The Visionaries: Robert Lee

Finding a solution to food insecurity is a cause that runs deep for Robert Lee, co-founder and CEO of Rescuing Leftover Cuisine, a non-profit committed to addressing the disparity between hunger and food waste. As a child of Korean immigrant parents who sometimes struggled to feed their family after they moved to the United States, he understands what it’s like to be hungry in a country that celebrates abundance.

The figures say it all, 40% of the food we produce in this country goes to waste, yet 1 in 7 Americans are food insecure. The RLC’s solution is to identify communities that need help, as well as the nearby restaurants, hotels, and catering companies with excess food. A web application then allows members of the public to sign up as volunteers to transport the food from one to the other. RLC has also developed technology so food providers can report excess, which allows volunteers in the community to pick it up and get it to people in need. The data relating to food waste is analyzed by RLC so it can advise providers on how to produce food more efficiently for environmental reasons. Food waste in landfill emits methane gasses that contribute to climate change.

It was inspiring to meet Robert in person at the ZACHARY PRELL studio to hear more about RLC and introduce him to our collection. We talked about how he got started, leaving the finance sector to launch a non-profit, and the freedom of taking a risk.

How did you find out about the concept of food rescue?

Louisa Chen, Paul Sun, and I started RLC in 2013, after being involved in a club called Two Birds One Stone, where we brought leftover dining hall food to homeless shelters. That’s where we learned about the concept of food rescue and the different organizations working in the space. We realized there was a huge gap in the food rescue market where smaller amounts of food weren’t being collected because it was too little for a truck to come by and pick up. And so after working at that club we decided to add technology, automate the process, add more financial incentives for food donors to actually donate, and target this niche area.

We took those concepts, added it to what we were doing, submitted it all to a venture competition and won some seed money to finally get started right after graduating and just before I started working at J.P. Morgan as a risk analyst.

Robert Lee is pictured in Zachary Prell’s Matusiak shirt and the Aster pant in Dark Stone.
You eventually left your financial sector job, and all the security it offered, to concentrate on your non-profit full time. Was there a moment when you decided you had to make the jump from one world to the other? What did your family think?

It was definitely more of a gradual shift to be honest. The work of RLC slowly made me more passionate about it! Even while I worked towards getting a job in finance, I knew even in college that I wanted to someday give back. I thought that going into finance and learning, while building assets and connections, was one way to do this. But while working on RLC, I also realized that I could make an impact now and I didn’t have to wait until later. The decision to leave was definitely very shocking to my family, as they thought I was throwing away everything I learned and worked hard for in college. My parents didn’t talk to me for six months after that decision! But they came to realize that they sacrificed so much and worked so hard to provide a different life for their children, one that would maximize happiness and allow for the freedom of this type of risk.

After launching in NYC, you’ve expanded to other locations. Where do you hope to take RLC next?

Finding a solution and making a difference in our local community allowed us to scale that solution to the wider community beyond NYC to 16 different cities across the nation. I would love to see RLC or other food rescue systems in all cities. Currently, RLC is focusing on the regions we are already in before expanding further, but we will continue to expand whenever we can.

We were excited to introduce you to the Zachary Prell Collection because the demands of your job tie in with the versatility of our clothing. What do you think?

This is the first time I’ve worn Zachary Prell and I feel really comfortable and confident in the clothes. I can see how the collection would work for everything I have to do in a busy week; I need something comfortable but smart for sitting at my desk and for meetings, but I can see how it is also perfect for layering up and staying warm when I’ve got to work outside with volunteers.

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