Women in Food: From Theatre to Tech, Erika Block Helps Build a New Food Economy
October 9, 2014 | David Sands
This piece is the part of a Seedstock series profiling women who are leading change in sustainable agriculture and local food. Read more profiles here.
You might call Erika Block something of a web weaver for the local foods economy. As CEO of Local Orbit, a company dedicated to providing sales and business management software and services to entrepreneurs, farmers, food hubs and others involved with local foods, she’s intricately familiar with the logistics that make the movement possible. With clients in 16 states and Canada, her 8-person team provides local food producers and aggregators with cloud-based tech tools and coaching so they can sell their products more efficiently to restaurants, grocers, and institutional buyers.
Block came to the world of information technology from a theatre background. Born in Detroit, she spent her early years in the Motor City before moving to the suburbs in the third grade. She has an MFA in Playwriting from Columbia, studied at NYU’s Interactive Technology Program, and earned a general studies degree from University of Michigan.
Before founding Local Orbit, Block co-founded the Walk & Squawk Performance Project and served as its Co-Artistic/Producing Director from 1994-2006. This work included turning an abandoned Detroit building into a theatre known as the Furniture Factory, creating and teaching theatre, working abroad and facilitating a cross-cultural exchange between Detroit and South Africa.
Block will be participating in a panel on Seedstock’s Reintegrating Agriculture conference on November 11-12, 2014.
Seedstock recently spoke via email with Block about Local Orbit, theatre and the logistics of the local food movement.
Seedstock: How would you describe the underlying vision of Local Orbit?
Block: We want to increase the amount of food that comes from farmers and food makers people know and trust, closer to where they live—on every plate, at every meal.
Currently, less than 1 percent of the food we eat comes from local producers, through a transparent supply chain. That’s a tiny blip in the $1.75 trillion we spend on food in the U.S. Local Orbit is creating infrastructure that increases market share for small farms and food makers. If we can change the ratio to 20 percent of the market, that’s $350 billion that goes directly to local economies through healthier, more sustainably produced food.
Seedstock: How would you describe your relationship with the local/sustainable food community?
Block: I don’t think there’s a single community. Local Orbit has working relationships with customers across the country who are focused on rebuilding local supply chains. So we have a unique perspective on the day-to-day challenges and successes in this emerging market. We’re learning about what works—and what doesn’t—and turning these observations into strategies to help people grow their businesses, not only through our technology solutions, but also through our Hub Camps and coaching services.
Seedstock: How did your childhood shape the work you do with Local Orbit?
Block: My parents and many of my extended family were entrepreneurs and small business owners. I think I took it for granted that you could build your own business, and didn’t realize until fairly recently that it’s not the norm. There were dinner conversations about business partnerships, market changes and problem solving. There were economic ups and downs, and my father lost his business in the early ’80’s, a casualty of the recession. I think growing up with this conversation at the dinner table has enabled me to start businesses and be comfortable with the risks involved.
My grandfather also had a small restaurant distribution company in the Detroit area. I think about him a lot when I think about supporting small businesses and local food distributors who are competing in an industrial food system.
Seedstock: How long have you been interested in theatre?
Block: I didn’t think about theatre when I was a kid. I was interested in writing, then photography. And for a while I thought I was going to be a journalist. I spent my junior year in college in NYC, interning at the Village Voice, and I did some work for the theatre editor. I saw a lot of downtown/alternative productions, which was exciting. When I went back to the University of Michigan my senior year, I decided to take a playwriting class, not realizing that they had an incredible program. It was an amazing experience—truly the best training I’ve had anywhere. It was interactive, rigorous and instilled a sense of history and discipline. The first day of class the professor said “Aristotle wrote your job description.” Everything we wrote was performed by a company of student actors, every week, and it really pointed out how collaborative it all was.
Seedstock: How did you first start getting interested in computers and information technology?
Block: I worked in England, Scotland and South Africa. The work in South Africa actually led me down the path to Local Orbit. Over a period of 6 years I had four residencies teaching and creating theatre in South Africa. During this period I also renovated a building in Detroit, turned it into a theatre. We brought South African artists to Detroit, and Detroit artists to South Africa, which got me interested in mapping technologies as tools for storytelling.
That’s when I decided to go back to grad school at NYU, to study interactive technology. At the same time, I started doing research and interviews to develop a theatre project called “A History of Eating.” I learned about problems farmers were having getting their food to local markets, while chefs were having problems with local sourcing. And the work I’d been doing with technology helped me recognize that there might be a solution. The theatre piece didn’t happen. But Local Orbit did.
Seedstock: What lessons did you learn from theatre that you apply now in your current life?
Block: My work as a theatre director was about bringing together really talented people and creating space that enabled them to do their best work. Connect people and let them create together. That’s how magic happens in the rehearsal studio, which turns into great art.
And it’s what I focus on as I build a company. My job as a CEO is to bring motivated, talented people to Local Orbit, and create an environment for them to do their best work, so they can create great tools and services, which in turn enable our customers to do their best work as they build their businesses.
Seedstock: How did you become passionate about local food?
Block: Cooking was a family activity when I was growing up. Both my parents taught us to cook. And until I started Local Orbit I had time to grow a lot of my own food. I’m interested in simple, well-sourced ingredients. But I’m not really a foodie. For me, the real passion is about knowing where your food comes from, as well as the economic impact of keeping money in communities.
Seedstock: What excites you most about working with the local foods community?
Block: It’s exciting to work in a space where there’s so much demand for the product. And I love the innovation and evolution that’s happening as people try to figure out how to meet this demand—which really means changing the food industry, whether through new production methods and technologies, or by creating transparent, new supply chains.
Seedstock: What impact would you like Local Orbit to have on the movement?
Block: I want to provide the infrastructure that helps local farmers and food makers capture a significant, meaningful share of the total food market. Changing the ratio, as I’ve said, through tools that enable small food producers and distributors to compete with big food producers and distributors.
Seedstock: Describe your working relationship with customers.
Block: I really enjoy working with the scrappy, independent entrepreneurs who use our tools. They aren’t afraid to test and make mistakes and adapt. … They’re people who get stuff done, no matter what the obstacles. They solve problems every week, they have ambitious long-term goals, but they break it down into incremental steps.
The three hub camps we did earlier this year have also lead to great relationships. I love teaching and facilitating the discussions, bringing folks together who are typically isolated in their communities, and spending 3 days in an immersive workshop environment where people help one another grow their businesses.
Seedstock: What’s the most important thing you want folks to know about the work you’re doing?
Block: Rebuilding the food system is fundamentally a supply chain challenge. Supply chains need infrastructure—communications infrastructure, and physical infrastructure like trucks. This isn’t the sexy stuff that always gets people excited about local food and farmers, but farms need distribution to survive. We need more people working on these businesses, building their own local food markets.
Supply chains are stories. Local Orbit, at its core, helps people tell the right story, to the right person at the right time, so the right thing happens. It’s pretty straightforward. But it’s not easy when you’re moving perishable products from farm to kitchen. Local Orbit’s work is about making this happen.
Transparency note: Nina Ignaczak, who serves as Associate Editor at Seedstock, also assists Local Orbit with communications.