Annie Ryu graduated summa cum laude from Harvard University. Now, the 26-year-old social entrepreneur's life centers around jackfruit, a large, green, studded fruit native to Southeast Asia. In the face of climate change, the fruit's nutritional properties make it a viable (and more sustainable) alternative to imperiled staple crops like wheat and corn—as well as a popular meat substitute. As Ryu sees it "replacing meat with a fruit that grows on trees, is superabundant, thrives without agricultural inputs, and is nutritious and satisfying to the consumer—this is a fundamentally scalable solution to multiple global problems."
The exotic fruit-based career path came as something of a surprise even to Ryu herself. Growing up in the affluent city of Rochester, Minnesota—where many residents are employed by the Mayo Clinic, which is headquartered there—she had assumed she would become a doctor. So much so, she says, that "prior to attending college, I actually could not have defined entrepreneurship."
But a class during her freshman year of Harvard University got her wheels turning in a different direction and opened her up to the concept.
"Growing up in Rochester, I had a sheltered perspective on the challenges facing humankind," Ryu says. "Once I understood that millions of people are dying each year from conditions we can cure, I determined that I would dedicate my life toward fixing broken and poorly performing global systems and supply chains."
Ryu's first social entrepreneurship venture was a mobile-based messaging service that texted expectant and new mothers in Nicaragua, where she was conducting research, to send them reminders to help them maintain maternal health. That project took her to India, where she eventually discovered the multi-faceted jackfruit, deemed by the Guardian in 2015 as "pulled pork for vegetarians." Ryu saw an opportunity, but, true to form, it wasn't one that would serve just her, and she founded her company in 2011 with the goal of creating a sustainable supply chain. Today, she partners with more than 350 farming families and supplies 2,000 retailers.
In the future, Ryu has ideas for other social entrepreneurship ventures, including projects related to health care and clean energy. She'd also like to eventually advise other companies on how they can maximize their social impact. But, for now, she's keen to scale her own company so it can serve as proof-of-concept for what a non-exploitative, global supply chain can look like.
"In scaling, we can create a model for the way agriculture needs to operate: sustainably, with positive impact throughout the supply chain," she says.
Explore the complete list of this year's 30 top thinkers under 30 here. (Lead 3-D Illustration: Comrade)