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Think Global; Act Local: Meet Felipe Gonzales, A Serial Entrepreneur in the Silicon Prairie

Happy Fall!

I hope you are enjoying the changing colors in our Silicon Prairie!

This month, I wanted to connect with a serial entrepreneur to understand the journey in this fascinating world.

Mr. Felipe Gonzalez, who majored in international business, co-founded businesses in retail, technology and education. After becoming an angel investor in a couple of startups, his interest in innovation and entrepreneurship grew even more. Gonzalez moved to Silicon Valley to do a master’s in entrepreneurship and marketing at the University of California Berkeley and worked for one of the largest startup accelerators and venture capital funds in the world: Plug and Play. Gonzalez was the lead on Plug and Play’s Agtech office in Fargo, ND until January of 2021.

Today, he leads the Latin America expansion of one of the biggest agriculture startups in the world: Bushel.

When asked how to describe his family in Brazil:

“I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs, so family Sunday lunch was the moment to listen to stories and learn a bit about business and work ethic with my grandfather and father. It was also, a great opportunity to hear a bit of family stories from the old days before they left Spain for Brazil.” Next time you run into him, be sure to ask him which million dollar idea he is working on! With gratitude.

– Alexandre Cyusa

Where do you call home?

I was born and raised in the city of Salvador, state of Bahia, Brazil—together with my twin brother. The city is a coastal capital right in the middle of the tropics. It’s humid, warm, sunny and was the perfect place to be to take in the ocean at the beach.

My school tremendously influenced my worldview and where I wanted to be when I grew up. I was fortunate enough to spend my elementary years until my senior year in an American school in Salvador. It was a bilingual school that was built in the 70s to host the children of American executives that were transferred to factories nearby. All our teachers were American, our curriculum was American and we had to speak English every day. The school ended up being open for anyone that wanted to be in a bilingual, bicultural, I’d say, school. While growing up in that school, I lived and breathed United States culture, language and customs. Since we were guided through an American curriculum, a lot of us wanted to follow our steps all the way to university in the United States. I was one of those that always wanted to be here, and I’d get my chance at some point. I had the opportunity to be an exchange student in New Zealand and learn even more about living a life in another country. I learned the culture while gaining a little more knowledge, experience and independence.

I graduated from high school in 2004 in Salvador. I thought about going to college in the United States, but my father talked me into staying in our hometown in case he needed help with the family business. I thought that was great because I always thought it would be cool to keep running the businesses that my grandfather and dad created and grew. I majored in international business because everything global always excited me. I was an intern in multiple multinational companies which brought me a lot of experience working in a big company.

When I graduated in international business and my brother graduated in business administration, we had an opportunity to inherit one of our family’s businesses that wasn’t doing so well. There were two options on the table: the business would close for good, or we could take over and try to make it work again. In 2008, we took over our uncle and dad’s shares, bought the brand for practically nothing and started all over. We freshened our brand, redesigned our store, redid our strategy and started growing again. People remembered and connected to the brand that used to be popular in the old days. They started coming back and buying. It became a successful business again and is still growing today.

In between and parallel to this happening, I had started to get involved in a lot of startup projects, technologies, investments, etc. That’s when my guts started to push me back to the idea of coming to the United States.

The store was doing well, and I still wanted to accomplish the American dream, so that’s when I decided I wanted to live in Silicon Valley to learn more about the startup/investment scene. I applied for a business course focused on entrepreneurship and marketing at UC Berkeley. That’s where my journey started. There, I had the opportunity of meeting a lot of people from the entrepreneurial and venture capital world.

After Berkeley, I was hired for an internship at the Plug and Play Tech Center in Sunnyvale, which is south of the Bay Area. Plug and Play is the largest startup accelerator and most active venture capital fund in the world. When I was there, I got to meet even more entrepreneurs, investors and executives from big companies. I got to work on some amazing projects that involved global ventures. One of them was launching a Plug and Play operation in São Paulo, Brazil. Being a Brazilian helped a lot on that project.

