Before launching her food rescue organisation, OzHarvest CEO Ronni Kahn AO had a series of careers that spanned two countries and three decades. Then one day, she discovered her true purpose. In this interview, Kahn provides insights into her journey of self-discovery and her leadership lessons learned.
When OzHarvest CEO Ronni Kahn AO was 23 years old, she was married, living on a kibbutz in Israel and looking for inspiration.
After finishing high school, she had followed her boyfriend to Israel to study for a year. Then, lacking direction, she followed him to the kibbutz. While she enjoyed the lifestyle, Kahn longed for a fulfilling career.
Unsure how to shift the status quo, but seeking a change, she and her sister visited a hairdresser. Kahn says she walked into the salon with lanky long hair, and walked out looking like she’d put her finger in an electricity socket.
“Woosh! I had a big afro,” she laughs. The flattering new look had a dramatic impact on her confidence.
“Suddenly I walked differently, felt more gracious within myself – and people related to me so differently,” Kahn says. Overnight she became visible, and within a few weeks, she had a new role in the kibbutz’s accounts department.
While Kahn says the perm is a superficial lesson in self-confidence, her transformation was the beginning of a journey of self-discovery, one that she shares in her recently released biography, A Repurposed Life.
From your mouth to my ear
Kahn was born in apartheid South Africa, the youngest of three daughters. Growing up she was shy, afraid to voice her opinions, and unable to value her own intellect.
While her parents were loving and supportive, they were also pragmatic. Life dealt them a blow when her architect father was in an accident that left him hospitalised for months, turning her mother from homemaker to breadwinner overnight. As a result, they wanted financial security for their girls, encouraging them into stable, reliable careers like nursery teaching. While her two sisters pursued this path, Kahn wanted to become an artist or an architect like her father. Her parents told her she lacked the talent.
“This is why what we say as a parent or as an adult, what we say as a leader, is so important, because it impacts every single person that listens to you, hears you, watches you,” Kahn says. “Your actions and your words need to always be in alignment.”
As a leader, your words can have a profound impact on your team’s morale and performance. Your team looks up to you, so ensure what you say and how you behave reflects the positive outcomes you are seeking to achieve.
Permission to succeed
After two decades in Israel, Kahn and her family moved to Australia and started over once again. Her ability to build new lives and new careers – in different countries no less – culminated in the strength of character, street smarts and business nous later required to found OzHarvest and develop it into Australia’s leading food rescue organisation.
Indeed, Kahn’s position as OzHarvest CEO is the pinnacle of a series of roles she has held throughout her life, including farming, teaching, sales and retail, floristry, fashion design, interior design and event coordination.
Kahn says that ultimately, she needed to give herself permission to be who she wanted to be. “In a funny way, the perm was one of those triggers,” she says.
“I reached a point that I was game to give it a go. Probably because people around me had said ‘you can do this’, even if I didn’t believe in myself.”
Which is why Kahn recognises the important role mentors play, investing in and growing their mentee’s lives.
“It has become such an important part of my life now, and it’s why I am so keen on mentoring and providing mentors for my team, because when people see something in you and support you to grow, it’s incredibly powerful and empowering,” Kahn says.
Give yourself permission to be who you want to be, and find mentors who will support you in achieving your vision.
Finding her purpose
While running her events business in Sydney, Australia, Kahn became increasingly disturbed by the enormous amount of leftover food going to waste. One huge corporate event, in particular, saw entire food stations virtually untouched. She says this was the night that changed everything.
Kahn’s first step was to drop the food at local homeless shelters. However, it was a visit to South Africa in November 2003 that crystalised the future for her.
There, she visited close family friend, Selma Browde, who took her on a trip to Soweto – a black township that had been out of bounds when Kahn was growing up. During the drive, Kahn learned that Browde was responsible for bringing electricity to Soweto. The fact that one person could have such a profound impact on so many lives sent a bolt of realisation through Kahn. Suddenly she understood that she, too, could make a difference. She’d found her purpose.
A year later, OzHarvest was born.
OzHarvest’s goal is to stop food going to waste and to deliver to people in need. The OzHarvest team, supported by over 3,500 volunteers, collects and
redistributes quality surplus food from a network of donors, from supermarkets and restaurants, to airlines and hotels.
Kahn, together with pro-bono lawyers, have successfully lobbied to have the law changed in several Australian states, allowing food donors to donate surplus food to charities without fear of liability.
OzHarvest’s innovative model includes educational and sustainability programs for vulnerable people, and a free supermarket in Sydney that encourages visitors to ‘take what you need, give if you can’.
COVID-19 saw increased need in the community. In the past year alone, through its various programs, OzHarvest delivered 38 million meals and diverted more than 10,000 tonnes of food from going to landfill.
The not-for-profit is committed to halving food waste by 2030.
Becoming the ‘boss’
It took Kahn a while to acclimate to being called ‘boss’. But as her organisation grew, so too did the need for a management team, and there was no doubt in their minds that she was their leader.
“When I started OzHarvest, really what I was doing was attracting a group of like minded, extraordinary people to follow me. I saw it as working with me, being alongside me,” she says.
“I started with one person, then two, then five, then 20 and now there are 250. I hired them because they’re great at what they do. I’m not there to tell them how to do their role, I’m there to support them and to encourage them and inspire them.
“Now I’m incredibly proud to be called the leader of this organisation. You can’t be a leader without a team. So for me, it’s all about the team,” Kahn says.
Surround yourself with people who are better than you at your job. When they do well, you will look good, too
“Don’t ever think that you can’t bring the best people around you because you’re scared they’ll show you up. They will only make you shine,” Kahn says.
The mark of a good leader
Asked what leadership skills Kahn discovered within herself, she lists strength, resilience, passion and commitment.
“But the most important is being true to myself. I’ve never related to a single person differently. It doesn’t matter if they’re the CEO of the biggest organisation globally or the most famous chef, or they’re a driver or someone who works in my business. What you see is what you get,” she says.
The leaders Kahn admires most are the ones who aren’t only about making money, but giving back. She also believes leaders should never expect their team to do something they aren’t prepared to do. “I wouldn’t ask anyone to get down on their hands and knees if I wasn’t prepared to do it, too.”
A bright yellow shining light
Approaching 17 years since its foundation, OzHarvest’s distinctive yellow vans with their ‘Nourish our Country’ logo can now be seen across Australia, and sister branches have been established in the UK, South Africa and New Zealand.
Once too shy to voice her own opinions, Kahn is a lead spokesperson on Australia’s food waste problem, regularly appearing in the media and in an advisory capacity to the government. She is a keynote speaker all over the world, inspiring people to find their own purpose.
Now a self-described silver vixen, Kahn no longer needs a perm to boost her confidence. Like the food that OzHarvest saves and repurposes, she has found her path and repurposed her life.
“I think we all have an ability to rewrite our story, and we sometimes just need one little success, one trigger, that can shift and change our path. We should never think that because we’re on one path that we can never change,” Kahn says.
Ronni Kahn’s Leadership Lessons Learned:
Read about Ronni’s life and journey of self-discovery in A Repurposed Life, by Ronni Kahn with Jessica Chapnik Kahn.
This article was written by Laini Bennett, MBA