By Adam Kaufman
NEWARK, N.J. -- The 5- and 6-year-olds in the cafeteria at St. Philip's Academy may not have been able to read the chalkboard sign over their heads urging them to "Eat Fresh, Eat Healthy, Eat Foods in Season," but that hardly mattered. The bouncy kindergarteners and first graders were taking turns grabbing fresh produce from the abundant selection at the salad bar, their bowls brimming over with fresh leafy greens that were planted in a science classroom just two floors above them and only 18 days before.
The cheerful scene was made possible by a partnership that the independent K-8 school forged in 2010 with entrepreneur Richard Charles, co-founder of EcoVeggies, an urban farm startup. Charles teamed up with the technology company Aerofarms to introduce the school to aeroponic farming, a process in which plants are grown indoors, without the use of soil.
Charles could easily have been mistaken for a science teacher as he excitedly wrangled a group of eighth graders on a recent afternoon and began instructing them on how to properly prepare and plant arugula. First, they spread out the seeds on porous canvas sheets, then slipped them onto large trays, under LED lighting units, where the plants' roots would be kept moist by automatic, misting spray-heads.
But horticulture wasn't Charles' original calling. After earning a master's degree in computer science from Howard University in 1994, he spent 15 years on Wall Street working for the now-defunct investment bank Salomon Brothers. When the recession hit in 2008 he fell victim to company-wide layoffs, and even though Charles bounced back quickly, landing a job at Goldman Sachs, he was soon laid off again in 2009.
Charles remembers having lunch in Newark with two of his former colleagues, David Lowe and Kamal Karla, soon after they were let go from their Wall Street jobs. The men were discussing the possibilities of re-purposing some of Newark's old, run-down buildings when Lowe, another co-founder of EcoVeggies, mentioned that he had been doing some research in the field of hydroponics. "It was like a lightbulb went off. We were like, 'Wow, we can do this in some of these buildings,' " Charles recalled, his voice rising with excitement.
While they are still searching for appropriate space that's also large enough to compete with conventional farms -- and for investors -- they're hoping that their efforts at St. Philip's will prove the practicality of their concept. They also hope it will allow them to branch out to other schools, where students will learn to grow their own nourishing produce on-site. Not every urban neighborhood has access to quality produce, even at grocery stores.
On a recent afternoon, Charles was busily scouting buildings that he thinks he might be able to turn into farm sites. Strolling through an industrial neighborhood not far from Newark's International Airport, he was taking particular interest in a dilapidated structure with a long row of loading bays. Marveling at the possibilities, he spoke about the future prospects for EcoVeggies. "We want to be able to go into these urban areas -- these 'food deserts' -- and pick a location, either one that exists or one that we build, where you know what you're growing to meet the demographic needs," he explained.
According to Mr. Charles, leaving Wall Street was the best thing that could have happened to him. It has set him on a mission that he's truly passionate about. His advice for other entrepreneurs that are transitioning fields is simple: "At some point in the day, it does come back to you. You are doing this for yourself. You have everything on the line here and you don't have a choice but to succeed."
Watch the video above to see the farm at St. Philip's and hear more about Richard's amazing transition.
Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated that Mr. Charles earned his master's degree from Harvard University.
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