20 Under 40 Class of 2017

Billy Polansky
Executive director, Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture
Age: 30

Hometown:
Stafford, Virginia.

Years lived in Columbia:
Eight.

Tell us about your job:
Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to be directly involved with all of the things CCUA does. I helped build CCUA’s Urban Farm and numerous other gardens, taught lessons, pulled weeds, and sold produce at the farmers’ market. As the organization has grown, my role as a director and administrator has grown. Today, I spend much of my time building relationships, writing grants, marketing, fundraising, planning, and working with our staff to ensure we’re hitting our targets. I’m also the liaison between our board of directors and the staff, so it is my job to make sure the board knows what’s going on day-to-day so they can make informed decisions. It is my job to see the big picture and make sure that all of the parts fit together and move in the same direction.

Who is a mentor in your life?
My friend and former CCUA board member Rob Long has been an important influence on me over the last couple of years. Rob has had careers as a farmer, business owner, and lawyer, and he now works with FEMA in Washington, DC. When I come to him with a complicated issue, he can analyze it, break it down, and ask the right questions that lead to a solution.

What are some misconceptions about your job?
Running a not-for-profit organization is just as difficult, if not more difficult, than a for-profit business. Some of our program participants pay us for the services we provide, but many of the services we provide are paid for by donors. We are constantly working to serve the needs of our donors and program participants.

What is the single best thing about your job?
I work with a great group of people. The staff and volunteers at the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture are an amazing group of driven, intelligent, and passionate individuals. I feel lucky to surround myself with such a group on a daily basis.

What is the last professional goal you accomplished?
We received a couple of grants that allowed us to start a garden for the veterans living at Patriot Place. For a while now, I’ve wanted to use gardening as a way to give back to veterans. 2017 will be the first full growing season out there, and I’m excited to see it grow!

What motivates you?
I am a problem solver by nature. CCUA has many different programs, all of which are experiencing growth and change every season. Juggling the multiple variables that influence every decision is something that I excel at and enjoy.

If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
I love to travel and immerse myself in other cultures. Similarly, I have a great love for Heifer International, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to work with communities to end world hunger and poverty and to care for the Earth. Heifer International uses livestock and other sustainable agriculture practices to improve economic conditions for communities all over the world. I have volunteered for Heifer International before and think working with them would be a wonderful opportunity.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I am proud of my work building CCUA into the organization it is today. In 2009, when I first started volunteering with this very young organization, there was no budget and no staff. Many startups don’t succeed, but passion and persistence led us to a few breakthroughs. One of the breakthroughs I am really proud of was becoming a funded agency with the Heart of Missouri United Way. In 2013, when the United Way decided to change their model, I saw that as an opportunity for additional funding as well as a way to be lifted into a network of distinguished organizations in this community. Being a United Way agency brings us credibility, connections, and cash. Since this change in our history, CCUA has experienced tremendous growth; today our budget is four times what it was when I wrote that application.

What is your favorite community project?
CCUA has been working very closely with the City of Columbia’s Parks Department and the Columbia Farmers Market to make a winning plan for Missouri’s first agriculture park. This park will be a focal point for local agriculture and backyard food production that combines gardening demonstrations areas, an urban farm, an outdoor classroom, a community kitchen, and the bustling Columbia Farmers Market, with all of the amenities you would expect from other city parks: benches, picnic tables, walking and running paths, and wide open spaces. Building such a large educational facility will improve the quality of programming we provide to the community. This park will be developed on the site of the original Boone County Fairgrounds, which I find to be a fitting example of how history can repeat itself.

What is the single biggest lesson you have learned in business?
The single biggest lesson I have learned in business is to “write it down.” The better we are at keeping records, the more effective CCUA can be in its programming. Keeping good records with the right information helps us in our annual program evaluations, which influences how our programs evolve from season to season. Taking care to continuously collect and record the right information, and then taking the time to analyze that information and tweak our programs as needed, has helped CCUA grow and provide better experiences to our participants every year.

What is your favorite business book you have ever read and what impact did it have on you?
A couple of years ago I read “The Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande. This book is about the importance of standardizing procedures, and writing out the key tasks that need to be replicated in order to efficiently complete a complicated task. After reading this book, we implemented standardized checklists for some tasks that either had several steps or had two staff members who had to split the responsibilities. Creating a well-made checklist and actually using it is easier said than done, but with follow-through, checklists convey a lot of information at a glance — something that is helpful in our fast-paced organization.

If you had unlimited funds, what specific thing would you do to improve Columbia?
Over half of Boone County residents are overweight or obese and 86% do not eat the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. On a weekly basis, we see children visiting the Urban Farm who have never eaten a fresh cucumber, or who think ranch dressing is a vegetable. If I could do one thing, I would make gardening and cooking activities compulsory at all grade levels in the public school system. Gardening and cooking with students would reinforce healthy lifestyle habits and provide interdisciplinary experiences that support lessons in science, math, and language arts.

What is one goal you have for 2017 and how do you plan to achieve it?
2017 is going to be a big year for CCUA. Later in the year, we will be launching a capital campaign to build Missouri’s first agriculture park in central Columbia. Even though the entire project will not be completed in 2017, we are going to raise the majority of our phase one funding this year. This is our first capital campaign and an important growth point for CCUA. To achieve this, it will require getting many individuals, businesses, and organizations involved in the project’s planning and fundraising activities. The park will benefit a wide base of people in our community: public school students, backyard gardeners, local farmers, and families looking for a place to spend quality time together. When completed, this project will stand as a shining example of how governments can work together with nonprofit organizations to develop projects that transform the community.

What trait do you most want in a co-worker or employee?
I like my co-workers and employees to be team players.

If you could improve one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I do not take commitments lightly. When I am a part of something, I really put my all into it. I am the treasurer for the Columbia Farmers Market, I’m currently pursuing an MBA, and I attend all of the after-hours board and committee meetings for CCUA. I find my evenings full of commitments, and this reduces the amount of time I can spend at home with my wife. Someday, I would like to be able to slim down on the commitments I say “yes” to and spend more time with my family.

What do you do for fun?
I love to cook: on the stove, in the oven, or on the grill. Sometimes I let recipes guide me, but often I wing it based on what I’ve been successful with in the past. My wife and I enjoy traveling, so almost every winter we take some time off to see the world. We are leaving to Costa Rica for three weeks in January.

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