Civic Champs CEO Geng Wang interviews Leah Lizarondo, founder of Food Rescue Hero and Pittsburgh’s own 412 Food Rescue. Food Rescue Hero is a social enterprise with a technology, logistics and civic engagement model that aims to fight hunger and promote sustainability by preventing perfectly good food from entering the waste stream and directly distributing to organizations and individuals who are experiencing food insecurity. The Food Rescue Hero platform is used by food recovery nonprofits in 12 cities in the US and Canada including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Vancouver.


This interview is the third episode of The Future of Good, a series that explores the intersection of social impact, technology, and entrepreneurship.

Key Takeaways from this Episode:

  • On Barriers to Volunteerism: People really want to volunteer but the key barriers to doing so are wrapped up in information access: knowing how, when, where. Part of it is ease, especially in our lives right now, and a part of it is really establishing community and knowing your impact. Utilizing technology can break down the access to information barrier.
  • On motivating and mobilizing volunteers: What nonprofits can do to really engage with volunteers it market to them with their value propositions. It’s that kind of motivating that nonprofits can take advantage of. It’s not ‘volunteer because we do this.’ It’s really ‘how do we create enough value for you, so that you are giving and you want to give your time to us?’ You start to identify what are the demographics and psychographics are of the 10% that will come back to volunteer time after time and you devote yourself to taking care of that 10%, and continuing to add value to their lives. Not necessarily giving so much resources to the 90, but really mining that 10 and taking care of them. As nonprofits we are lucky to have the corporations that brought volunteers in initially, nonprofits should also see them as a seed. And then keep tending to that seed in the same way that companies target us.
  • Leah's key tip for aspiring entrepreneurs: Be ready to motivate yourself because there’s no one else that’s going to do it for you. You’re not going to get a star, a pat on the back, employee of the month. It’s you that will wake yourself up every morning, figure out what you’re going to do. No one else is driving you but yourself.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 


Geng: Hi, Leah. Welcome to the show today. We’re super excited to have you. It’s an honor to have someone like yourself join us today.


Leah: Well, it’s great to be here. I’ve been a big fan of your work for a long time.


Geng: Well thank you. Thank you so much. And again, I just wanted to reiterate what an honor it is to have you. I saw that you were honored as one of the 100 women for Vital Voices, joining folks like Amanda Gorman, Megan Rapinoe, and the late Justice Ginsberg, and yourself, so just an incredible group of women empowering other women. I love following your journey, so it’s just fantastic to have you here. 


To kick off, I’d love just to start by, maybe for our audience that doesn’t know 412 Food Rescue too well (or Food Rescue Hero), in your own words, what does the organization do, and what inspired you to actually launch it? 


Leah: So, Food Rescue Hero, as a technology platform, shares a lot of core values with Civic Champs, which is, of course, why I’ve respected your work for so long. It’s really all about - the catalyst really was that, in 2012, the Natural Resources Defense Council released this report called “Wasted,” and it was one of the first reports that really brought to light the fact that we were wasting a lot of food. I think all of us have an idea that we waste some food, but that report really brought to light that we can really be wasting as much as 40% of our food supply, which is a huge inefficiency, especially when we all know that, on the other side, so many Americans and, really, so many in the world are food insecure. This is a global statistic: 30% - 40% of food is lost or wasted.


In the developing countries, a lot of that is wasted early on in the supply chain because of a lack of technology: storage, refrigeration, harvesting. In Western countries, such as ours, it’s really much later in the supply chain, so mostly in our homes, so there’s a lot of excess. We have a lot of capacity ourselves to just not put so much value in the food that we buy. The second largest segment of that is in retail, and it’s really hard to recover that food (retail means anywhere before it gets to our homes) it’s nearing the end of its life, it’s still perfectly good (and when I say ‘nearing the end of its life,’ it could be a week), and most of it is perishable, so it doesn't survive a typical hub and spoke model, the typical trucking warehouse model. We had to find a new way to gather this food and redirect it to nonprofits that help people who are suffering from food insecurity. The technology exists for that - we’ve all used them: DoorDash, Grubhub, Uber Eats, and we totally just translated that logistics technology into this purpose. And the big difference is that, instead of mobilizing a paid fleet, we mind everyone’s desire to do something and do good, and mobilize what is now the world’s largest on demand volunteer driver fleet. And you know this. You share this value, as the technology. You believe that people want to give back, and you’re just giving them a way to do that.”


