The co-founder of My MilkCrate, an app that connects Philly residents to local, sustainable businesses, talked to TechRepublic about how her work in nonprofits and research led her to start a tech company.
In front of the house Morgan Berman grew up in was an art school. Behind it was a community garden and center for local, sustainable agriculture. Her mother was a chef who was part of the farm-to-table movement in Philadelphia, and she also wrote books about thrift stores. So she was raised with the local economy, and sustainable lifestyle habits, from a young age.
"In hindsight, it kind of makes sense why I am the way I am," she said.
Indeed it does — Berman is the co-founder and CEO of My MilkCrate, an app that connects people in Philadelphia with local resources that support a sustainable lifestyle. The phrase they kick around the office is that the service "ties your wallet to your values."
Both of Berman's parents started their own companies, and she started her first one at 16 years old. It was a fashion company that sold old pursues she remade using vintage materials. She sold them to a high-end boutique in Philadelphia and to Anthropologie.
After a while, though, Berman became disillusioned with the fashion industry. When she went to college at William & Mary, she majored in women's studies and anthropology. She was heavily involved on campus, particularly with women's rights and women's health groups.
She worked with the Planned Parenthood campus affiliate to educate students about sexual health; worked a domestic violence hotline; and was a sexual assault ambassador for the campus group.
After college, Berman went to work for Planned Parenthood, where she stayed for about a year, and then to several other related nonprofits.
"I was passionate about the cause but the work wasn't as satisfying as I'd hoped," she said. "There wasn't professional development opportunities, I wasn't able to be creative, and I felt very much at the bottom of a very big pyramid."
That was frustrating for someone who was a leader throughout her young adult life, and who was used to being artistic and creative in solving problems.
By that time, Berman was about 25, and she started working part-time at an Apple retail store and also doing part-time work at the University of Pennsylvania's research lab in the department of surgery. She had a lot of time to think and explore her options, and she often read Grid Magazine, a local publication about sustainability and the economy. It was so inspiring, she applied to graduate school at Philadelphia University for a sustainable design program, and earned a full assistantship.
While at school, she worked at Grid as an unpaid intern and then eventually as the director for community engagement. In her second year of the master's program, Berman realized she wanted to make it easier for others around her age to live more sustainably. She was into mobile technology because of her work at Apple, so she thought, "why don't I take this community and cause in the magazine and create an app that could connect people to living more sustainably?"
So, in September 2013, My MilkCrate was formed. Shortly after, she grew her team and found a co-founder, Jason Cox.
In 2014, they released the first version of the app, updated the website, and launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo (which reached its goal of $20,000) all at once. In the beginning, Milkcrate was formed as a local product, but with the idea it could scale to other cities easily if it worked.
That time was chaotic, and Berman said it was "a lot of fake it till you make it, things not feeling real, wanting things to feel more done, more perfect, but just having to push ahead and work with what you've got."
Berman presented My MilkCrate at the Forbes 30 Under 30 in Philadelphia and was recently listed as one of the "Top 10 Female Entrepreneurs to Watch" by the UN Foundation. She also is part of the World Economic Forum as a Global Shaper. The company is finishing up its Seed round, raising $650,000 after a successful first year.
The team has also been gathering data in cities around the country including Denver, Colorado, Princeton, New Jersey, and Asheville, North Carolina, to expand nationally soon. DC is on the horizon, but they are focusing on launching in Boston, with a soft launch in August and full-blown launch in September.
Starting last year, Berman and her team of four to six people met fairly often. They had meetings around a kitchen table, and started coming together more regularly.
"That was a lot of fun and there were always doughnuts," Berman said. "And those were two things I wanted to always hold on to: food and fun."
My MilkCrate settled into an actual office in spring 2015, after raising Seed money and spending months hopping from co-working spaces to coffee shops to work. The team has finally had time to get to know each other, reflect, and think about the dynamics of the company. And now, because the vision is so big, they are looking for partnerships and freelancers to contribute and add value to the service.
"We've come a really long way... and it's exciting we're now being able to think more long term and strategically, saying no to things that don't feel right and not having to say yes to everything. Just being more thoughtful and careful," Berman said. "We're still building into the company ways we can be creative and innovate, but doing it in a way of long-term vision. It's a tech company now, not just [throwing out] some crazy ideas to see what sticks."
In her own words...
How do you unplug?
"I went on a night hike the other night with my boyfriend. I was like, I need to see trees. So we took a little picnic and that was really lovely. Just cooking a lot. I'm moving, so I have all this food in my pantry I want to get rid of, so luckily the guy I'm seeing used to be a chef so he's helping me in using everything that's in the pantry, so that's been really fun to come home and unwind and start cooking."
Looking back, what advice would you give yourself?
"It's the same stuff I heard, but it's just hard to believe in the moment. That it's going to be okay no matter what. Stressing out is not going to help. Those things you tell yourself or your mother tells you — it's finally started to feel less life and death, but in the beginning, it really felt so serious. And now, you need to enjoy this because otherwise why are you doing it. So really just looking for the joy and the happiness and the creativity in the process. Trying to let that be the reason to keep doing it, not fear or trying to hit a goal. That's not the point. It definitely needs to happen, but it's not what makes you want to keep doing it. It's that be in the moment thing, you know."