Growing leadership

As a young man, Will Allen, founder and chief executive officer of Milwaukee’s only urban farm, Growing Power Inc., left his parents’ farm in Bethesda, Md., to seek a career as a professional basketball player.

Allen played for the Miami Floridians of the old American Basketball Association (ABA) and then played in Europe.

“My athletic career has really helped me,” Allen said. “It taught me so many things about life skills, hard work, dedication and teamwork. I run this organization like a sports franchise in a lot of ways. I may emerge as a team leader, as the captain, but everyone here is a partner, a part of the team.”

After his return from Europe he settled in Milwaukee, and Growing Power emerged from his produce stand and his first volunteer operation with a youth group.

“Where we are at right now, I will tell you the truth – I never planned to do this,” he said. “It started out as just a way for me to sell my produce to the community, but it has turned into such an evolutionary process.”

Today, Growing Power is a nationally known organization with 35 full-time employees, a co-location in Chicago, four training centers and more potential training centers across the country. His work earned him a nomination to be the official White House Gardener and has also earned him a reputation as an advocate for sustainable food sources and an expert in urban farming.

“When I started this organization, my goal was to involve everyone,” Allen said. “I wanted it to be a diverse place that would push towards dismantling racism within the food system, and feed and educate people in the community.”

According to Allen, Growing Power has grown both regionally and nationally over the last decade and has a plan to train more people in other cities in order to meet demand.

“We were kind of pushed in this direction by the consumers and the fact that more people want our food,” he said.

While Allen is in the process of teaching others to do the things that he does at Growing Power, the farm has increased its own growing footprint in the community by ramping up production, building more greenhouses, and potentially getting more land, he said.

“Everything I take on, I go beyond expectation,” Allen said. “Out of pride, I want to do a good job beyond what is expected of me. I don’t want to leave any doubt that I am going to do something well. That’s a personal decision that I make.”

According to Allen, everyone who leads should take an inventory of their strengths and weaknesses.

“I know what my strengths and weaknesses are,” he said. “I really like people regardless of whom they are or where they came from. I really value diversity, and that I think is a strength in this business.”

Allen believes training is important for an effective workforce. According to him, it takes at least two years for someone to really understand how the Growing Power farm operates. He tends to hire people who are committed to the organization and love the food system and the work that they do there, he said.

“I’m not a micromanager, by any means. That is not my style,” Allen said. “I lead with the philosophy that we are partners in this. You are not the employee, and I’m not the employer. We want to evolve to a situation where we are partners. We are a team, and our goal is to win.”

To win, members of Allen’s team have to maintain the day-to-day operations of the farm and “pull their own weight,” he said.

“I want my employees to know that they are responsible for their own jobs,” Allen said. “I might be the captain of this team, but their performance, our performance, is paramount to staying in business.”

According to Allen, his parents were his greatest role models. He is passing on a legacy of what they did: welcoming people, sharing food, not pre-judging people and teaching others to grow and be sustainable, he said.

“Some people are like Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, who were different kinds of leaders, ones that led from the heart, that could move people and inspire people. That’s the kind of leader I try to be,” Allen said.  

 

Will Allen
Founder and CEO, Growing Power Inc.

Industry: Urban farming

Location: 5500 W. Silver Spring Drive, Milwaukee

Number of employees: 35

 

Leadership Moment

“When I first bought this place, I started working with kids. The pure innocence of kids and how they get excited about it just energized me to continue to do this. When things are really hard, I can think about my work with kids, and it’s a quick reminder of why I’m doing this.”  — Will Allen

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