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Small Business

Small-Business Success Story: Copia

Komal Ahmad's app connects food purveyors with groups that make good use of excess food.

Photo by Eric Millette

Kiplinger's spoke with Komal Ahmad, 26, founder and CEO of Copia (pictured above), a San Francisco, Calif.-based tech company that matches companies with excess edible food with people in need. Here's an excerpt from our interview:

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What is Copia? We’re a tech-enabled logistics company, like Uber, that matches people who have excess edible food with people who need it. Up to 40% of the food produced in the U.S. ends up as waste from restaurants, grocers and other sources. Meanwhile, many American households don’t know where their next meal will come from. Since launching in 2013, we’ve enlisted 650 donor businesses and 200 nonprofit recipients. And we’ve distributed more than 830,000 pounds of food to more than 700,000 people in the Bay Area.

What inspired you? As a first-generation immigrant from Pakistan, I thought hunger was a developing-world problem. In 2011, in my senior year at UC Berkeley, I met a homeless veteran begging for food across the street from a campus dining hall. He motivated me to ask the dining hall managers what they did with excess food. They told me that, despite trying to avoid it, they threw away thousands of pounds of edible food because they feared liability for harm if they donated it. Online, I learned that the federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act protects food donors and nonprofit recipients from liability, except for gross negligence or intentional misconduct. After launching the nation’s first campus food-recovery program, I discovered that coordinating food donation was fraught with inefficiencies. I created Copia to close communication gaps using an online and mobile platform.

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How does it work? We ask nonprofits to create online profiles: What foods do they need? When do they need them? How do they need to be packaged? What storage facilities do they have? Donors go online or use our app to quickly schedule a pickup of their excess food. Our back-end system matches the amount and type of food to the nonprofits that need it, and we dispatch our drivers, who are certified food handlers, for pickup and delivery.

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What’s in it for the donors? We help them unlock the full value of their unused food. They get an enhanced tax deduction of up to 15% of its fair market value. Donors pay Copia a per-pound pickup fee. We provide data that helps them reduce food waste and improve their bottom line, as well as marketing and branding support. The nonprofits provide testimonials and confirm receipt of the food, so we can provide businesses with proof of their donation in case of a tax audit.

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How did you finance your rollout? Initially with the Bank of Komal—my life savings. In January 2016, I participated in Y Combinator, which provides seed funding and a support network for start-ups. It gave us $120,000 in exchange for 7% of the company. We’ve also worked with venture capitalists. Toyota honored me in 2016 as one of its Mothers of Invention, and we won $50,000.

Where will you go next? We anticipate taking Copia to Sacramento, and within the next two years or less we want to be in large cities nationwide. We may license our technology and model in smaller cities.

Are you making a living? I took a salary for the first time in 2016, but I’m not the highest-paid person on our full-time staff of eight. Solving the world’s biggest problems requires the smartest people, and my greatest success is our extraordinary team.

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