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Megan Pirelli ’13 MBA ’19 (above) and Ashley Ponschok MBA ’19 shared ground-level experience at a food-tech start-up that’s serving up fresh greens for K-12 pupils and food pantry clients.

SNC-Connected Co-Workers Make Sure America Eats Its Greens

There’s a definite St. Norbert flavor to a food-tech start-up that’s putting year-round indoor-grown fresh greens into the diets of K-12 pupils and food pantry clients. For much of the past two years, co-workers connected by their St. Norbert experience made up 40 percent of the company’s young staff.

Megan Pirelli ’13 MBA ’19 majored in philosophy and political science at St. Norbert and had decided on law school next, but an internship at the Organic Trade Board in the UK set her on a mission “to help people be more connected to their food.”

She transferred to the MBA program at St. Norbert from her graduate program in Florida (where she had set up a community garden project). She arrived at Feeding America’s eastern Wisconsin office, planning to work full time while taking MBA classes at night; at Feeding America, she met fellow SNC grad student Ashley Ponschok MBA ’19, who had been following the same work-study balance for a year.

Ponschok, as a biology and chemistry major at the University of Wisconsin, had followed a career in food security after “an a-ha moment” on her graduation day, when she realized she didn’t want to work in a lab, and instead wanted to be out in the world. “My roommate and I Googled ‘biology degree,’ and public health came up.”

Their boss at Feeding America was Alex Tyink, who was preparing to launch Flex Farm, the mobile hydroponics systems at the heart of Fork Farms. Pirelli and Ponschok saw the business in its infancy while Tyink worked on his prototypes in the office. Pirelli and Ponschok shared some MBA classes as their programs overlapped.

“It was tough. Personal life was on hold for two years,” Ponschok said. “When Megan arrived it was great to take some classes with her.”

Pirelli said, “I was able to come to work the morning after classes and put into practice what I had learned.”

After Tyink launched Fork Farms, Ponschok joined him as operations director in 2018. (She just recently returned to her roots in Minneapolis, where she is working as a business consultant.) 

“I loved it, because I’m process-driven, and in my nonprofit work I was motivated by helping people with limited resources. I enjoyed learning about how all our components were made and how they came to life to have a positive effect. I was so excited the first time I went to see a production line at a manufacturer. I had the opportunity to see almost all of our parts made firsthand, because they’re nearly all made in Wisconsin. Every time I visited a manufacturer, I learned something new.”

Pirelli swiftly followed as community engagement director, working with schools (Flex Farm has a K-12 curriculum pack), food pantries and health services. “I’m bringing the mission of the company to life. Of course we have to make sales, but the purpose is for the greater good. I believe in everyone’s right to fresh, locally sourced food, and it is a gift to have the chance to do that with cutting-edge technology with a commercial foundation. In nonprofits, you’re always trying to source the next bit of funding, and it’s hard to plan.” 

“Ashley is the connective tissue, veins and arteries of the organization,” Pirelli explained earlier this year. “And I’m the philosopher, so I’m more like the soul.”

“But Megan is our hands, too,” Ponschok added, “because she reaches out and touches people.”

Aug. 18, 2020