“I’m proud of what we’ve achieved”
Iseult Ward and her partner Aoibheann O’Brien have built up an impressive food re- distribution business
Iseult Ward and Aoibheann O’Brien of FoodCloud: “My priority is to do something I’m passionate about and that I feel is having a positive impact.” Photograph: Naoise Culhane
A quote from the 16th-century philosopher Michel De Montaigne is the maxim by which Iseult Ward lives. “‘There were many terrible things in my life, and most of them never happened’. My mother was always saying it and it made an impact on me,” she says.
“It means don’t be afraid. We have a tendency not to take the next step because we have a fear of something, and that fear can paralyse us. But if you don’t try, you’ll never know,” she says.
If there’s one thing Ward can never be accused of, it’s not trying. She is a technologist, a businesswoman and, above all, a committed social entrepreneur – and all at the same time.
With co-founder Aoibheann O’Brien she set up social enterprise FoodCloud in October 2013. At its heart is an app that connects businesses that have too much food with charities working in communities that have too little.
From a standing start, they have built FoodCloud to a point where it takes food from 2,500 supermarkets and 100 food industry partners across Ireland and, since last year, the UK too. In one month alone, it distributes 1.5 million ‘meal equivalents’ to those in need, representing a saving of €2 million for the 6000-plus charities that FoodCloud supports.
The app is a highly innovative solution to the age-old problem of food poverty. Its genesis was a chance meeting between Ward and O’Brien at a start-up event for social entrepreneurs. Both were students at Trinity College Dublin at the time – Ward studying business and economics and O’Brien environmental science.
“What I liked about Aoibheann from the start was the fact that she had the same ‘doer’ attitude as me,” says Ward. They shared an interest in the elimination of food waste too.
“It was while I was studying business at college that I first came across the idea that you could create a commercially viable business which puts people and communities first,” she says.
“The fact that I started college just after the economic crash had taken place had an impact on me too. I could see how people were suffering, how charities were resource-stretched as a result and how they were also having their funding cut.”
The pair got to work developing their retail app. Put simply, it allows a business to upload details of any surplus food it has – typically fresh produce like fruit, veg and baked goods – and FoodCloud sends out an alert to charities that need it.
Last year, FoodCloud expanded its operations with the creation of three FoodCloud Hubs, central distribution warehouses in Dublin, Galway and Cork. These are designed to handle large-scale quantities of food direct from manufacturers and producers.
“The quantities involved in the hubs would simply be too large for our charity partners to handle and distribute, so we break them down and redistribute them.”
In the past, such food would simply have gone to waste, even though it is perfectly fresh. “It could be the result of a mislabelling situation, where something has a pound sign on the packaging instead of a euro one. Or it could be short-dated stock. Supermarkets want a product to come in with a two-week shelf life and so, if it only has 13 days left, they won’t take it.”
By constantly innovating and finding new ways to source and eliminate food waste in this way, the enterprise has grown substantially in just a few years. Today, FoodCloud employs 44 people on a full-time basis, and manages a further team of 200 volunteers. “I am proud of what we’ve achieved,” she says.
Central to that achievement has been a strategic approach to seeking out guidance from others more experienced than her. “Having people you can turn to for advice is really important. At FoodCloud we have a fantastic voluntary board of directors who are a terrific resource for us. Nobody knows everything, so you need to surround yourself with good people.”
This is particularly true for an enterprise as innovative as FoodCloud. “A lot of what we are doing is being done for the first time. That brings its own stresses. And being a social enterprise means we are always operating in an uncertain environment. So we constantly wonder are we doing the right thing and question whether we are making the right decisions.”
Managing growth in the not-for-profit sector is particularly challenging. FoodCloud’s retail partners pay to use the app, which covers the social enterprise’s operating costs. But the kind of funding avenues, such as angel investment and venture capital, which are traditionally used to help a business to scale up, are closed off to it. FoodCloud has to rely on philanthropy to help it grow.
But while Ward’s professional life therefore involves the endless pursuit of money, in her personal life she eschews it. “Money is definitely not a motivator for me. You wouldn’t set up a charity if it was. My priority is to do something I’m passionate about and that I feel is having a positive impact. As far as I’m concerned, happy and healthy is what matters.”
Stories of successful Irish women
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