The second project, and the one that really changed everything and brought me where I am now, was leading the launch of a Plug and Play operation in Fargo, North Dakota. I gladly took this project because that was how I saw myself being able to move to a small American town like I always wanted. That’s what happened. As soon as the project was ready to go, I was appointed (technically I appointed myself) to move to Fargo and run the office here, focused on agricultural technologies with the Grand Farm. I quickly packed my truck with my stuff and started an amazing trip to where I call home now. Here I met the most amazing people and always felt good about where I was. After a while I was invited by Jake Joraanstad, with whom I already had a tight friendship, to join Bushel and I couldn’t be more excited to work for a local company with amazing people and values. Here I am still and I’m not thinking of leaving.

What’s the story of your passion for traveling the world?

Can I brag a little? I’ve been to 35 countries (I think I counted right) and my parents are the ones to blame. We’ve been traveling around the world since we were small kids. My parents rarely traveled alone.

Being able to see so many cultures, people and languages really gave me a perspective of being open-minded and understanding of differences and cultures.

During these travels, I’ve also been able to see extreme poverty and extreme wealth. I’ve seen extreme development and extreme underdevelopment. These views help to make me who I am today and I’ll always be appreciative of everything I have and everything I’ve conquered.

How does your dual Brazilian and Spanish heritage shape your identity?

Spanish culture is profoundly infused in my identity. Having my grandparents, uncles and father as true Spaniards, everything in our day-to-day somehow was connected to Spain—from my grandparent’s broken Portuguese with a Spanish accent to my grandma’s typical Spanish cooking.

We spent almost every European summer at our house in Spain. It was almost 30 days of living our Spanish heritage, playing with our Spanish cousins and friends and traveling all around Europe (I think that’s how I learned to love road tripping). Obviously, I learned the language and to appreciate every cultural aspect that my grandparents brought to Brazil and treasured highly.

Spanish people can be a little tougher than Brazilians so that made a good mix, I guess. The Spanish roughness with the Brazilian warmth. For me it was hard to separate both “bloods,” for me it was always one. I had a lot of American culture embedded in me because of school. I liked basketball, football, American music and everything coming from the United States. Moving to the United States for me was never a shock. It was like I belonged.

What are some misconceptions about people of Latin culture and Latin America?

I don’t think there are a lot of misconceptions. There will always be people that create misconceptions and try to create problems about a group of people, culture, etc. Latin culture is warm, happy and most are hard workers. A lot of Latin Americans come from nothing lack opportunities to create something and see the United States as the land of opportunities, which is true.

What are some things you do in the community? How can others get involved?

Business mentorships. I have done it sometimes and will always keep doing it. Whatever help I can give to young future entrepreneurs, I am in.

As a serial entrepreneur, what is the next problem you are trying to solve?

First, I want to make Bushel as successful in Brazil as it is here. We are on the right track, and I am sure it will happen. For me, it is a great opportunity to be involved in a project that I love and believe it’s going to help farmers. I’m also excited about being able to connect the two countries that I love.

After that, who knows what opportunities will come up. Spoiler alert, there are some ideas brewing.

What is your vision for 2030 for the Fargo-Moorhead community?

My dream with everything I’ve done and have been doing is to build a bridge of technology, knowledge and people between North Dakota and Brazil. Living on both sides of the spectrum made me see how valuable we are to each other. How complementary our cultures can be. A lot of us here and in Brazil, as agricultural superpowers for example, know that we carry the responsibility of feeding the world. This is a responsibility that we can share and grow together by exchanging technologies, methods, knowledge and people. There’s a lot of work to be done and no country or state is going to do it alone.

I always say, there’s a pie that still needs to grow a lot. Let’s grow the pie before we try to split the pie.

Written by Alexandre Cyusa

Alexandre Cyusa came to the FM area in the fall of 2010 to attend Concordia College. Originally from Kigali, Rwanda, Cyusa has lived in Switzerland, Ethiopia, Guinea and France. His traveling experiences have helped him in making this world a smaller and simpler place to live in. He currently works for Folkways and is interested in community development and nurturing global citizenship.

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