Viraj Puri Is on a Mission to Change How Families Eat
The Gotham Greens founder is leading an urban farming revolution--and raising his son to solve big problems, too.
The following was produced in partnership with GMC Sierra, which helps fathers everywhere “Dad Like a Pro.” Together, we celebrate the dedication, discipline, and bold craftsmanship of parents whose achievements in business and at home help their children live full, healthy lives and change the world in the process.
Some startups tackle small problems in order to grow big business and some startups tackle big problems in order to solve them. Predicting the fate of the latter group is difficult so the people behind them need to be not only future-focused but also resilient. Viraj Puri, the co-founder and CEO of Gotham Greens, is both (and friendly). He’s also a parent deeply invested in a mission. He wants to create urban food systems that yield worthy, valuable harvests. He wants the “fresh” produce he serves his son to be truly fresh. And he wants to be able to show his son where it came from.
Seven years after starting his company, Puri can do just that. Gotham Greens operates four high-tech, climate-controlled greenhouse facilities–three in New York and one in Chicago–staffed by 150 employees working to grow sustainable, fresh vegetables for local distribution. His success can be measured in scale or the energy saved on transportation or sales, but it can also be measured in taste. Gotham Greens lettuce tastes good. Thanks to a generous donation program, kids eat it in school cafeterias. Do they know Puri is disrupting food systems in service of creating a more sustainable environment? Nope, and they don’t need to. Puri knows and someday soon his son will, too.
Fatherly caught up with Puri to talk about problem-solving, the future of food, and the present of passing on world-changing values to a two-year-old.
You grew up a city kid and ended up–though I’m not sure you’d put it this way–a farmer. How did that happen?
When I was a kid, our family’s summer and winter vacations were all in the outdoors. My parents would take me to India, where my family is originally from, and we’d visit the national parks, the Himalayas, go on fishing or safari trips. It gave me a great appreciation for the wilderness and the environment.
I studied environmental engineering, which exposed me to greenhouse farming and food production efficiencies. At the same time, I saw consumer preferences shifting towards sustainably produced food and elevated food culture. When I learned that the bulk of fresh produce in New York City comes from 5,000 miles away, I knew what I had to do. My business plan became to create a modern agricultural company producing high-quality produce in cities for urban residents grown with a smaller environmental footprint.
Has that influenced how you’re raising your son?
My wife and I do our best to make sure he’s comfortable, free to explore and test boundaries, but also getting good values. We don’t dumb things down; we try to explain cause and effect and that things have consequences. Of course, he’s barely two, so we really just want to inculcate values in him as he gets older to be able to address problems, to try and make the world better a place, and also to pursue his own passions and interests. If you had told me 15 years ago I’d be doing what I am today, I’d say you’re crazy. But I had support from my parents to be able to do that and so I want to provide that for my son.
How much do you think he understands what you do?
He’s obviously a few years away from fully comprehending but he recognizes the logo and loves our products so he associates all that with his dad, which is cool. We’ve taken him to our greenhouses and he definitely likes the lush, tropical oasis environment.
Has fatherhood changed you professionally?
It’s motivated me to work harder to make Gotham Greens a huge success. I believe in the mission and I believe this solution will have a positive impact on food supply and sustainability. Helping to fix our food system will ultimately benefit my son’s and future generations. I want my family to be proud of me. I work hard to be a good provider for them and to show my son he can pursue big ideas to make the world a better place–and make a living doing it.
How do you balance your work and home life?
It’s been quite challenging, especially as the business has grown. Being an entrepreneur isn’t nine-to-five, it’s 24/7. So, at first, being home felt like I was being forced away from work. But that time has evolved into something mutually beneficial. I’ve found having time at home to not think about work helps clear my mind, refocus, and recharge so when I get back into work I feel fresher.
What’s the biggest lesson fatherhood has taught you so far?
It’s a continual learning experience. I learn new things every day with my son. I just want to keep challenging myself to be a positive influence in his life and grow along the way.
You obviously think a lot about the future. How much is parenting about leaving something behind that outlives you?
It’s not about a personal legacy. I want to be a great father who professionally helped lead the world towards a better place and left it better for my son and future generations. It’s so much bigger than me.