Ronni Kahn: Your best ideas are not necessarily your own
Here's a great idea: take the leftovers on your dinner plate and give them to somebody who's actually hungry.
If you were lucky enough to have plenty of food on the table as a child, you may have imagined doing that, just as your mother was telling you to eat your broccoli because somebody, somewhere, doesn't have anything to eat.
OzHarvest founder Ronni Kahn also had that idea. Unlike the rest of us, she actually put it into action.
With 10 trucks in Sydney and seven around the rest of the country, her charity picks up leftover food from restaurants, parties and events, and redistributes it as meals for those who have little to eat. The "for-purpose" organisation as she puts it – because she believes no charity should describe itself as "not-for-profit" just because its profit isn't measured in dollars – collects the equivalent of 135 tonnes of food per month in Sydney alone. It is repurposed to create about 380,000 meals.
It all started with a simple idea: feed those who're hungry with the excesses of those who aren't, and take advantage of the $5.2 billion of food Australians are throwing away every year. Kahn's work earned her the Ernst & Young Social Entrepreneur of the Year award last week.
On Friday, she explained just how she's made a difference with a charity that pulls in about 200 volunteers a month, working alongside a team of full-time staff.
"There are so many people I've met over the last seven years who say 'I thought of that'," Kahn says. "A brilliant idea doesn't have to be yours. What turns it into a brilliant idea is if you put it into action. I seem to be the fortunate person who's put this into action."
Still, Kahn needed a catalyst.
When she took a holiday to her birth country of South Africa and saw how her long-time friend had been personally responsible for bringing electricity to the large town of Soweto, Kahn realised what just one person could do. She was inspired to make a difference in Australia. There are 105,000 homeless people nationally according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, as well as 60,000 low income families for whom food is insecure; helping to feed those with nothing or little to eat seemed a logical choice.
Kahn is a woman who appears to know little about procrastination. When I try asking what she thinks women can do, tomorrow, to get an idea off the ground she quickly interrupts: "There's no such thing as tomorrow. There's only today."
It's this "in the moment" thinking from Kahn that was truly infectious and explains why she makes ideas happen. She tells how, upon realising there was a food distribution company in the United States that sounded similar to what she wanted to start here, she got on a plane the next day and visited it. I suspect it may also have had something to do with the fact that upon my interview request, Kahn made herself available for coffee within a couple of hours.
As Kahn explains, harnessing the here and now doesn't require being special, successful or even rich. It doesn't even require knowing the right people in order to make something happen. Rather, it's about doing what needs to be today: picking up the phone, visiting somebody, filling out the paperwork, writing down the business plan.
"So many people put things off and think someday when they have time and money, things will be easier. My answer is there is no such time. We only have now. A lot of us say that but we don't really believe it. Nor do we live it."
Indeed, you don't even need a great idea – use somebody else's, as Kahn did. You just need the willingness to do what it takes to make it happen.
"Think about what you care about, what you know, what you feel passionate about and what really irks you," she says. "Every time we say, 'That gives me the shits', do something about it. Whether it's political, whether it's commercial, whether it's in your own job, or in your own business or your own home, be the change that you want to see."
She adds that if you don't know how to do it, find somebody who can help. Or go and help somebody else out.
OzHarvest served its first meal in 2004 in Sydney after Kahn secured seed funding to hire a full-time driver and rent office space. She continued working in her events business full-time before close her events company three years ago to devote her time solely to the charity.
She says while she's not surprised by what Oz Harvest has been able to achieve, she's surprised by the profile it has developed, as well as the personal profile it's given her.
The key is its simplicity, says Kahn. It's easy to communicate the value proposition: we see food getting wasted and we know there are those who go without. It's something we've all thought about.
An idea doesn't have to be original to be great, but it does need to be put into action.
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