Starting a business may not be something that comes naturally to most of us, but the reasons to take the leap into entrepreneurship are often an evolution of our interests and values. It could be something as simple as the desire to be our own bosses, or it might be seeing a need in our communities and realizing we just might be the ones to address it. For Jessi Ricci, New Life Greens started as a question posed to her boss and mentor, Mike Knight: “Why don’t we fill up the greenhouse and service more customers?”

Owner of Clean Fresh Food, an aquaponic greenhouse in Paoli growing vegetables, microgreens, and tilapia for its customers, Mike’s answer was simply, “Why don’t you do it? Start your own business and use the underutilized space in the greenhouse until you either outgrow it or decide it’s not what you want to do.”

Jessi readily admits she had no idea what she was doing, but she believed she had the perfect network of people in her life to make it happen. With their guidance and her gumption and faith, this budding environmentalist started connecting the dots to what may very well be her life’s calling.

For a refresher on aquaponics, Jessi explains, “Within the farm, we have a fish house and a greenhouse. The water is circulated between the two, creating an ecosystem. The fish waste provides nutrients to the plants, and the plants’ roots purify the water for the fish. This process recycles water constantly, which decreases the amount of water that we need to grow our plants.”

In the end, the food coming out of this mutually beneficial system is rich in nutrients and low in chemicals. With so many world-class chefs in the Greater Madison area, the need for high-quality ingredients is never ending, which Jessi recognized almost immediately.

Humble and jonesing to learn, Jessi needed to figure out everything she could about microgreens, and Mike would be there to show her the ropes on running her business. “Mike has taught me everything to do with business, which is really cool because I’m doing this for an apprenticeship in the environmental sciences, and I learned a lot about how to start a business. How to work with restaurants. How to work with people. How to market. How to set up a website.”

Everything Mike was showing Jessi helped her to better understand that part of her role involves being an educator to her customers. Not everyone in the cooking world knows that microgreens are more than an explosion of high nutrition; they’re a slice of local flavor that can really add to a dish, much like the right spices.

“Whenever I meet with a chef, I have a flavor wheel, and I have microgreens in different categories: sweet, sour, savory, bitter, earthy—all different flavors. If they want a specific flavor in their dish, they can just ask me to grow it for them.”

Not bad for a 17-year-old.

Oh right, I forgot to mention that Jessi is in high school. On top of running her first business, she gets good grades and has been playing the tuba for nearly six years, even participating in the Wisconsin State Honors Band. To find time to run the business, “I’m in an environmental science/horticulture youth apprentice. So half of my school day, I’m at the greenhouse, and I get credit for school. That’s really helped.”

That said, running a business while in high school comes with unique challenges. For example, “I was hesitant to share my age with a lot of restaurants because I was worried they would think, ‘What the heck is this high schooler doing?’ But all these people trusted me, and they love my products.”

Currently, her client list includes Paoli Schoolhouse, Campo di Bella, Ope House Pub, and Lucille, with a few more on the way. Having a select number of clients is important to Jessi because it allows her to engage with chefs on a more personal level. She prides herself on growing everything to order, and never wants New Life Greens to get to the size where she loses that connection.

“Although my business is really small right now, I don’t want to have a million-dollar business. I want to live a smaller life, especially since I love the environment. I don’t want a big house. I don’t want a ton of amazing things. I just want to be able to sustain myself, and I also want to be able to provide good service to people.

“A big part of why I feel that way is my love for Jesus. I’m really inspired by his life. I want to protect the environment and treat all my clients with love and integrity.”

Outside of religion, Jessi recognizes just how many people have played a role in this earlier chapter of her life. Mentor Mike continues to be generous with his time and knowledge. Co-worker Bill, a University of Wisconsin–Madison agriculturalist, is always supporting her in the greenhouse. And her family and boyfriend support her outside of business by embracing the hippy she’s become, something she says isn’t common in her family outside of her grandfather Thomas Smith, an author involved in civil rights, world peace, and environmental activism.

“So many people have helped me. Mr. [Chris] Ball was the root of my inspiration to be an environmentalist and participate in sustainable agriculture. He was my environmental science teacher. He really inspired me to get this job. … He introduced me to Mike Knight, who’s the kindest person ever.”

Looking to the near future, Jessi hopes to expand her business to sell perfumes and body scrubs, evolving into New Life Greens & Goods. She’s also looking to follow in the footsteps of her sisters and attend UW–Madison, where she hopes to be part of the UW Marching Band. If that’s not enough, she’s training for her third marathon, which will take place in New York. There’s no denying Jessi leans into the accelerator of her life, and I’m convinced that with her tenacity and vitality, New Life Greens will be adding to the flavor of Greater Madison area restaurants for quite some time. For more information, visit

Kyle Jacobson is a writer who confuses Gone With the Wind with The Sound of Music.

Photographs by Courtney Terry.