At 38, Viraj Puri is aware he is a young, first-time CEO of an agriculture business type that the global, commercial-scale world of fresh produce has only begun to take seriously the past several years.
Puri is co-founder of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Gotham Greens, a hydroponic farming company that began in 2009, supplying urban areas in several states.
“When we created this vision 10 years ago, we faced some skepticism from the industry on whether we could be impactful with our business model, and I’m really proud that by today, we have 500,000 square feet of greenhouse in five U.S. cities with over 300 employees and distribution to over 30 U.S. states,” Puri said.
Named one of the “Coolest Businesses in America” by Business Insider, Gotham Greens lettuces and salad dressings line shelves at many supermarkets and are used by many foodservice customers.
Not from a farming family, Puri grew up in Chicago and New York and comes at this industry from a green engineering and sustainable technology perspective.
After studying international development, economics and environmental studies at Colgate University, Puri developed and managed start-up enterprises in southern India’s Ladakh region, Malawi in eastern Africa and New York City by focusing on sustainable agriculture, green building, renewable energy and environmental design.
The lightbulb went on with the emergence of the farm-to-table culture of the early 2000s, plus the advent of high-tech greenhouses.
“One of the many things that stands out about Viraj — who has been critical to the success of Gotham Greens — is his emphasis on building the business around the needs of the crops to create a produce brand that is focused on the best quality product for its customers,” said Jenn Frymark, Gotham Greens chief greenhouse officer.
Puri has advocated for industry’s creation of this category, including greenhouses, controlled environment agriculture and urban agriculture for retail and foodservice. He’s given several TedX talks on these topics.
“We’re sort of pioneers in this space, to do commercial-scale urban farming, especially in New York City of all places,” Puri said.
He’s a member of United Fresh Produce Association and participates in the New York Produce Show and Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit, sometimes sitting on panel discussions and leading workshops at trade shows.
Puri works with universities on advisory boards and collaborates on research initiatives, such as seed variety development, technology and talent development.
This company is his baby, Puri said, and his love for it appears endless.
“We live on a planet with finite natural resources, and we have a growing population, so across all sectors we need to find a way to more resource efficient,” Puri said.
“We believe urban greenhouses can play a role in global sustainability and improving health and wellness by making people want to eat more plants.”