Geng: Absolutely. I love the fact that it’s probably one of the most casual, easiest ways to give back and do good. I don’t know if that’s something you think about - I know that you have a background in marketing and product design, so is that something you guys think about a lot?”


Leah: Yes. We think a lot about design in general. Why do we believe that people will actually do this in thousands? So much so to the point that you could play with the law of large numbers. That at any point in time, on average, this is how many drivers you have. It will veer toward this stasis. It’s really the fact that, studies have shown and you can attest to this, that people really want to volunteer, but there’s just a lot of barriers to doing so. And a large part of it is information - just knowing how, when, where. Part of it is ease, especially in our lives right now, and a part of it is really establishing community and knowing your impact. So we take all of those and understand that this one way of volunteering can actually respond to all of those barriers pretty well. Then, let’s do it. The biggest challenge, of course, is awareness. It’s constantly making people aware of it and making sure you have enough people using the app, so, at any given point in time, if there’s a need, you have enough people available to respond.


Geng: Right. You’re a market in many ways, managing that supply and demand and making sure that your volunteers also have enough tasks to do. I’m sure that’s been a huge challenge that you all have worked on and overcome.


Leah: Right. And we reached a certain level of stability for a long time until last year when we launched home delivery. So from working with just organizations can number in the thousands. Now that you’re working with homes, it can number in the tens of thousands in a city. So reaching this next stage of growth that we need, that is the next challenge because now it’s a step change instead of an incremental change.


Geng: Right. And I saw that you have started expanding. So 412 Food Rescue started in Pittsburgh and now, with Food Rescue Hero, you’re expanding to many other cities. That is a challenge by itself, but it sounds like you’re also changing the model at the same time, so how do you balance the different changes that are happening?”


Leah: Yeah. 412 Food Rescue is really an operating Food Rescue organization in the Pittsburgh region. And there are many many organizations like 412 Food Rescue all over the world. So, Food Rescue Hero is a platform that can equip all of them and help all of them scale in the same way that 412 Food Rescue has scaled in Pittsburgh. So that’s the work we’re doing now in lockstep with continuing to expand our operations here in Pittsburgh. We partner with other Food Rescue organizations and they use our technology to scale their own food rescue programs.


Geng: That’s awesome. Multiplying your impact through technology. The other thing I noticed was both Food Rescue Hero and 412 Food Rescue are nonprofits. Our listeners - some might be aspiring social entrepreneurs, so, I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about why a nonprofit instead of a benefit corporation or some other type of social impact structure. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you thought about it or how you think about it today.


Leah: Yeah. I think it’s all about balancing how you want to mitigate risk in the beginning. That’s the way I see it. So 412 will always be a nonprofit. I can see Food Rescue Hero as more of a B or hybrid social enterprise, the form of which I haven’t defined yet, but it’s really all about path to revenue and understanding “how do we generate enough risk capital, so that the tech and the concept have a chance to survive and not die before it has a chance to prove itself?” So, in our calculations that’s risk mitigation because the social benefit is so high and could be shouldered by the philanthropic community. That social impact will always be there, so that investment that they make right now will always endure. But, if we look at traditional seed venture, for profit investment, the path to revenue is not quite so set. So, while there is one, we didn’t want to trade the potential for social impact now and limit that for the promise of return tomorrow - the timeline of which is unsure. 


And I know a lot of people do this, but I would say it’s not quite the goal right now. Also, for the people that work there, the founders, myself, do I want the ten X return? Is that what I’m looking for? And I have to be deeply honest with myself and everyone that’s involved. And, really, that’s not the point, especially right now. There’s so much need out there. The technology has to get out. It has so much potential, and the ability to help so many organizations right now that we need to make sure that it has the opportunity to do that right now.


Geng: Got it. That makes a lot of sense. I’ve always found it fascinating to hear about founders who people think are so risk-taking but actually talk so much about risk mitigation and the number one rule being you have to survive. Don’t run out of money.


Leah: Yes! You have to survive. There was a quote I always remember - I forgot who it is. The job of a CEO and a founder is really to survive long enough so that you can actually get to what you’re trying to get to. And a lot of times, it’s those little calculations. And then when you feel like you reach a point, then you make another decision. 


