In a gravel lot in the middle of sunny, sandy St. Petersburg, Fla., four storage containers sit, similar to those seen on tractor trailers or transcontinental transport ships. There are tens of millions of these “intermodal freight containers” around the world. Most are used for their intended purpose—transporting goods all over the globe. But at Brick Street Farms, the brainchild of Shannon O’Malley, MBA ’04 and ‘08, grow 8-10 acres of produce every month, year-round.

During a “Carlow on the Road” alumni gathering in Clearwater, Fla., O’Malley met Pat Gimper Donohoe ’75, who became her mentor and investor in her blooming business. The combination of these two forces—O’Malley’s vision and Donohoe’s entrepreneurial experience—led to a collaboration that is sure to grow big dividends, all thanks to the power of hydroponics.

Hydroponics is the science of growing plants without soil using just nutrient-rich water, simulated sunlight from LEDs and plenty of climate-controlled air. The technique has existed for centuries, but O’Malley perfected it. She developed systems that took hydroponics into the 21st century, allowing for the creation of a highly sustainable farm inside of a shipping container. From seed to salad, every stage of Brick Street Farms’ business is conducted inside one of these 40-foot “farms”—including packaging.
“I first started a hydroponics garden in my garage, which grew and grew until my entire two-car garage was converted into a hydroponics garden,” O’Malley said. “I have always had an interest in gardening, but the soil in Florida is sandy, and the ground water is salty, which makes it hard to grow anything. Unlike Pennsylvania, which has glacier water and rich soil.”

O’Malley knows all about gardening in Pennsylvania, having grown up in the Pittsburgh region. Her mother, Cassie Granger ’06, introduced her to Carlow, where she was attending as an adult student. O’Malley visited Carlow and immediately knew where she belonged.

“Once I was on the campus, I really loved it,” she said. “I was a commuter—it’s such a safe and welcoming campus. I felt we were all given individual attention, that our opinions and thoughts were listened to, and this experience continued through my master’s degree.” O’Malley went on to earn a BS in international business and then an MBA.

After her final graduation in 2008, O’Malley left for sunnier surroundings in the Tampa Bay area. Her savvy business sense and strong technological background enabled her hydroponics hobby to bloom into a business. “After we opened the third farm, it was no longer something we could do on weekends and after work,” O’Malley said. “So, in 2017, I launched Brick Street Farms.”

Sole proprietorships can grow and survive on their own, but additional support and guidance help to build brand recognition and financial success better and faster. Enter Nicole DeMartino-Lerda, director of major gifts at Carlow University.

“There are a large number of Carlow alumni living all over the United States, and I wanted to create a program that made it simple for them to reconnect with us here on campus even if they lived many miles away,” DeMartino-Lerda said. “Carlow on the Road” was launched in 2018 and has visited alumni in 20 cities to date, with many more trips planned for 2019 and 2020.

“We’re touching more out-of-state alumni than ever before,” she said.

It was at the Clearwater breakfast that O’Malley met Donohoe, a 2012 Carlow Laureate and 1975 graduate with a degree in nursing. “My Carlow nursing degree is the best thing I ever did in my life. It’s given me opportunities in so many different places in my career,” Donohoe said.

After graduation, Donohoe spent eight years as a critical care nurse, but her entrepreneurial spirit, along with a few amazing mentors, called her to do more. She went on to build two nursing staffing firms from the ground up, with both companies becoming premier organizations in the medical staffing industry. Today she does consulting for medical staffing companies, and lately she has become an expert witness for the healthcare industry.

DeMartino-Lerda recalled the Clearwater breakfast when everyone was introducing themselves. “When it was Shannon’s turn, her story was jaw-dropping. Her passion was contagious, and her intellect was wildly impressive. I could literally see the synergy that was happening between Pat and Shannon —exactly what”Carlow on the Road" was meant to accomplish. I knew right then something special was about to happen," she said.

Donohoe, who will begin serving on the Carlow University Board of Trustees July 1, said O’Malley’s unbridled passion reminded her of herself. “Listening to her story, I felt there was a connection. I felt I could help,” she said.

O’Malley added, “During the breakfast, Pat asked a lot of pointed questions and I thought to myself, ‘She’s definitely being more than just polite.”

By the end of the conversation, Donohoe extended an offer to mentor O’Malley by helping her compose a business plan for national expansion and a structure for engaging potential investors.

As Donohoe helps O’Malley grow Brick Street Farms, the future includes development of the St. Petersburg Cultivation Hub, a headquarters that will be a unique mix of experiences centered on ethical and sustainable food production. They plan to host farm-to table-dinners and create a classroom to educate children and adults alike. The hub will triple Brick Street Farms’ production to 12 container farms, growing the equivalent of 24 acres of traditional farm land.

Companies can lease or buy a container farm and, with ongoing support from Brick Street Farms employees, grow and keep all of the proceeds for themselves.

This fall, Carlow University will be the first in the Pittsburgh area to bring a hydroponic farm and its opportunities to the region. Work study jobs, fresh produce for campus dining and retail sales are just a few of the positive outcomes that will result from the container farm, which will be located behind the A.J. Palumbo Building overlooking Forbes Avenue, with an observation window facing the street.

A second cultivation hub is scheduled for Pittsburgh in the Lawrenceville neighborhood by early 2020.

“We cannot be more excited about this partnership and look forward to all the great things to come for Shannon O’Malley, Pat Gimper Donohoe and for all of us here at Carlow University,” DeMartino-Lerda said.

Nicole DeMartino-Lerda contributed to this story.

To learn more about Brick Street Farms, plan a visit or follow the company’s growth, visit brickstreetfarms.com or email shannon@brickstreetfarms.com.

By James Foreman