Podcasts | April 24, 2024

Franchising indoor farms to build a billion dollars in Black wealth (podcast)  

Isaac Silk and David Bank
ImpactAlpha Editor

Isaac Silk

ImpactAlpha Editor

David Bank

When one door closes, another one opens. For Zarû Systems’ Loren Taylor, that second door may open onto a self-contained modular vertical farm full of densely planted microgreens. 

In 2022, Taylor tallied the most first choice votes in the race for mayor of Oakland, California.  After ranked-choice voting was taken into account, however, he was 677 votes behind winner Sheng Thao.

“But who’s counting?” joked Taylor on this week’s Agents of Impact Podcast. 

The ex-biomedical engineer turned management consultant turned City Councilmember shifted his attention to another way of making change: funding and training Black entrepreneurs as owner-operators of turnkey businesses in Oakland and beyond. 

As CEO of Zarû Systems, he has the ambitious goal of building a billion dollars in Black wealth – in the form of 1,000 businesses worth at least $1 million each. 

“Zarû intentionally from the beginning has been about, “How can we design a platform, a business, that uses the capital markets for addressing the ills that capitalism creates – the wealth gap that we see in this country that only continues to widen? Taylor said. “We’re focused on bridging the racial wealth gap – unapologetically.”

To do so, the company has developed an innovative franchising model that offers  “infrastructure as a service.” 

Zarû provides entrepreneurs with the financing to buy a real asset, as well as training, support and services. They then collect recurring royalties as the entrepreneur builds personal wealth and equity in the business. Zarû is piloting the model with high-tech vertical farms built inside of shipping containers. One shipping container can produce the equivalent of two acres of farmland.

In recent years, the hype surrounding vertical farms and controlled environment agriculture has cooled, as evidenced by the spectacular failure of Kentucky based AppHarvest. Taylor believes that the adaptation of the technology is a classic example of Gartner’s “hype cycle.” Having fallen from the “peak of inflated expectations” into the “trough of disillusionment,” Zarû hopes to climb the “slope of enlightenment.” 

Now is the moment, he says, “to make sure that we’re democratizing wealth creation and access for those who are typically not sitting at the table.”