Geng: Right. Circling back a little bit- you’ve done just an incredible number of roles between venture investing to writing for a food magazine to working in marketing for Colgate. So I’d love to hear how those experiences helped you in your current role, how did they lead you to where you are today? What ultimately made you decide that this is what I really want to do and this is the problem I want to tackle?


Leah: I think you can kind of empathize. The journey is about what I see as a need at the moment. For me, my first job at Colgate, that’s what I wanted at the time, and it was fantastic. And to this day, I always say I still trade on everything that I learned there. And I always will. It’s the basic principles of product and being consumer-centric, which we now call human-centered design. It was an amazing experience. And moving onto technology, primarily because I was very curious about technology because that was taking center stage at that point. 


The first dot com boom was happening, and I was wondering what it was all about. And one of the things I realized then, which is when I was working for a consulting firm that worked with startups for market strategy, there were a lot of founders with no background in, what we called then, classical marketing. That was really what was needed. How do you even get from concept to market? And that was very exciting to be able to teach these people with brilliant ideas and talk about ‘what is your minimum viable product?’ which, again, was a term that was used then, but how do you identify even your first market. You can’t sell it to everyone right away. What is your most viable first market? How do we identify that? Then, identifying pain points in that market and honing in on that. That whole practice, for me, is very exciting. And the food part was more a passion, and it came at a time when I took a little break. I had kids and was raising them and was really taking time to do that. I was privileged enough to do that. But when I was ready to go back to full time work, 412 Food Rescue and food waste and food recovery just put everything that I was interested in - technology, consumer goods, and social impact together. And in that moment, that’s what I wanted to do. So it was all kinda natural, and I feel very lucky that all of this serendipity kept happening in my life. But, as they say, luck comes to those who seek it.


Geng: Yes. Absolutely. I can almost visualize the building blocks from your career coming together for this moment with 412. The other thing I hear a lot about is needing a technical background to found something.. So, for listeners who might be thinking ‘I’m also passionate about technology - Food Rescue Hero is obviously a technology company.’ How did you think about that? Who built it? How did you go about it as someone who got into the technology space from the marketing side of it?


Leah: Again, I’m lucky. I have good friends. I was one of those people - many of us have friends who build apps. In the beginning, I was one of those people who would go to my friends who build apps and say ‘hey. I have an idea for an app.’ And they would roll their eyes. Like ‘get in line.’ So, it was really that. I was fortunate enough to know a couple of people. I met him [my CTO] a long time ago when I was working at Innovation Works, but also in other circles. And he was one of the first Innovation Works companies that actually converted. He sold his company to Nokia. It was during that time when that Nokia that we all had was indestructible. And he had a way of presenting data there in that small screen. We’ve come a long way. But I knew he did that and he did a lot of work entrepreneurially, and I went to him and said ‘I have this idea.’ And I knew he could help us work on the backend, and I had another friend who I knew was a front-end person, and I just got them together and said ‘let’s do this.’ And we did. It was just like you. We won the UpPrize and that was the seed that we needed for the MVP and it was a very minimum product - barely viable. It was a minimum barely viable product, but it worked enough to prove a concept. And, from that point on, we got follow up funding that allowed us to develop a real product and these two friends really took us through to critical points, and one of them is our head of engineering right now and currently leading our engineering work in house.


Geng: Yeah. It’s so neat to hear how companies can start very small and then you have this barely viable product as you said. And speaking of UpPrize, I feel one of the things that you’re so great at is selling the vision and communicating and convincing others to join the team. Any tips for listeners that might be thinking ‘how do I do that? How do I get better at that? How do I also convince a technical person to join the team?


Leah: So there’s two different levels of questions there. For building a team, there’s also no exchange for funding. You just have to pay people. And it was really all about raising enough money so I could actually build a team. Because even though we’re nonprofit, my goal is to be competitive and to have a team who feel like, not only are they working for a mission, but also fulfilling their own economic needs. So I was always really intent on that. Still am. Because I believe in talent and commitment and people need to be rewarded. While a job might be fulfilling in a lot of ways, people have families and lives. So funding is extremely important for that. And In terms of just engaging people in the mission, the important thing about funders is, when I look at a funder and work with other funders, I do a lot of mentorship on the side, what I really want to understand is, and you know this as well, a founder’s job requires your whole self. You can’t clock in, 9-5 and think you’re going to end at 5. You have to really commit, and, if I don’t see that in a founder that wants to be mentored, I can’t do it. Because the sacrifice is real and you almost have to have a laser focus. You’ve converted a couple companies. To get to the point of conversion, you are the #1 evangelist. If you don’t believe in what you’re doing or that your product is the best possible option, how can you convince other people that it is. So you have to truly believe in it. It can’t be mechanical. So I truly believe in what we do. In that sense, that belief in it really comes across.


