LaVandez (Van) T. Jones, ’14, came to Chicago Booth with a clear goal in mind: to make an impact on a global scale. While a student in the Full-Time MBA Program, Jones partnered with Cornell graduate Jehiel Oliver to pitch a concept for a “smart” tractor in the John Edwardson, ’72, Social New Venture Challenge (SNVC). Their Hello Tractor startup won first place in the 2014 SNVC, earning $30,000 in crucial funding for launching the business.
Akin to an Uber for tractors, Hello Tractor is an agritech startup that uses smart technologies to connect farmers to productivity-enhancing technologies across the emerging and frontier markets. The company is on its way to revolutionizing farming in sub-Saharan Africa. “New solutions and new models have to be put in place to ensure that the smallholder farmers that dominate the landscape get access to the farm machinery that’s going to improve their lives,” Jones said.
His latent passion for entrepreneurship first took shape during his undergraduate days at the University of Cincinnati. He helped secure $250,000 through private donors to design a multiyear leadership, civic responsibility, and college opportunity conference for inner-city youth. After college, Van launched his career as an analyst and consultant in Nielsen’s innovation practice in Shanghai, eventually managing his own team. At Booth, he worked as a summer associate brand manager at Deerfield, Illinois-based snack maker Mondelēz International. After graduation, he worked at Wilmington, Delaware-based DuPont as a global marketing manager and later in strategy and M&A.
Jones now works full-time for Hello Tractor—which launched in Nigeria in the summer of 2014—focusing on building connections among the agribusiness community in smallholder-dominant markets. Many small farmers in Nigeria suffer from poverty and low crop yields. The country has high demand for tractors, which are a scarce resource. Some of the farmers using the service make $2 a day or less and have families to support. Hello Tractor addresses these problems by providing tractor application services and by retrofitting existing tractors or new tractors entering the market with GPS antennae that are designed to work in areas with little or no internet penetration.
Jones’s entrepreneurial journey with Hello Tractor has required an ability to deal with the inevitable surprises that regularly face any new startup. “Understanding how to navigate those surprises and how to adapt is incredibly important,” Jones said. “That is one of the key aspects of what I got from a Chicago Booth education.”
By 2015, Hello Tractor had completed its first sales cycle for Nigeria, with approximately $6.5 million in the pipeline. It has since expanded into Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, and Senegal. By focusing on solving significant ecosystem challenges, Hello Tractor has expanded beyond tractor owners, delivering value to tractor dealers and manufacturers as well. Through a $2 million partnership with the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Hello Tractor has been able to build the most networked fleet of tractors across the continent and provide job opportunities to hundreds of young people in rural Nigeria.
Jones’s true passion is to leverage technology and his Booth education to improve the livelihoods—and lives—of these farmers, and to do so in a sustainable way. “Joining Chicago Booth was where I needed to be, that’s why I keep in contact with the people I met there,” Jones said. “We’re all going down a path of curiosity, of trying to create something new for ourselves, for our families, for our communities, for our countries, for the world.”
Jones views the Distinguished Alumni Award as an opportunity to connect with the Booth community and to help future generations of Booth students make an impact in the world. “My time at Chicago Booth was incredibly formative and incredibly shaping,” Jones said. “It’s made me—over the last several years—the person that I am. The critical thinking, the ability to think through challenges, and the fortitude to work through problems. As a Distinguished Alumni winner, I hope that I’m able to collaborate with others who are looking to do fantastic things. That’s why you go to Booth in the first place.”