Agribusiness, technology, and leadership: An interview with Sky Kurtz, co-founder and CEO of Pure Harvest
Process Industries

Agribusiness, technology, and leadership: An interview with Sky Kurtz, co-founder and CEO of Pure Harvest

Sky Kurtz, the CEO and co-founder of Pure Harvest, discusses the role of technology in agriculture and the importance of sustainability.
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In this next episode of The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Tom Clarke and Michael Thomas speak to Sky Kurtz, CEO and co-founder of Pure Harvest, a technology-enabled agribusiness. Kurtz explores the role of technology, including IoT and AI, in addressing global food security challenges, especially in harsh environments such as the Middle East. He also discusses how he thinks about hiring leaders and building a thriving organizational culture, emphasizing the importance of inclusiveness and sustainability. 

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. Heidrick is the premier global provider of senior-level executive search and leadership consulting services. Diversity and inclusion, leading through tumultuous times, and building thriving teams and organizations are among the core issues we talk with leaders about every day, including in our podcasts. Thank you for joining the conversation.

Tom Clarke: I'm Tom Clarke, a partner in Heidrick & Struggles Dubai office and the co-leader of our Technology & Services Practice for the Middle East and North Africa. I'm also joined by my colleague Michael Thomas from our Melbourne office, who leads our global Agriculture Practice. In today's podcast, we're excited to speak to Sky Kurtz, the co-founder and CEO of Pure Harvest. Sky Kurtz is an experienced technology private equity investor and business executive with experience in Dubai, Silicon Valley, and New York City. 

Sky, thank you for joining the podcast today. For those around the world that don't know Pure Harvest, it'd be great to hear about the business today and why it is distinctive from other controlled environment agriculture companies globally. 

Sky Kurtz: Certainly Tom. We are a technology-enabled agribusiness, so we design, procure, construct, operate, market, and sell. So, we're fully vertically integrated in the entire value chain of our activity, which is ultimately using technologies to control the environment and to provide precision agriculture—precise nutrients, irrigation, and other requirements of a plant, to grow food extremely efficiently. This sector has been around for many years, but more recently with technologies like IoT (Internet of Things), software-enabled hardware and artificial intelligence, there's kind of a boom in this sector whereby technology is making these solutions increasingly efficient. 

Pure Harvest is quite special in that we work in arguably the harshest environment on the planet. That was part of our thesis, with climate change, more and more of the world is becoming unfortunately like the Middle East—irregular weather patterns, water insufficiency, climate or food security challenges, where traditional agriculture is being rendered less and less efficient. A lot of people believe we're a tech company and we're not. And that's why we say we're a technology enabled agribusiness.

Tom Clarke: Sky, one thing I've admired about Pure Harvest is the exceptional leadership talent you've been able to hire. What has been your hiring strategy when it comes to your C-level and C-minus-one teams?

Sky Kurtz: Well, Tom, I think it starts with what, and this sounds a bit cliché but it's true: mission, vision, values. I think that we attract really interesting people because people believe in what we're doing. I think many of the people that are with us have been extremely talented in other sectors, but they were searching for a calling, something to be part of. And I think what I was able to provide to them is that a clear messaging of “Hey, being part of this is being part of something more than just a company. It's a cause.” It’s, as I mentioned, food security. It's water conservation. It's a consumer brand that you interact with. And I think there's a lot of appeal for that. And I think that we filter for that too. We really want people who are drawn to the purpose.

I tried to think about what are the needs of a successful business in the sector and what we would eventually need and then identify, I call it the avatar or the blank box, that is a human and will fulfill those needs and try to map the skills, competency, experience, and character of these individuals to those needs. And that's what we did to assemble both our board and our management team. 

I will say that on average we've found really committed people who believe in what we're doing, who have the right skills. And thus far, that's helped us to differentiate ourselves and emerge. 

Tom Clarke: Fantastic. Thank you. It'd be great to hear a bit about culture and potentially the paradox here. You've described yourself as an energy business, as well as a farming organization, but you've also raised a large amount of capital and grown extensively globally. How would you describe the evolution of your culture over the past seven years?