Geng: You have to convince yourself first, so to speak. Makes sense. We’re going to take a slight pivot. Obviously, Civic Champs and Food Rescue Hero have a lot of volunteers involved and there are best practices, so I’d love to hear, for folks that might be from the nonprofit space or who are also managing lots of volunteers. How do you recruit? How do you keep your volunteers engaged? What are some lessons learned now that you’re also expanding and helping others and empowering them? How do you think about your volunteers and keeping them jazzed about the mission?


Leah: So I’m always following what Civic Champs is doing because, I don’t know if you’ve read Daniel Pink, just all of these books about motivation, what drives us. Adam Grant. I think what is needed with nonprofits is looking at volunteers not in a completely utilitarian way. What nonprofits need to do is look at volunteers as if they were selling something to them. It’s that kind of motivating that we need to do. 


It’s not ‘volunteer because we do this.’ It’s really ‘how do we create enough value for you, so that you are giving and you want to give your time to us?’ And not only your time, but, as you know, and then be able to support us in other ways, such as financially. So what I see with nonprofits is they’re stuck in this traditional mode of ‘let’s partner with corporations. Let’s get 40 people to come in and pack boxes and then we’ll sign them up on sign up sheets. We’ll send them emails and put them on our mailing list.’ It’s all very one way. There’s no real way for nonprofits to look at the 40 people who actually went there and learn a little bit more about them. ‘Did you enjoy this experience? What about this experience did you enjoy? Would you do it again? Why did you do it?’ You didn’t do it because your company made you come. 

It’s not ‘volunteer because we do this.’ It’s really ‘how do we create enough value for you, so that you are giving and you want to give your time to us?’


So then you judge. Is this the volunteer that’s going to come back on her own with her kids next time? You start to stratify the 40. You start to identify ‘what are the demographics and psychographics of the 10% that will come back?’ You want to make sure you take care of that 10%. Not necessarily giving so much resources to the 90, but really mining that 10 and taking care of them and bringing them back another way. I think that's the way of looking at volunteers. As nonprofits are lucky to have the corporations that brought them in initially, they also should see them as a seed. And then keep tending to that seed in the same way that companies target us. They know who we are. As a marketer, my friends joke - When I meet someone, I look around at what they consume and create a profile. You are this person. It’s almost like a gut reaction. I look at you, I see what you have, and I categorize you right away, which is not quite appropriate, but, in some ways, it is. And, in a way, I know how to talk to you based on your consumption.


Geng: Right. You're personalizing the experience for the person. If you think about Starbucks and any consumer company, they know so much about you. They know you like the frappuccino, so they give you the offer for that, so if we can think of volunteers the same - what is the driving motivation for them?”


Leah: The currency isn’t money. It’s time.


Geng: Right. I love that. I have a few last questions. I guess the first is what cities are you in today and how can people get involved if they want to help out?”


Leah: Currently, we’re in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Cincinnati, New Haven, and Vancouver. We are in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Long Beach County, Orange County, and I’m going to forget the last two. Just go to foodrescuehero.org. You’ll see the cities that the app is already in and download those apps in those cities. We’re a powering platform just like salesforce. And begin to do food rescues. It’s really easy. Each rescue takes as little as half an hour and it’s very simple. The app guides you through the whole thing.


Geng: Awesome. And then last question, is there’s one takeaway that you might leave with an aspiring social entrepreneur or leader in the space? What’s the one tip you might give them?


Leah: I think the one tip that I will give is, especially for first time entrepreneurs, is be ready to motivate yourself because there’s no one else that’s going to do it for you. You’re not going to get a star, a pat on the back, employee of the month - not someone else giving that to you. It’s you that will wake yourself up every morning, figure out what you’re going to do, and no one else is driving you but yourself.”


Geng: Got it. Leah, thank you so much for joining us today. It was a pleasure having you. Best of luck with everything.


Leah: Thank you. Thanks for having me, Geng. As always.