How Deborah Kane, a pioneer in Oregon’s sustainable food scene, left a high-profile public policy role for a career in the sharing economy.
It is a chilly November afternoon in Portland, but I am feeling cozy sitting inside Deborah Kane’s European-style camper van. Small and compact, her 2002 Eurovan, as it is known, makes incredible use of space, with a sleeping area for four, a tiny kitchenette and pull-out table for dining.
Immediately I want to own one. But as Kane points out, VW camper vans can cost in the region of $20,000-$40,000. Why not rent one from her new Airbnb-style camper van rental business GoCamp? Owners rent out their camper vans on her site for a fee; customers get the camper van camping experience without having to own one.
It is a novel way of capitalizing on the sharing economy, which allows anyone with a bit of tech-savviness and ambition to become an entrepreneur these days. For Kane, her new venture couldn’t be more of a contrast to her previous 20-year career in the food and agricultural sectors.
In some ways, Kane’s journey from a sustainable food systems pioneer to a sharing economy entrepreneur mirrors Portland’s own evolution.
Photo credit: Shawn Linehan
A leader in Oregon’s sustainable food movement, Kane moved to Portland in 1997 and headed up Food Alliance, a certification organization for sustainably produced products and practices. At the time, there was a growing recognition of ways to farm sustainably. It was the start of her long stint in food and agriculture.
Her first foray into entrepreneurial ventures came in 2004 when she left the Food Alliance to start a TV show called Head Table. With Kane as the host, the show revolved around her inviting a group of friends from the food world to dinner to talk about a specific topic.
A chef would prepare the meal, making it part cooking show, part talk show. Her early guests included Duane Sorenson, the founder of Stumptown Coffee, and Nell Newman, the daughter of actor Paul Newman, and co-founder of Newman’s Own Organics food brand.
Like many start-ups, the show failed to take off. “It was ahead of its time,” said Kane, who encountered problems finding a network to air the show. “We were told by HBO to dumb it down and speed it up. HBO was like ’less talking,’” she remembers. “But I wanted to go into subjects deeply.” She also had trouble funding the venture. PBS wanted to air the show but wouldn’t allow advertising.
In 2005, she left the show to start a six-year stint at the Portland environmental nonprofit Ecotrust. She was responsible for creating economic development plans to strengthen the local food system.
At the nonprofit, her aptitude for launching and running new ventures surfaced. One of her projects was founding and heading Food-Hub.org, an online community for matching up local food buyers, producers, distributors and suppliers. She also started the food magazine Edible Portland, where she oversaw editorial and advertising for the quarterly publication.
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An early visionary in the farm-to-school movement, Kane led a campaign while at Ecotrust for a bill to bring sustainably-produced food into the public school system. That legislation provides grants to school districts so they can buy locally-grown food and educate youngsters on food systems and agriculture. Her involvement with Oregon’s Farm-to-School program would bring Kane onto the national sustainable food systems scene a few years later when she headed up the national Farm-to-School program under the Obama administration.
Kane was at Ecotrust when she got a call from the White House asking her give a talk at an Obama administration ‘Champions of Change’ discussion about stimulating the rural economy.
She attributes her work on helping to connect rural farmers through Food-Hub.org, a federally funded program, for putting her on the radar of USDA officials.
Several months later, the White House called to offer her a job as director of a national Farm-to-School program. She could stay in Portland with her family, while committing to spend one week a month in Washington DC.
“I almost died with joy,” said Kane. “I had been fighting for better food in the public school system. It was something I could throw myself into.”
The transition from working at a Portland nonprofit to becoming a federal employee could not have been more stark. The prestige attached to her position meant that she was chauffeured around Washington DC in a black town car. She was constantly on a plane visiting school districts around the country.
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Kane expanded the Farm-to-School program to include pre-schools and the federal food stamp program. It eventually transformed into the Office of Community Food Systems. It was a rewarding job, but an exhausting one. “I felt burnt out on travel,” she said. “I decided I didn’t want to get on another airplane for a very long time,” Kane writes in her bio on her GoCamp website.
So how did Kane go from being a political appointee to running a camper van rental business?
After Donald Trump won the presidency, Kane felt the huge political shift happening in the capitol was a signal she needed to make a big change to her career.
“I spent 20 years of working in food and agriculture. I planted and harvested the White House garden with Michelle Obama. I felt that was a career high. I could be done.”
When Kane left the federal government in January this year, she decided she wanted to have more fun. In mid-life, Kane started to get more into outdoor activities, including learning white water kayaking at the age of 46. “When I was working and raising two kids I wasn’t getting out. I really genuinely like to be outdoors. I thought, ‘I don’t have to be working on policy and making food systems better.’ I wanted to create a business about having fun.”
Photo credit: Shawn Linehan
Kane was already familiar with the rise of the sharing economy, having rented out a basement apartment on Airbnb. She liked to go camping but realized how expensive it is for families to buy camper vans. Volkswagen stopped importing camper vans in the U.S. in the early 2000s, claiming there is not a large enough market for them. As a result, a limited number of camper vans are for sale in the U.S., and they are expensive.
People that own camper vans tend to have two or three other vehicles. The camper van is just sitting on their driveway most of the time, said Kane.
“We are all familiar with Airbnb. I thought, ‘Why can’t you Airbnb your camper van?’”
Kane bought two camper vans to rent out and asked her best friend to put his van on her site. GoCamp launched on April 15, 2017 and had its first renter one week later.
There are now 13 camper vans on the site, which Kane plans to expand to 20. This summer, the 10 vehicles that were available for rent were booked solid, said Kane.
She wants to keep the number of vehicles on the site limited so that she can make it financially worthwhile for the renters. “I want to grow slowly. I want to prioritize van owners and make sure they make their financial goals. I don’t want 100 vans on the site. I don’t yet know what the Portland market can support.”
Kane said she is not targeting Portland’s hipster community associated with the VW camper van “cool” aesthetic. “I am focused on making camping easy for families. It takes the pressure off me to be hip.”
Kane is well suited to owning her own business. She loves to create and build new things, a motif that has followed her throughout her career. She also loves learning new processes associated with starting a venture she had no experience in, such as learning how to service vehicles and how to use professional accounting software.
The start-up also brings her back to her easygoing Portland lifestyle where she can maintain more work-life balance. “I am meeting renters all day long. It makes my day. In DC it was sometimes about prestige. This is real. People are really excited about being in the Pacific Northwest.”