Conventional is not a word that could be used to describe Ronni Kahn. The self-described spiritual sexagenarian and founder of Australia’s leading food rescue charity, OzHarvest, possess a motley accent that’s difficult to pin down and an enthusiasm for her work that’s bursting at the seams. She claims to be genetically blessed with a huge energy field and lucky to have parents who were extraordinary role models. But – blessed or not – Kahn herself is an inspiration to anyone seeking greater significance in life.
After many years of self-discovery, she finally understands how good it feels to have passion and how passion can motivate action. “I didn’t start OzHarvest because I was a bored housewife, I wanted purpose and meaning. I am so fortunate to do what I do.”
Kahn was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, during the turbulent apartheid era. When she was six, her life turned upside down when her father had a serious accident that put him in hospital for two years, leaving him with one stiff leg and the other encased in a caliper. “Our lives made a huge shift, my mum had to go work to support me and my sisters. She sold encyclopedias and wallpaper, and finally ended up baking 100 cakes a day in our kitchen which she then sold. I realize my food delivery life started then … grumpily and begrudgingly, as the youngest I had to help her deliver the cakes, but at least I got to lick the icing.”
Focusing more on the day-to-day of putting food on the table, Kahn’s parents were not actively involved in the anti-apartheid fight but they did instill strong values of equality and self-fulfillment in their children. Kahn joined a youth socialist movement during these formative years and became increasingly aware of the injustice in her country. On finishing school, she got a scholarship to go to study in Israel, “I realized if I stayed in South Africa, my political activities and involvement in protests would potentially land me in jail, as they were anti-regime and considered subversive. I thought I could be more useful not being there.”
After two years in Jerusalem, the socially conscious and idealistic Kahn moved to a Kibbutz with her soon-to-be husband. “That theme of values of equality, of living a lifestyle where people are treated equally was definitely an important part of that choice for me. It was a fascinating and wonderful place to raise children but very challenging,” she recalls.
She stayed there for ten years before moving back to the city where reality hit. With a BA from the University of Haifa in Art and English and having been responsible for accounts or children on the Kibbutz she had little work experience. As luck would have it, her brother-in-law owned a florist and needed someone to run it with his wife, Kahn’s sister, who had also moved to Israel. “It turned out I was pretty good at running the business. I was an entrepreneur really who just got on and did things, but, equally, running a business was fun and challenging.”
From four in the morning till late at night for eight years, Kahn was surrounded by flowers. But all was not roses. As her two sons started to grow up, she became increasingly uncomfortable about her children’s future in Israel. “I am a pacifist and had lost a brother-in-law in one of the wars. I wanted my boys to have another choice. As much as I believed in the country, I didn’t want them to be forced to go to war because of my choice to live in Israel.”
Although her husband was not keen to go and it was a tremendous life-changing decision, the then 37-year-old Kahn relocated the family to Australia, where her husband’s brother lived. They arrived with very little money, no jobs, and a 14- and 9-year-old. It took some odd jobs and a year before a friend offered to invest if Kahn would open a florist, which she did followed by two more. But after four years, fed up of the “4 am flower market and hideously hard work”, Kahn launched an event production company which she ran for the next 16 years.
In the meantime, her marriage ended. “We had worked so hard at making a living, we went our separate ways in just trying to survive. So then I thought money would make me happy … I found a new partner who treated me like a princess. We flew here and there, and it seemed like that was awesome until it wasn’t. I started feeling the emptiness. It all became meaningless. My values had been put to the side.”
She walked out on the five-year relationship when she realized her partner did not support her desire to do something more purposeful with her life. “I knew I could make money and put food on the table. I knew I could look after my kids and myself. I wanted to know what I had been put on this earth for and it couldn’t have just been for more shoes, more earrings, and more nice clothes. Although those are nice things to have, it just wasn’t enough.”
In her business, Kahn had always generated too much food. She would often take leftovers from events to a charity that readily accepted the donations. So naturally, when she started thinking about significance, she realized if she had excess food then so too would her competition, especially with the event industry booming thanks to the Sydney Olympics. She decided that “food rescue” was it and, as the universe colluded, she made a trip to the US to visit her sister, where events conspired to shape her future.
“I always took the opportunity to meet local event production companies when traveling so I searched the International Special Events Society directory and hit on City Harvest in New York and thought, ‘Oh, I just love that name, I’ll see what they’re up to. It turned out to be an organization that rescued food with an operation in LA called Angel Harvest. I had no idea that anyone in the world was rescuing food. It was a revelation. I spent a few days with the founder, and returned like a woman possessed.”
Kahn came home completely energized. Knowing there was no need to reinvent the wheel, she took City Harvest’s model and adapted it to the context Down Under, creating OzHarvest. “It took a year, I thought it would take a minute … when I realized, it wouldn’t take a minute then I figured it didn’t matter if it took the whole of my life so the year became short. I’m still waiting for all the people who I thought would give me money to help start OzHarvest to return my calls. But then so many other people wanted to be part of it. I was like the Pied Piper. I received $50K seed funding from a major bank and was given two vans and an office. That’s it, and we were away.”
For the first seven years that OzHarvest was in operation, Kahn still ran her events business: “I never set up OzHarvest to make money. I had to support myself.” In 2011, she won a grant that paid her to work. It was a low salary but it was crunch time and Kahn jumped, closing her company after 16 years of operation. “It was so divine, I loved it. I didn’t want to do anything else. I was done putting on events for people and caring whether they had purple ribbons to match their purple invitations.”
On the 10th of November, OzHarvest will celebrate ten years of collecting 30 million meals worth of excess perishable and unsold food and delivering them to 500 charities across Australia. OzHarvest has a small staff and is remarkably operated mostly by volunteers.
So how does Kahn’ feel about what she’s achieved? “Immensely proud, immensely grateful,” she says, pausing briefly to control the waver in her voice, “And hugely thankful because extraordinary people have joined my team to make it what it is today.”
Ronni is the winner of many accolades including AFR and Westpac’s 100 most influential women, White Pages Community & Government Award, Nokia Business Innovation Award, InStyle Woman of Style Community Award, the Amex Enriched List, Veuve Clicquot Initiative for Economic Development, Australian Local Hero, and the Ernst & Young Social Entrepreneur of the Year.