Mary McGrath is the CEO of FoodCycle, which runs volunteer-powered community projects across the UK – working to reduce food poverty and social isolation by serving tasty, nutritious meals to vulnerable groups. They are an award-winning social enterprise and recently won Ashoka’s Makers of More challenge.
What was the inspiration behind tackling food wastage and the food poverty problem?
We throw away 50m tonnes of food every year and we felt that that is very frightening whilst at the same time, 4 million people in the UK are suffering from food poverty this means they’re having to go without food, having to go without meals, struggle to feed themselves and struggle to have nutritious meals as well. We just thought, what if there is something we can do about that and tackle food waste at any point in the supply chain, galvanise fantastic volunteers to effectively provide three course meals – that would be a great idea! We’ve been very successful at doing that.
You’re now working nationally and have helped thousands of beneficiaries. How did you achieve this incredible success?
The success has even much been down to communities coming together and deciding for themselves that this is something they can do. This how the message of FoodCycle has got out. It’s an inspirational message. We have incredible volunteers and the fact that it is such a simple model that actually has such a great impact, I think really brings people together and I think that is probably what has inspired the growth.
What is your story and how did you get involved with Food Cycle
I’ve always been interested in food and I got a degree in Food Science for instance. I started work initially in the Food industry, in marketing and products. I then joined an organisation. I became the Director of Grocery Aid and realised that the food industry does have an issue of food surpluses. I was really passionate about it not going to landfills or waste.
Many social enterprises struggle to effectively monitor and evaluate the work that they are doing whereas you guys have published some Impact Reports. Can you share some tips on how social ventures can build strong M&E processes?
The important thing is that you ask the right questions and put together the right questions and you don’t make it a huge long list of invasive questions. You probably need to have some really good discussions before you actually settle on the sort of questions you’re going to ask people who in many respects can be very reluctant to pass the info. The thing about FoodCycle is that there is no stigma attached we don’t ask people to referred. For us, M&E is something that we do as a snapshot and we do it once a year. Because our volunteers are so dedicated, we take the time to sit down with the guests so that they don’t feel intimidated by asking the questions on the questionnaire. Make them feel exceptionally assured. It’s not something that will be going to the government
Leadership skills are very crucial to building a good team. Do you have any tips for this?
Listening to the team is very important as a leader and there needs to be a forum for the team to let you know what is going on. There needs not to be a culture of fear. It’s about empowering people and that it’s okay if occasionally they don’t make the right decisions – that is quite important. I think being a perceptive decision maker – thinking things through – is very critical. Relationship building. Food cycle wouldn’t be what it is without core skills being developed in relationships and we assess how we can be better and core communicators, verbally and through email. We have a very young team and they’re absolutely amazing. Putting a little more planning in places is something that I try to instill within the team. And also, pick up the phone. That is always the best way to build a relationship.
In your opinion and based on your experience, what does it take to run a successful business?
You have to be a strategic thinker, you have to be able to plan and have very good organisational skills. You have to be and effective decision maker and that for me means looking at every alternative and not making decisions too quickly. It’s the people that make the business, recruit the best people that you can to manage the whole organisation. At FoodCycle, we’re very lucky that the team is hugely passionate about the mission and they have a strong belief in what we try to deliver and we all share the same vision. That is really important. The team is very skilled in many different ways and its about investing in people and talent management.
Many young entrepreneurs get turned down due to their age but the Founder of Foodcycle was very young himself when starting out. Do you advocate young enterprise?
Completely! The difference between young entrepreneurs and old entrepreneurs is that they’re not scared of doing anything. They don’t think of all the risks before doing something therefore making something happen happens really quickly. Whereas older entrepreneurs probably evaluate all of the risks before they do something, plan it out and it can take ages setting something up. The power of youth is actually is that non-risk is very healthy. At the end of the day what is the risk of setting something up.
What advice would you give to an aspiring social entrepreneur?
Just do it. You’ve got a vision, you’ve got an idea, just go and do it because you will make it succeed. Some of the most interesting pieces of work in social entrepreneurship is being led by young people. The energy that you get from youth is absolutely amazing as well as the creativity that goes on in a young mind. For startups, it’s actually better if you’re young. When you need to scale, that’s when you need to bring maturity but for something to get fired up and started you have to be young and courageous to do that.