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‘I followed my own path, turning people’s doubts into a source of motivation’ - Mathilde Jakobsen [Interview]

Article-‘I followed my own path, turning people’s doubts into a source of motivation’ - Mathilde Jakobsen [Interview]

© Fi Global Insights Women in Food Interview with Mathilde Jakobsen
Mathilde Jakobsen founded Fresh.Land after hearing a cry from help from one farmer: her father-in-law who was being squeezed out of business by commodity traders and forced to watch his harvest rot. Eight years later, Fresh.Land connects farmers directly to consumers and supplies 50,000 fruit and vegetable boxes in Scandinavia.

We caught up with her to find out more about her career to date.

You are co-founder of Fresh.Land, a digital marketplace that connects farmers directly to consumers, shortening supply chains and giving more value to farmers. What was the inspiration for this company?

“Fresh.Land was founded back in 2015 as a response to the cry for help from one farmer – my father-in-law Artur, who has an orange farm in the Algarve. Every year, he would have to negotiate the price for his oranges with the local middlemen and every year the price would go lower. They would say "Oh Artur, your oranges have too many surface defects, they are a bit sour, size is small etc.", all to squeeze him down in price. His oranges are the most delicious and sweet oranges you can get. One year, the price went so low that it didn't even offset the cost of harvesting his fruits. He had to let the fruits go to waste leaving them hanging on the trees, which left him devastated.

“That's when we decided that we had to change the food industry for the better - we had to empower the farmers if we want a more fair and sustainable food system. Today, Fresh.Land delivers around 50,000 boxes of fruits and vegetables to consumers in Denmark and Sweden and we work with farmers all over Europe.”

You were also appointed a member of the CEO Commitment taskforce, advising the Danish government on digitisation. What did this role involve?

“Yes, this was back in 2021. We were a group of 30 CEOs from the Danish Business elite, who were appointed because of our different backgrounds within digitisation. The purpose was to present recommended actions and priorities to the Danish government for how to put Denmark at the forefront of digitisation.

“Having built a digital business from scratch, without legacy systems, and in an industry that traditionally works offline, I was in a strong position to speak about digitisation of the food system as an enabler for the green transition.

“For example, through digitisation in Fresh.Land, we are able to cut out three to five middlemen, warehousing, cold storage, and ripening chambers and, as a result, we reduce greenhouse gas emissions and food waste along the food supply chain.”

You previously worked in the medtech sector at Coloplast and are also a lecturer at Copenhagen Business School (CBS). Was it daunting to pivot to a different industry and enter the male-dominated world of farming?

“In fact, the food industry is very male dominated, not only farming. I never made a conscious choice, it just happened as my partner and I really wanted to help his father break free from the middlemen’s grip. And while helping Artur, more farmers came to us asking for help.

“That's when we found that the problem we were solving is much greater and is a systemic problem of the food industry. That's when we found ourselves building a digital platform helping farmers selling direct all over Europe. First [it was] B2B to retailers and caterers and now [it is] mostly direct-to-consumers.

“The biggest difference has been to stand on my own, building something from scratch and dealing with real life problems without the ‘protective layer’ that surrounds an organisation like Coloplast or CBS. Inside CBS and Coloplast, you work only with people that have been filtered through a rigorous admission or recruitment process and you do business with like-minded people or organisations.

“When you enter the real world and have to build something from scratch, you can only rely on yourself in building a name for your business as there is no big organisation you can piggyback on, and you cannot attract the same talent. You will make mistakes and learn from those mistakes and you will encounter people that may not play by the same rules and ethical code. All these are valuable learnings [that] help you navigate in the business environment and are learnings you are shielded from in a big organisation.”

Looking back at your career to date, what achievement are you most proud of?

“I'm proud of having built a company from scratch without funding that is helping farmers thrive and consumers eat healthy and delicious organic products.

“I'm also proud of having followed my own path, turning people’s doubts into a source of motivation.

“I'm proud that the Dean of CBS invited me to deliver the Commencement Speech in 2020/2021 for the 4,000 Master's students graduating that year at CBS and for sharing with them my journey as an entrepreneur [to inspire] the next step in their careers.”

Do you have any tips to keeping a work-life balance?

“I think it is important when you start a new business as a founder to have boots on the ground and take the early punches, as those are the big learnings and clues that will lead you in the right direction. There will be periods where you don't have work-life-balance and as a founder this is not a choice you make.

“Later on, when you have found the right product-market fit and the business is scaling, you can look for a professional management and pursue a more strategic board member role. I haven't fully reached that yet but I'm in the process and work much less than what I did just a few years ago. This allows me time to start new projects, as I find motivation in [...] handing over the ball to someone else when things are running and starting new projects.”

As a startup founder, are you always on the lookout for potential new business ideas/ solutions to problems?

“Yes, I am currently working on projects in five different industries: foodtech/e-commerce, real estate, construction, hospitality, and finance!”