The idea for her future company hit Komal Ahmed while studying at Berkeley. Ahmad was on a path to medical school with no interest in building a startup when she ran into a problem and solving it became an obsession.
“I was walking down Telegraph Avenue and I encountered a homeless man who was begging for food,” she said. “Something about him compelled me to stop and invite him to join me for lunch.”
The man had just returned from a tour in Iraq, was waiting for his benefits to kick in. He hadn’t eaten in three days.
“This is a veteran, someone who made a selfless sacrifice for our country, only to come home to face yet another battle,” Ahmad said. “To add insult to injury, right across the street Berkeley’s dining hall is throwing away thousands of pounds of perfectly edible food.”
After that lunch, Ahmad was determined to alleviate the hunger around her.
Ahmad went into the dining hall and asked the dining hall manager if they could donate unused food to the local homeless community. There was too much liability, he said.
Unsatisfied with that answer, Ahmad did her research and found a way to convince her university to start a food recovery program. She soon found that it was difficult to match the excess food her dining hall had with the amount and kind of food local non-profits and aid organizations needed. At one point she called non-profits in the area and couldn’t find one that would take the food she had.
“I said, ‘Hey I have 500 gourmet sandwiches do you need them?’ You know 1/3 of them don’t answer the phone, 1/3 of them say, ‘No we’re okay we don’t need any more food,’ and then the last third are like, ‘Actually you know what we could use 10 sandwiches,’” Ahmad said. “Like awesome I have 485 sandwiches. I was on the side of the road so frustrated.”
“Why is it so hard to do a good thing?” Ahmad found herself asking again and again.
When she graduated from college, Ahmad continued to look for a solution. She wanted to be able to connect businesses that had quality excess food to organizations and people that could use it.
“I thought how much more effective, how much more efficient this process would be if those who had food could say, ‘Hey we have food,’ and those in need of food could say, ‘Hey we could use that food,’” Ahmad said.
Her company, Copia, solved that problem. “We’ve built an algorithm that’ll essentially match that exact business with a non-profit or non-profits that can accept it at that day, that time, that quantity of food.”
Copia then sends a driver to pick up and deliver the food and sends photos and testimonials back to the business that donated the food.
In creating her company, Ahmad went through several business models before she landed on one that fit. First, she thought her business should be a non-profit, but under that model, applying for grant funding consumed her life. So she decided to see if businesses, hotels, hospitals and universities would pay a percentage of the tax-deduction they get from their donations of food to Copia in exchange for data about where their food surpluses are coming from. They would.
“We don’t want them to produce more excess,” Ahmad said. “They’re going to be able to reduce overproduction, over-purchasing costs. We also quantify what their impact is so they can share it with internal and external stakeholders: How many people did they feed? What was their environmental impact?”
Since Copia’s founding in 2016, Ahmad and her team graduated from Y-Combinator, a top startup accelerator. Now they’re growing quickly and in 2018, they plan to feed two million people.
The process of getting Copia to this point wasn’t easy. “There’s been times when I didn’t have money,” Ahmad said. “I was living on like a blown up mattress on the floor of my friend’s apartments, or I was eating like a box of pizza a week and rationing it out for myself.”
Without a background in business, Ahmad had to learn as she went. She surrounded herself with people who had expertise in areas that she didn’t. She also discovered that when times got tough, she just had to take initiative and push through.
“If you’re waiting on others to make it happen for you- it’s not going to happen for you,” she said.
Looking toward the future, Ahmad sees Copia expanding beyond food and helping to redistribute other necessary items like clothes and books. In 2017, the Copia team got involved in helping victims and first responders in the California wildfires and that helped Ahmad to realize that the same issue she saw with food in college applied to things like blankets during a disaster.
After the first few years of growing her startup, Ahmad is excited for what comes next. She encourages other entrepreneurs to jump in as well.
“Everything around us has been dreamed or created or designed by someone who is no better than we are,” she said.
Samantha Harrington is co-owner and lead writer of Driven Media, a roving girl-power newsroom.