VICE Australasia is calling 2019 " The Year We Woke Up". This year, we saw young people stand up, push back, and take matters into their own hands. We celebrate the fighters, the change makers, the movements that have shaken us wide awake and reminded us of our own roles in realising change. This story is part of that series.
The average Australian hospo business throws out around 100 kilograms of edible food every week, which makes up just part of the 7.3 million tonnes of food that Aussies send to landfill every year. It’s a bit of a travesty, but one that 25-year-old Jane Kou is trying to stop. She’s the founder of Bring Me Home, an app that connects people to nearby food retailers with surplus food. Anyone can use the app, all you have to do is download it and sign up. And in this way, it’s kind of like a highly discounted version of Uber Eats, without the delivery, and with food that was otherwise going in the bin.
I’d arranged to meet Jane at Eclipse Specialty Coffee, a Bring Me Home partner, in the centre of Melbourne. But on the day of the interview, I arrived 20 minutes late, courtesy of my car which all but caught fire in front of Southern Cross Station. I sent Jane a video showing smoke billowing from my bonnet as I jogged to the café. I’ve never been so late to an interview, but rather than seeming annoyed, or even cloaking her annoyance with fake politeness, Jane greeted me with genuine concern. “No need to be sorry! I hope you’re okay!” she exclaimed, and then explained that a similar thing had recently happened to her.
After a few minutes of talking, it was clear Jane was just one of those nice people. She told me that she grew up in Macau, raised by immigrant parents from mainland China who instilled a strong work ethic in her from an early age. And even in adolescence, the initial parts of Bring Me Home were forming in her brain.
“Before graduating high school, when I was 16, I was working at a café, and I realised we were throwing quality food in the bin, and I wasn’t quite sure why.”
One day Jane asked the head chef why they threw so much in the bin, and she was told that the food was fine to eat, but not good enough to sell the next day.
“And that was the moment I was like okay, there’s actually quite a lot of good food going into the bin, and I began wondering how big of a problem this is for all the other restaurants and cafes.”
This question stayed in the back of her mind for years. She left Macau for Australia at the age of 18, and began studying at Melbourne University, where she graduated with an undergrad in Business. It was during her masters that Jane came across Too Good To Go, a company in the UK that seemed to be making strides in the fight against food wastage. The concept was a simple one: basically, anyone could sign up to the app, which would connect users to nearby businesses with surplus food, listed at discount rates. Jane was intrigued, so she sent the CEO a message on LinkedIn.
“When I sent that message I knew clearly what my goal was, which was to have them expand into Australia, I wanted to persuade them to do it. I guess I just had the guts to do it because I was so young, and inexperienced, so there was nothing to lose,” she explained with a laugh. “I just thought that the idea was brilliant… I was like 'oh my god, how come I never thought about this?' This is such a no-brainer and I saw huge potential of it developing all over the world.”
Jane began working with Too Good To Go as an assistant, but unfortunately, the company didn’t survive long in Australia.
“They eventually pulled out, but being the assistant I was able to see everything that was going right and everything that wasn’t working, and that’s why I decided to do it myself. I believed in it and I just knew that if I did it my way, it would work so differently.”
So, with blessings from Too Good To Go, Bring Me Home was born in Australia. Jane had her doubts at the beginning, but after watching a few episodes of Shark Tank she was inspired to register an ABN and get on with it in late 2017.
“I was working part-time on it because I also had to make sure I was financially stable, so I was also working as a research assistant at Melbourne Uni,” she explained.
By early 2018 Jane was all in, but first she had to convince herself that Bring Me Home would work.
“I wanted to validate my views. So around the second quarter of 2018 I decided to test it out in university campuses. I thought university students would love deals like that. So I decided to print some coupons and partner with a few cafes on the University of Melbourne campus, and told them ‘hey I can really sell your leftovers if we do this together.'"
Jane’s experiment was a bigger success than she expected. "I was at uni almost every day selling coupons to students. Pretty soon we grew to 40 pilot testers and that was too much work, I couldn’t handle it so I had to put a cap on it—no more than 40 people. And then I started getting people messaging me online saying that they were Monash students and they wanted something like that because they heard Uni Melb was doing it.”
So, Jane found herself making the drive to Clayton to partner up with cafes there. But soon Monash, just like Melbourne Uni, became too hot to handle. Jane had received the message: people were very into the concept. “So I stopped the pilot test after about six weeks,” she said.
During the pilot testing Jane was able to rescue more than 200 meals. That’s all she needed to know the demand was there. “I thought maybe people would buy the coupons but never really use them—and I was ready to refund everything. But it turned out so much better than I thought.”
All of this makes the process sound easy, but Jane explains that there wasn’t ever a moment where she didn’t doubt herself. “I think it’s very normal in the startup world, but I have many methods to get over self-doubt. Most of the time I just go online and look at motivational material and actually try and learn about what is happening in my brain, why am I feeling this way—is this because I’m just really exhausted? Do I need to rest? So I like to self-diagnose, and depending on what the issue is, I seek help.”
Jane explains that when she faces a work-related issue, she turns to mentors for advice, or turns to exercise. “If it’s something to do with insecurity or self-doubt, I might increase my exercise routine and make myself feel more fit and healthier and therefore able to tackle everything… but when it comes to mental health, I have a psychologist who I turn to—and I think people don’t talk about this often; I feel like it’s still a taboo in society, but it’s ok to have a therapist, it’s normal.
“Whenever I feel like I want to quit, I immediately ask myself why I feel that way, and look for a solution to it—and most of the time it comes down to willpower. And I guess for me, the biggest thing is knowing that I’m doing this and it will make the world a better place—that’s what really has me continuing what I do even when I face the toughest times.”
Before parting ways at the café, I asked Jane if she had any advice to someone reading this who felt powerless to make a difference. “You know, I heard a quote once,” she responded after taking a moment. “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a room with a mosquito.”
All photos by Lliam Milkins