EARLIEST ENTREPRENEURIAL MEMORY: Turning our annual high school Winter Dance from a huge cost to a huge profit. WHEN I WAS A KID, I HAD WANTED TO BE THIS WHEN I GREW UP: The Pope. SOMETHING I CANNOT DO WITHOUT: Music. ONE OF THE HARDEST TIMES IN MY LIFE: Stumbling over a Clarinet Polka performance in 8th grade.
The interconnectedness of everything
SELLING OLD COMPANIES IS ROCKET SCIENCE. Mark Johnson has spent a lot of time looking at life from the outside. He was the co-founder and CEO of Descartes Labs, a company that uses artificial intelligence and large global datasets to provide insights for supply chain management, demand and supply monitoring and forecasting.
In January 2020, after six years, he stepped down as CEO and planned to take a year off to figure out what to do next. He developed a passion for agriculture and
the commodities industry and wanted to interact not from the perspective of a technology company looking in—as he had experienced with Descartes Labs—but as a technology company built within it. He wanted to find a way to break down these massive economic structures. “I saw life in bits, and there is so much complexity that goes behind these basic systems in our daily lives,” Mark says.
And then he was approached to be the CEO of GrainBridge, an agriculture tech company providing solutions to farmers. This was my opportunity, Mark says. It was different from a typical startup, having two of the largest food businesses, ADM and Cargill, supporting it, but it was a challenge that was right up Mark’s alley. “We were selling old companies’ rocket science. How do you disrupt and evolve these old industries?”
NOT JUST A WEIRD CREW, BUT ACCEPTING TOO. Mark says that being gay was never an issue for him, partly because of where he lived. “In Silicon Valley in the ‘90s, there were Unix nerds, or just weird crews, that’s what I grew up with.” Some were straight, some were gay, some never showered, he recalls. All they cared about was whether you were smart, and that was reason enough to hang out. His first boss happened to be gay as well, he notes.
The entrepreneurial world should work this way too, Mark says. “If someone doesn’t want to work with me because I’m gay, that’s their loss.” He wants people to work with him because he’s smart and gets things done. Being gay is just one aspect of his identity. There are so many other interesting things about me for people to be interested in, he notes. Own your identity, all the parts of it.
Surrounding yourself with a community that embraces you is important because you will have many reasons to doubt yourself, Mark says. “It took someone asking me to be CEO at Zite for me to realize that I had it in me to start my own company,” he says.
Starting a company is hard, and there’s no time to worry about what other people think, Mark says. If you want to commit to something, the sooner you learn those skills, the better set you are to embark on that journey, he concludes.
Surrounding oneself with the right embracing community is important because there will be many reasons for self-doubt, Mark says. “It took someone asking me to be CEO at Zite for me to realize that I had it in me to start my own company.” Starting a company is hard, and there’s no time to worry about what other people think. “If you want to commit to something, the sooner you learn the skills to do it, the better set they are for the rest of their life.”