Growing up as a child of Korean immigrant parents, Robert Lee experienced hunger first hand. There were times where all his family could afford was instant ramen.

While studying at NYU’s Stern School of Business, he joined a campus organization that delivered leftover cafeteria food to local homeless shelters. It was there that Robert learned that one in six Americans struggle with food insecurity. Yet strangely, 40% of food in the US goes to waste.

After graduating, he worked for JP Morgan where the pay was high. Simultaneously, he started the nonprofit organization Rescuing Leftover Cuisine and ran it during the weekends and evenings. As a social entrepreneur, Robert worked doggedly. “If something is important to you, you make time. And you do it,” he said.

Eventually, he quit JP Morgan so he could work for Rescuing Leftover Cuisine full time. People discouraged him, thinking he would regret leaving such a lucrative job. Yet he persisted: “I had this crazy belief that I was right and everyone else was wrong.”

At first, the NGO had very little resources and faced rejection after rejection when speaking to the local restaurants.  Robert was full of self-doubt. “I wasn’t sure if I was the right person to be leading the organization,” he said of his early days. Only five out of a hundred restaurants were willing to donate their leftover food. Yet after each rejection, Robert Lee repeated a mantra to himself: “For every no that you get, you’re one step closer to a yes.”

Robert Lee’s original vision was to end food waste in New York City. Soon, the movement spread to 12 cities and the NGO is on track to deliver its millionth pound of leftover food to the hungry. Rescuing Leftover Cuisine works with partner food providers and matches them with local volunteers that carry leftover food to local homeless shelters and food kitchens. Nearly 200 cities want to start a chapter of the organization, and it’s only a matter of time that Robert Lee will accomplish that.

In 2015, Robert Lee was named a CNN Hero.

Robert Lee and Rescuring Leftover Cuisine Volunteers Shin Fujiyama Podcast



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Show Notes for Robert Lee

  • Robert Lee’s parents immigrated to the US from South Korea
  • They grew up poor and sometimes could only afford to eat ramen
  • His family never tolerated food waste
  • Robert went to NYU on a full scholarship
  • At NYU he joined a club (Two Birds With One Stone) that delivered leftover food from the cafeteria to a local homeless shelter
  • When he joined the club, Robert entered with curiosity
  • As a freshman he wanted to expand the outreach for the club
  • 40% of the food we produce in the US goes to waste!
  • We produce enough food to feed everyone in the world
  • Global hunger is a matter of distribution
  • Much of land and water is used to produce food, so all that is going to waste
  • Food waste produces methane gas
  • Food waste ranks third globally in terms of carbon emissions from food waste
  • Restaurants are concerned about getting sued for donating food that gets people sick
  • Research shows that it is extremely unlikely for a business to get sued for donating food
  • Robert Lee worked for JP Morgan for about a year after graduating from NYU
  • He wanted financial stability
  • Robert worked on Rescuing Leftover Cuisine part-time while working at JP Morgan
  • Robert figured out a way to automate a lot of the delivery process through technology
  • Rescuing Leftover Cuisine has a tiered volunteer model
  • In 2013 they won $1,000 in seed money on campus to start Rescuing Leftover Cuisine
  • “You never have time. You make time.”
  • “If something is important to you, you make time. And you do it.”
  • 200 cities wanted to start a chapter of Rescuing Leftover Cuising after the CNN Heroes coverage
  • They have chapters in 12 cities at the moment
  • Sustainable and organic growth is more important
  • Food waste and hunger are caused by distribution problems
  • Initially, they had too many restaurants partnering and not enough volunteers to transport the food
  • Robert Lee helped hand deliver the food himself during the startup phase
  • A trained lead rescuer leads the volunteer groups
  • A corp rescuer with a license manages all of the trained leaders
  • Volunteers are ordinary citizens wanting to make a difference
  • During Thanksgiving in 2015, they brought turkeys to a homeless shelter that had ran out of food
  • “There should be more individualized definitions of success.”
  • People told Robert that he was throwing out his degree from NYU Stern for entering the nonprofit world
  • He was gung-ho and according to Robert himself, somewhat delusional when he started
  • “I had this crazy belief that I was right and everyone else was wrong.”
  • “I wasn’t sure if I was the right person to be leading the organization.”
    Robert lacked confidence, charisma, and persona when he first started
  • In the beginning, only 5% of the restaurants he approached to seek out partnerships accepted
  • Robert talks about his mistakes in the past, like being too aggressive and outright rude to some of the restaurants that rejected a partnership.
  • “My passion pushed me through all of the rejections.”
  • Robert worked as the pickup driver, loader, salesperson, everything!
  • “For every no that you get, you’re one step closer to a yes.”
  • Rescuing Leftover Cuisine receive grant funding from JP Morgan, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, Clif Bar
  • They focused on corporate funding
  • Two of his main colleagues at Rescuing Leftover Cuisine were friends from NYU
  • Rescuing Leftover Cuisine uses Heroku and CircleCI for their website
  • Rescuing Leftover Cuisine uses Trello for project management
  • Rescuing Leftover Cuisine uses Slack for team communication
  • Rescuing Leftover Cuisine uses Salesforce for their CRM and email marketing
  • Rescuing Leftover Cuisine uses Google Ad words
  • To Robert, nonprofit organizations are like two separate businesses: one that fundraises and the other that creates impact
  • Unlike for-profit companies, a nonprofit cannot simply provide a great product or service. They have to market it and fundraise to survive
  • Earned revenue is critical for nonprofits nowadays
  • Restaurants pay Rescuing Leftover Cuisine to take the leftover food because the restaurants 1.) get huge tax deductions 2.) have to pay a hauler anyways to pick up the leftover food 3.) want brand association with RLC
  • The hauling industry is not transparent at all about prices
  • They charge 10-20% of what a hauling company would normally charge
  • At one point Robert was at an all-time low when funding was drying up and he started to feel like what he was doing was just a bandaid solution
  • Instead of trying to address hunger, RLC decided to focus on food waste
  • Robert Lee misses meeting the volunteers and doing the pickups like in the old days
  • As a social entrepreneur not making much money, you must create a personal budget and works towards gaining more earned revenue
  • Robert does not waste time in the morning so he can use his fresh mind’s energy towards his three most important tasks for the day
  • For Robert Lee “Sleep is the best medicine” to fight burnout
  • Robert Lee enjoys hiking and kayaking
  • Robert Lee is afraid of growing too quickly
  • It was difficult for his parents to see Robert leave JP Morgan because they had sacrificed everything for his future
  • His parents were one of the first donors for RLC!!