Raj Karmani, Zero Percent

Founder: Rajesh Karmani
Company Description: Zero Percent is a technology platform that connects food retailers with food charities to donate and pick-up food surplus in a simple, reliable and safe way.
Company Site: http://zeropercent.us/, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook
Date of Interview: November 2014

Raj Karmani, Zero Percent

Raj Karmani, Zero Percent
Art by Erika Swanson

Raj Karmani came to the United States from Pakistan to study Computer Science.  He intended to, “get an advanced degree in Computer Science, come to the United States and work for the best technology companies out there.” While finishing his PhD, he realized that he could instead use his expertise to make a serious social impact – reduce food waste with the help of technology and modern logistics.

On the idea:

After a conversation with his local Einstein Bros. Bagels manager about throwing away food, he saw an opportunity for online marketplace technology to close the gap between food retailers and food charities. He began exploring and researching the idea, and was surprised to learn just how big the problem of food waste actually was. 

“You can use technology to not just help solve the problem, but to scale the solution. The potential impact you could make kept driving me towards Zero Percent.” 

On why Zero Percent can kick this problem:

“My hypothesis was/is that technology and modern logistics can make it really efficient, reliable and safe to move excess fresh food – nutritious food, prepared food – between the source and the charities. Traditional food donation is only shelf stable food. That was the bedrock and ensured people weren’t starving – but we can go a step farther by using technology and modern logistics.”

On going all in:

Raj built the technology platform for Zero Percent while continuing with his PhD program. While still in Urbana-Champaign, he received interest and partnered with a national non-profit there. He decided to “go with the flow” and see where the momentum of Zero Percent could go.

The inflection point was when he applied to Impact Engine in Chicago, the accelerator program focusing on for-profit businesses addressing social challenges. After being granted the interview, the original plan was to have Raj do a video-conference interview. At the last minute, Raj left Urbana-Champaign at 6am in the morning and drove straight to Chicago – arriving at 9:05am for his 9:00am interview. Even though he ran in a little late, he suspects that “seeing my passion and commitment was one of the reasons we were selected.”

After being selected to Impact Engine, he knew that “coming to Chicago, working with the best entrepreneurs, getting some funding – that was the platform I needed to have the best shot at scaling this, at solving the problem.”

“I had to go all in.”

On being a social enterprise:

There are some unique considerations and legislative frameworks involved in being a for-profit social enterprise. One of the challenges for both the startups and the investors is quantifying the impact. Raj talks about how investors are used to studying financial statements, but now they are being educated about a new line item on the balance sheet – the impact. That is why being a part of Impact Engine was so critical for him –  “They are creating an ecosystem of social entrepreneurship and bringing in investors who are looking to make a social impact”.

On what keeps food retailers from signing-up:

It sounds like a win-win for all parties involved – food retailers donate food and get a tax deduction, food charities receive better food, more people are being fed and Zero Percent can be a sustainable business. So what’s the hold up?

Raj says it is about educating business owners and about making it operationally easier for them to enforce the changes. “They have to communicate to their staff. Throwing it away is the easiest thing, so there is an operational barrier. Every day our team thinks about how we can make it easier than throwing it away for restaurants. There’s no blame game here, it’s just about understanding your user to make it easier for them.”

On what individual consumers can do to reduce food waste:

“Consumers can do two simple things. 1) Look inside their fridges and think about how they can buy smart, use smart and store smart so they have less food waste in their homes. 2) Consumers can also make an impact at the retail level just by nudging. Inquire at your local restaurant or grocery store about what they do with their food excess. By inquiring, it will put a thought into the mind of the businesses and they care if their customers care.”

Zero Percent is currently focusing on reducing food waste in Chicago and then will continue to expand wherever it needs to get closer to zero percent food waste. When you go home today, take a look in your kitchen and think “buy smart, use smart and store smart.”

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