Sky Kurtz: I would say that early on that it was very driven by that external motivation of here's the milestones I need to deliver to build a business and that led to things like work hard, play hard culture. It led to very objectives-based management and a very performance-focused management. But over time, as we became a real company and a farming business with hundreds, we have 467 people now over 40 nations represented. I had to start to learn and bring in people who are teaching me how to lead better in a broader corporate culture. Inclusiveness: focus on instilling the vision and values into people. Also letting people lead and compensate, by the way, on culture. In a way we have a performance-based compensation plan where there's an element of it that's based on people's personal development goals and on their contributions to our values. 

We want to be a place where people want to work. We track engagement scores—who would recommend working here? We track our attrition carefully. We try to be very conscious of this. But I think, Tom, that the culture has now evolved to one where we're extremely diverse and we value that. We always say tightly aligned but loosely coupled, meaning we all know where we're headed, but we let people have the freedom to do what they want. We continue to value performance, which is key, and we also value integrity. It's absolutely critical that even if things are going wrong, you raise your hand and talk about it. So, I think that we've really started to form a culture that's a merger of the Silicon Valley tech company performance driven, build something big ambition, but also a farming business that is about people and about serving customers and consumers, about sustainability and environmental impact. We track ESG metrics and have KPIs against them. And we try to make sure that that permeates the culture. 

Michael Thomas: Sky, looking into the future, what's in the near and mid term when it comes to technology and agriculture? For example, we've got a client who's commercially using 100% autonomous drone swarms to harvest apples and fruits by using multiple sensors and 3-D cameras. Another client is using AI-based laser herbicides without damaging their leafy green crops. 

Sky Kurtz: Technology has a key role in increasing the efficiency of the food system. You may have heard the statistic, but by 2050, we'll have 9.5 billion people in the world. To feed them, we’ll need 70% more calories. That's a huge challenge because we'll need more calories than was ever created in all of humanity as just the delta to feed that group of people. But we're not making more land. We're certainly not making more water. And climate is making traditional agricultural methods less efficient. So, it's working against us. 

But I think technology has a key role. In the end, there are many technology companies selling to farmers, but there are also many companies that will emerge as technology-enabled producers or services that ultimately address that massive gap in the need for food. I think it's one of the great challenges of our society in the next 50 years. And we hope that Pure Harvest smart farms becpme part of even just a piece of that solution.

Michael Thomas: On these technologies, such as generative artificial intelligence, will that have a large impact on your sector in the controlled environment agriculture space?

Sky Kurtz: Where I think generative AI is powerful for farms and farmers is that it democratizes access to the incredible tool and weapon that is artificial intelligence. So, you can, with relatively limited investment access, computing power and decision power, that is immense and literally wasn't available just a few years ago. 

When you think about things like predicting crop yields, market demands, optimal harvesting times, operations insights, reducing waste, improving your profitability, the AI tools can, and generative AI can actually help you to identify these. I think it will be powerful in every sector, but I think ours is one of those ones that will uniquely benefit because it's sort of that bridge between the technology and the sophistication and the investment level needed historically to have these tools available to you. And now they're being made available to anyone. 

Michael Thomas: Just one follow up question. Just finding that talent within the AI space; how do you go about doing that, Sky?

Sky Kurtz: So, I believe that the right way to do it is to go trace the careers of people from these computational mathematics type programs and identify the ones that sort of ended up in something tangential. I guarantee they're nerding out at night on how do I get in this hot boom in sector? And those are the people that I think that have the skills and experience to quickly migrate into a career in this, but are probably more affordable. Now I think it's also helpful, of course, if you secure at least one leader who's active in the space, but then they can build a team using that method. 

Michael Thomas: Fantastic insights, Sky. Thank you for your time today. It's been an absolute pleasure speaking with you.

Sky Kurtz: Well, thank you, guys. I appreciate you guys having me here to talk.

Thanks for listening to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. To make sure you don’t miss more future-shaping ideas and conversations, please subscribe to our channel on the podcast app. And if you’re listening via LinkedIn, Twitter, or YouTube, why not share this with your connections? Until next time.

About the interviewers

Tom Clarke ( is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Dubai office and a member of the global Technology & Services, Technology Officers, and Digital Officers practices.

Michael Thomas ( is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Melbourne office and head of the global Agribusiness Practice; he is also a member of the global Consumer and Industrial practices.

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