). We still have two more seasons with them through which they’ll be linked to even more advanced technologies such as solar irrigation and precision agriculture. We can’t wait to see what the future holds!

Not only did harvests transform, but my confidence transformed. During the initial ideation phases of The Harvest Fund, I suggested to sectoral experts that the farmers, particularly women, would pay for our services; yet, some said this would never happen. I decided to treat our farmers as customers and, most importantly as team members: I sat on the ground and listened to their stories. I ensured that The Harvest Fund’s mission, goals, and values aligned with theirs. They eagerly agreed to pay as much as they could for the storage technology. When we told them that their money would go into a mobile savings account that would serve as a “revolving fund,” they were excited! They never thought that in their wildest dreams that they could actually have access to formal bank accounts. My confidence grew with each farmers’ behavioral transformation and life progress.

As we approach The Harvest Fund’s first birthday and a new planting season, we look forward to taking our current women farmers to another level: they get to choose the next cohort of The Harvest Fund’s farmers, voicing their opinion alongside our management, board, and Ministry extension officers. Now, this is what it means to have a seat at the table!