Exclusive Interview: Goterra Founder Olympia Yarger On AgTech And Sustainability

Max Wilson
on 15 December 2022

Olympia Yarger, a maggot farmer from Canberra invented a food waste solution, Goterra, which has the potential to solve the food crisis globally. She is founder and CEO of her AgTech start-up and was last month announced ACT Australian of the Year for 2023.

To date, Goterra has processed over 35,000 tonnes of food waste, saving 66.5 million emissions of CO2-e (kg) and have their sights on scaling internationally in 2023. Using a clever combination of robotics, software and maggots, the innovative waste infrastructure takes our food waste and feeds it to Black Solider Fly larvae who eat it, and then excrete the nutrients to create an incredible fertiliser. The maggots themselves are then turned into protein-rich feed for livestock, aquaculture and pet feed – creating a perfect circular economy.

We were lucky enough to ask Olympia some questions regarding her approach to the environment and how she conducts her business:

Where did you originally get the idea to scale the process and who did you first approach?

When I began farming Black Soldier Fly Larvae it didn’t take long to realise that we could make the most impact as a waste management technology company, diverting harder waste streams from landfill and scaling in a way to have a meaningful effect on GHG emissions.

Jeremy Kwong-Law at Grok Ventures saw the vision and Goterra’s potential for scale from day one.

The Black Soldier Fly Larvae: Courtesy of Goterra

What are some potential hurdles you can see moving into the international market and how will you approach them?

Scaling any team is difficult, scaling the team internationally can only be more so.  As an organisation the two things we care about the most – and where we put most of our attention – is, understanding our customer and retaining and scaling our culture.

We believe our customers across international markets have similar traits, however understanding them well and knowing where there are differences will be key to delivering strong sales and customer success.

We tend to always put our workplace culture first because we believe that if we get this right our team will feel supported and empowered. The further away from HQ ,the harder it is to manage and maintain culture in a way that is consistent to the mission and purpose of the organisation.

Have there been challenges being a female entrepreneur in such a male dominated industry and how can other women make their mark?

Waste isn’t technically male dominated anymore, however, globally bias towards women – particularly in developed nations – is persistent.  As such the challenges are boringly predictable and yet continue to be relevant. Questions I often receive cover my ability to be a founder and a mother, my desire to do difficult work in my late 40s and concerns about my ‘direct’ approach being too aggressive. 

For me, the most important things to remember as a woman who wants to forge their path in the world are: 1. The bias is still there, remember that and act accordingly. 2. It’s your path, your voice, your idea. Own that, because truly the world is waiting to hear what you have to say.

Courtesy of Goterra

You have created a team of highly skilled experts, what do you look for in people when building a team?

Diversity of skills and backgrounds has always been a priority for Goterra. Collectively we believe we need to balance the tension of a variety of ideas and perspectives to drive exceptional innovation and commercialisation. Our team has a diverse range of skills, experiences, qualifications and backgrounds. We have integrated this diversity into every process and system in our technology, and to deliver a new service and drive rapid growth.

We have not tried to solve our biological technology with entomologists, we’ve also employed agricultural professionals and engineers who all come from diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Similarly, we have not segregated our engineers from our technical tradespeople, instead we create teams with a mix of skills and education.

We look for problem solvers and people who enjoy complex problem solving.  These sound generic as a lot of people may classify themselves in this way. However, we’ve learned that often people don’t have these capabilities autonomously, only in a group with many others surrounding them for support. We’re looking for the tenacious, the contrarian, the people who are looking for agency over their role. 

How can we tackle the root of the problem and cause less food waste in the first place?

The root cause of the problem of food waste is distribution and logistics. We have to travel too far and collect too many small loads to make managing waste in the current way successful for food. We need to create opportunities to unlock distribution and create more opportune logistics routes. 

Additionally, we cannot fix what we don’t know, which is why data has an incredibly important role in reducing food waste. Our goal is to manage as much food waste and the harmful methane it creates, so we provide data to our customers, where there wasn’t data before. They can see exactly how much food they are throwing away – this has resulted in many food manufacturing businesses and hotels getting smarter with their food ordering and ultimately wasting less. That’s a big win for us.

Goterra Processing Facility in Barangaroo: Courtesy of Goterra

You are passionate about disability representation in the workforce, what are some ways we can become more inclusive and supportive?

Check your bias at the door – which is much easier than it sounds.  We have to think about what diversity means and why it’s important to your organisation. If you haven’t done that work then any diversity program will only be tokenism.

We started in the easy places – creating permission to apply. So we added language to our job descriptions that explained that we’re open to people with disabilities and minorities applying. From here we looked at our hiring process; were there places where we were making it hard for people to be included because they were different? 

Some of these included: option for written answers to interview questions instead of verbal, getting the questions in advance so people could prepare and be ready (really important for non-neurotypical people and those with learning disabilities).

As we learned more we added other vignettes to this process; for example entry level female applicants progressed through the entire hiring process, regardless of the final outcome. We know that women in STEM are less likely to make it to the final interview and therefore often are more nervous and anxious about their performance. We believe we can create an opportunity for women in entry level roles to experience the interview process and potentially be encouraged by the progress and perform better. It works! We’ve found women who get a call back for a second interview perform much better than their first interview and we’ve hired some terrific staff who may have not been moved through to the second interview if we’d not created this pathway.

I want to be clear that it can feel like more work to have a diverse team. You have to pay more attention to communication and you really have to work on creating the right engagement with tools and management. This is not easy to do when you’re also managing a startup. When you work with people who are like you, have the same cultural background and are neurotypical you can get away with lazy communication and instruction. Generally, people will just ‘figure it out’.  You can’t do that if your team is truly diverse. You’ve got to do better and make sure the team is continuously evolving and improving. We’re still figuring this out and we still get things wrong. But over all, Goterra is a better and far less boring place to work because of this value.

What advice do you have for other people who are looking to start their own business, how can they stand out?

Get product market fit.  Make sure what you’ve created or designed is actually wanted in a meaningful and scalable way. Not bespoke for one customer.  To do this you have to really dig into the root causes of the problem you’re trying to solve. Where is that problem hurting or slowing your customer, how would you solve that problem for them? These are the most important things to sort out early. Where possible, create a culture around it so this is always baked into whatever work your team is doing.

How can the average person make a difference from their own home?

Nothing is too small – find what works for you and your lifestyle. I don’t buy new clothes and at Goterra we drink from recycled jars from my kitchen at home. Not because we alone can reverse climate change with these behaviours but it’s a reminder to all of us that consumerism isn’t necessary as we’ve always believed.  We can remove some of the conveniences of life without causing disruption and still make a difference. Plus, it makes for a great talking point!

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