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    Photo Jamie Sonneville

    October 19, 2023

    The Good Kind of Disruption

    It was the night before TechCrunch Disrupt, a three-day conference in San Francisco, Calif., that features the world’s preeminent competition for startup companies. Jamie Sonneville, founder and CEO of the farm management software company Agri-Trak, had been preparing to deliver her six-minute pitch to a panel of judges in front of a live audience of thousands and streamed simultaneously to many more.


    A fifth-generation apple grower with an IT background, Sonneville founded Agri-Trak as a way to help her husband manage the paperwork and reporting that comes with running a farm. Agri-Trak helps to provide farmers with real-time, accurate data and to ensure that their reporting is compliant with H-2A, a government program that allows foreign workers to work seasonally in the agricultural industry. Presenting her company’s story at TechCrunch was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; out of 3,000 applicants, Agri-Trak had been selected to be in the top 20.


    And then, a few days before the conference, she fell seriously ill.


    Jason Hill, Agri-Trak’s co-founder and chief revenue officer, now had to rewrite and deliver the pitch from memory. “My mind was in a million places at that time,” says Hill, “with what was coming and what we were trying to do.”


    The night before the conference, Hill and Sonneville had a phone call with Mike D’Eredita, Ph.D., director of Le Moyne’s Keenan Center for Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Creativity. “Mike has been and will be our biggest cheerleader, which I love,” says Sonneville. “The minute he found out about TechCrunch, he was like, ‘This is huge. What do you need from me?’ Me being sick changed our timeline and what we were going to do, but Mike was available by text, email, call, any minute we had a question.”


    Sonneville had met D’Eredita previously through a different business competition, when he served as her coach. Keeping in contact with him afterwards, she was soon introduced to the Keenan Center and its staff at Le Moyne. Through the Center, she built connections in the Central and Upstate New York startup world which helped to advance her company.


    Helping Sonneville and Hill to “drill down into the essence of Agri-Trak,” as Sonneville puts it, D’Eredita presented the two with hypothetical questions that the judges might ask and assisted Hill in formulating his answers and presentation. “He was pivotal in that piece of it,” says Sonneville.


    After a successful pitch in the first round, Agri-Trak progressed to the final six. This final round of pitches was judged by a panel of prominent business figures, such as Marissa Mayer, former CEO of Yahoo. “This is a big feather in our cap because we’ve been in the startup ecosystem in Upstate New York, which is entirely different from the West Coast,” says Sonneville. “To be recognized by a player like TechCrunch, and to be on stage next to other companies and founders who are literally disrupting their industries … is incredibly validating.”


    Placing in the final six of TechCrunch helped Agri-Trak to draw the attention of major investment firms and to increase the company’s brand recognition. Throughout the process, Sonneville and Hill’s passion for helping small- and medium-sized farms shined through, and their appreciation for the entrepreneurship community could not be overstated.


    “Surround yourself with the brightest and best people you possibly can because they are the ones who are going to lift you through the really low times,” says Sonneville. “There are plenty of ups and downs in the startup world, and weathering that storm alone is not something that I would ever recommend. You need to surround yourself with people who can provide real-world insight into how to navigate some of these uncharted places.”


    Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images for TechCrunch

    Category: In the Field