IDEA Impact Stories: AgriTech North
As someone who is indigenous, differently abled, and a member of the LGBTQ2S+ community, entrepreneur Benjamin Feagin Jr. has always had a keen interest in inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility (IDEA).
There was no question that he would incorporate IDEA principles into AgriTech North, the biotech company he founded in 2009. In fact, the principles are ingrained into the company’s foundation – literally.
Based in Dryden, Ontario, AgriTech North is a social enterprise that is focused on developing technologies to grow food and other agricultural products in Canada’s Arctic region, AgriTech North has four guiding pillars: food security, education, sustainability, and EDI (equity, diversity, and inclusion).
“These are more than core concepts for us,” says Feagin Jr. “The principles are written directly into our articles of incorporation. They’re part of how we operate.”
The company’s social mission is to reduce fresh produce costs in northern Indigenous communities by 25% and increase its availability in communities without year-round access.
AgriTech North has also established an IDEA strategy through which programs are offered to improve workplace diversity and inclusion, specifically targeting underrepresented groups such as women, persons with a disability, visible minorities, the LGBTQ+ community, Indigenous peoples, and new Canadians.
The company holds itself accountable by reporting on its equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts annually. The seven employees who work at AgriTech North are encouraged to promote IDEA principles within the workplace on a constant basis.
“Our employees embody the principles of inclusion, equity, and diversity by being themselves,” he says.
Feagin Jr. elaborates that all the staff at AgriTech North represent IDEA principles and half (50%) are indigenous.
“Our employees bring their culture and individuality to work on a daily basis,” he says. “The only thing we encourage them to do is tell us what’s socially relevant.”
To ensure they walk the talk on IDEA principles, AgriTech North conducts regular assessments to better understand how employees feel about IDEA. The organization also includes questions about inclusion when conducting exit interviews, and all performance evaluations include an IDEA component.
While Feagin Jr. acknowledges that progress has been made when it comes to greater representation in the bio-economy, he says that challenges to full inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility persist.
Whether it is a lack of daycare places for children of single mothers or connecting with indigenous people in their own communities, Feagin Jr. says more needs to be done, and that challenges can be particularly acute in rural and remote communities such as Dryden.
“We need to connect with people in the community where they feel comfortable,” he says.
Feagin Jr. adds that, in the end, IDEA principles need to be about providing opportunities to people working in Canada’s biotech sector. He says an area that needs particular focus is when it comes to people who are from impoverished backgrounds.
“There needs to be more accommodations for people who have different socio-economic situations,” he says. “Hiring someone from a troubled background may not always work out. But you never know. People can surprise you.”