Don’t wait. Don’t sit there and strategize thinking you haven’t learned enough or don’t have the right funding, or x, y, z. You’ll always find a reason not to move forward. Go ahead and get started. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Maen Mahfoud, founder and CEO of Replate.
Maen Mahfoud is the founder and CEO of Replate, a fast-growing food rescue social enterprise on a mission to reduce food waste, mitigate climate change and fight food insecurity. Maen immigrated to the U.S. from Syria to study medicine and was inspired to start Replate after witnessing the level of food insecurity in America. Growing up, Maen was taught by his mother to always give to others in need by delivering her delicious food to struggling neighbors before eating so he felt he needed and to make a difference with Replate.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I immigrated to the U.S. from Syria to pursue medicine at the University of California Berkeley and was shocked to see the level of poverty and hunger present in America. While the U.S. was known for innovation and abundance, there was an enormous amount of inefficiency and waste. After doing research, I discovered that 35% of all food produced went to waste, this significantly contributed to methane gas emissions and escalated climate change. Meanwhile, more than 38 million Americans faced food insecurity. Here was a need and a way to fulfill it. I began Replate in 2016 to create a solution that would repurpose our resources and support the community. I began reaching out directly to companies and drove around the Bay Area, picking up excess food from catered lunches, restaurants, etc. and donating it to nonprofit organizations determined to feed those in need. Since then, Replate has grown to a team of over 25 people and is available in 28 cities across America.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
When I first started Replate, I was handling the operation from A-Z. This including food rescue pick-ups, coordination, and outreach. I soon realized Replate could have a much larger impact at scale. So I began to top into the gig-economy and recruit Uber, Lyft and Instacart drivers to join the Replate movement. I would ride along on these drives and pitch Replate — I would attempt to convince them to work for me even though Replate, as it is now, did not yet exsist. Somehow, it worked. They liked the idea, they were driving anyway, and it helped me launch my business and make a difference. There was often dead time after lunch pickups and that was the perfect segue for these drivers to help me deliver our surplus meals. After a few months of doing ride along pick-ups, I got approached by Replate’s first funder. After countless meetings and calls, the investor who had experience in the food industry, asked me about an important element: safety. His perspective prompted a conversation around the safety procedures of our pickups, food handling and delivery. Then came “Oh that’s interesting. Are you happy potentially killing people because of your practices? You need to clean up your operations.” He passed on the pitch and said, “There’s no way we’ll fund you.” It was a big blow.
Nevertheless, the rejection was humbling and encouraged me to innovate. Ultimately it was helpful in pushing me to think about the entire Replate process holistically and prompted me to seek out someone who could manage food handling operations — which turned out to be Katie Marchini, our current COO. We immediately began safety trainings and sought food certifications for our business and fleet. After a year of that, the same CEO came back and funded Replate. It was great to see how harsh feedback can be tough, but if you have conviction, can also push you in the right direction.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In the beginning, I handled everything, including building our website. Of course, I defaulted to Squarespace, Wix, Typeform — all the basic user-friendly platforms. Meanwhile, I was also handling deliveries as the driver, and managing dispatches on our platform. Plus, I was doing sales, marketing, social media, and juggled leading Replate as CEO. It was interesting to live on a daily basis in multiple roles and interact with people from various perspectives. Our clients would think they were dealing with several different people but it was all me! One day, I received a call from one of our clients giving me feedback about the food rescuer (i.e. me). So it was interesting to hear feedback about myself, like “Oh, the food rescuer didn’t take all the trays,” or didn’t do x, y, and z. But doing every role and handling every incident for the company enabled me to understand every facet of Replate and who should be hired to fill these positions.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Replate is the fastest-growing food rescue social enterprise that leverages technology and logistics to match surplus food from businesses with communities in need. Team Replate is on a mission to reduce food waste, mitigate climate change, and counter food insecurity, creating community impact that will change global food systems. Our company is trusted by hundreds of compassionate businesses and partners throughout the US and Canada, and recently expanded operations in the Middle East. Through Replate’s proprietary tech-driven platform, partners have the ability to track and understand the impact of donations: the water saved, the CO2 diverted, the meals created for the community, and more. To date, Replate has proudly recovered over 2.7M pounds of food, dispersed 2.28M nutritious meals to communities in need, saved 748M gallons of water and diverted 5.6M pounds of harmful CO2 emissions.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
