MBA@Denver student Whitney Sjostrom leverages campus programs to develop sustainable agriculture from afar
In 2016, Whitney Sjostrom took a vacation. After serving as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army Special Forces for 10 years, she planned to relax on the beach in Mexico and ponder, “what’s next?” She didn’t have to wonder for long. Her next career found her when she serendipitously met fellow traveler Don Mischnick, a Texas farmer who had spent 30 years developing a product line for sustainable agriculture.
Growing up in Townsend, Montana, Sjostrom harvested crops and raised cattle for the county fair. The ranch hand and Miss Montana-America pageant contestant studied political science at the University of Montana, then deployed to the Middle East, dreaming of making a significant impact on the world.
There, Sjostrom analyzed global sustainability issues—population shifts, climate change and resource constraints. She helped women in Afghanistan create small businesses growing and selling saffron to strengthen local economies and support their own security.
This opened her eyes to how agriculture as a whole could improve. She realized, “if it’s not in the soil, it can’t be in the plants.” But, the more fertilizer and water they added to try to improve the nutritional quality of the crops, the more chemicals ran off and infiltrated the whole ecosystem.
“You get to thinking that there needs to be a better method and it’s time to move that forward if the world is going to feed nine billion people by 2050,” she said.
At 72, Mischnick didn’t want to scale his sustainable agriculture product, but he gave Sjostrom permission to run with it.
“That lightbulb just sort of went off, and I was like OK, I can do this, I think I can start a company,” she said.
Sjostrom moved into the National Guard and launched Agpro Technologies Inc.—an agricultural bio-tech company that delivers microbiology products to naturally improve soil ecology, lawn, garden and plant growth.
Now living in Victor, Idaho, the one-time Denver resident decided to pursue an MBA to gain the business acumen necessary to succeed as a CEO. She heard about the Daniels College of Business’s new MBA@Denver online program.
“It was an immediate yes for me, because I can continue to move about working on projects and still pursue a graduate degree,” she said.
Sjostrom also wanted to remain connected to campus and her classmates. Luckily, the online MBA program’s immersion classes bring students to DU for a weekend to meet and attend lectures together.
“My classmates and I had spent so much time over the screen because the ‘Brady Bunch’ goes on every Tuesday and Thursday of class,” Sjostrom explained. “When we first met, we all hugged each other, and that really speaks to something.”
“It is a phenomenal program, “Sjostrom continued. “It’s a lot of hard work every week, but it’s so good.”
Not letting location create a barrier to involvement, Sjostrom participated in the Project X-ITE Incubator X program in 2018, where she connected with industry experts and mentors, and secured an XLR8 grant to further develop her ideas for AgPro.
Leveraging business data and market trend analysis, Sjostrom doubled Agpro’s year-over-year sales, and established efficient supply channels and operational logistics to increase profit margins and mitigate risk. The company recently partnered with large industry distributors.
“It’s fun,” she said. “I always like telling my professors, ‘Oh my gosh, I actually got to apply what we just learned; this couldn’t have come at a better time!’”
Sjostrom also is a 2019 Chancellor’s Global Innovation Fellow—one of five DU students who were awarded $5,000 to support their internships with a global social impact organization that is pursuing a Sustainable Development Goal or Grand Challenge. Sjostrom interned with not one, but three organizations—Vertical Harvest, Cosmic Apple Farms and Clawson Greens. Sjostrom will conclude her research into the viability of feeding populations with alternative growing methods in January 2020.
“The fellowship provided me an avenue to stay engaged in my academic studies and connected to the University throughout the summer,” Sjostrom said. “I was able to gain a new perspective in creative techniques for solving the global food security and health challenges.”
“Whitney has jumped at every opportunity and resource available to students, and she never let distance get in the way of her experience,” said Nina Sharma, managing director of Project X-ITE. “Her commitment to the DU community while being a remote student is indicative of her innovative nature and her passion for making change.”
As if everything else didn’t keep her busy enough, in spring 2019, Sjostrom also was a client in Daniels Professor and Endowed Chair of Entrepreneurship Rosanna Garcia’s Foundations of Digital Marketing class, where undergraduate students develop and test real digital marketing campaigns for startup companies dedicated to solving the most difficult and far-reaching issues facing society today.
With AgPro in the growth stage, it was both an opportunity for Sjostrom to help fellow Daniels students learn and for them to develop marketing ideas for her business.
“I think using young entrepreneurs and businesses is a great idea, because it’s really low risk,” she said.
From failure—Facebook banned their ads because Agpro services the hemp industry—to success—the students’ email drip campaign to a cold list from a sports turf conference led to a $3,600 sale during Agpro’s slowest month—Sjostrom said flexibility is key.
“In my previous experience, I let my soldiers come up with new ideas. I always said ‘don’t shut it down; don’t assume that you know,’” she said. “I know that I’m not great at marketing—I don’t understand the best ways to leverage it, so I stayed really open to see what the students came up with, and I let them explore it.”
She said their feedback helped her improve her brand messaging to attract new customers.
“We were really lucky working with someone so responsive, so hands on and willing to implement the strategies,” said Sophie Bunge, a senior marketing major.
Junior marketing major Evan O’Dowd added, “It was a really good pairing. Whitney is very smart and successful, but didn’t have her head in the marketing mindset. Being able to help her connect the great work she was doing with great customers through her sales pitch was really awesome. It was such a great learning experience.”
Again, Sjostrom facilitated this on-campus partnership from 600 miles away.
“In today’s world, it’s easy—you can either text or email, and if you’re like me, everything pings at once on your phone,” she said.
The 30-year-old plans to graduate with her MBA in May 2021 with a concentration in business analytics.