There was a person named Andreas at Project Homeless Connect, a nonprofit we serve in San Francisco. I delivered some amazing meals from Salesforce, delicious gourmet food like salmon and salads. I went and distributed the meals and Andreas looked at me and looked at the meal, and he said “Salmon — what?! I haven’t had salmon in years.” And he indulged and was so grateful. It was exciting to see someone who was craving that food finally being able to eat what they really desired. It was a moment I’ll never forget.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
The first step is really pushing for laws that incentivize businesses to donate or repurpose their surplus food or upcycle it in some capacity. The other element to that is to support community organizations that are working to break the cycle of poverty. The fact that people don’t have enough to eat is not simply because there’s no food in front of them. Placing a meal on the table alleviates an urgent need, not long-term circumstances. We need to ask: why doesn’t someone have access to food? What are the financial conditions that limit their ability to buy the meals they need to survive? We need to invest money in programs that uplift and empower our forgotten communities, particularly the youth. Help them get an education. Support job training and guidance. Teach them what a healthy meal is and how to budget their income. The third step is to invest in prevention tools that reduce or limit waste upstream so there is less need for food recovery or upcycling.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership for me is getting outside the building. Be proactive. Take action yourself and get feedback. Don’t just sit in a boardroom, plan and strategize. That, for me, is the most important piece to leadership. Additionally, don’t wait to get started, even if you’re not sure of the road ahead. You can learn along the way and be more effective. Lastly, don’t be afraid to change.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Always seek value, not money. What value can you bring? What problem can you solve? Don’t worry about profits first.
- Don’t wait. Don’t sit there and strategize thinking you haven’t learned enough or don’t have the right funding, or x, y, z. You’ll always find a reason not to move forward. Go ahead and get started. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
- Ask for support — it’s okay to ask for help. If you have a great mission, get others involved.
- Managing people is the hardest task — find the right people and get them to work towards your goal.
- Have fun — it’s not all about hard work.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would begin by allowing those who are experiencing poverty or food insecurity to be the catalyst of change. They should be included in the discussion and strategy, not only be the beneficiaries of that change. We can leverage their knowledge to learn about their challenges to understand how to make food accessible in their neighborhoods, find ways to educate them to grow food in urban farms or rooftops and employ them to be part of the change. From a food insecurity standpoint, consider how politicians can incentivize these populations to earn a good salary growing and producing foods, and introducing those nutritious foods to food deserts. They’d get paid, the community grows, and they break the cycle of poverty while major businesses sponsor the movement. I like this idea because it creates systemic change more than just mitigating solutions or using quick fixes to bandage a problem. And this way we’re all a part of that change.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This quote comes from my dad, he always told us, “Put yourself in someone’s shoes.” I know it’s simple, perhaps even cliche, but I think it’s important whenever you’re passing judgment or observing a situation to consider what you would have done had you been in that position. How would you react or amend your behavior? We don’t know what someone’s life is like, where they live, what they’ve been through. Be patient. I’m often impatient, it’s been hard to understand this concept. But it’s important to remember everyone has a challenge and may be dealing with something beyond our knowledge. It’s important to live this way.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would meet Elon Musk for lunch, dinner, coffee, whatever. Elon has been one of the people I’ve always looked up to, despite being a sometimes controversial individual. To me, it’s fascinating to observe such a self-starter, who is behind so many international start-ups — PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX. Elon is leading the charge of the whole movement around electric vehicles. He can do so much by himself, but he also opened the door for others and inspired innovation in the clean energy space. He’s pragmatic and he makes the impossible happen. He knows how to do it. Please tag him in this! I’d love to meet him.
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This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Maen Mahfoud of Replate Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.