CXO

Margaret Tung: PareUp founder. Food justice activist. Painter.

Margaret Tung is the co-founder of PareUp, a mobile app that aims to reduce food waste. She talked to TechRepublic about her journey through the food system, how she got into tech, and her hopes for the future of food technology.

150618-columbia-007.jpg
Margaret Tung is the co-founder of PareUp.
Image: Margaret Tung

When Margaret Tung was about to graduate from Yale, she was offered a job in restaurant management, and wanted to use it to make a difference in the food industry. It was a great company, great training, well-paying. She'd already signed the paperwork.

But weeks before graduation, she changed her mind. She wanted to follow her curiosities, and better understand how to build a business.

Tung, who is now the co-founder of PareUp, a mobile app that connects businesses with leftover food to people in need, grew up in Irvine, California, where both her parents were engineers. Her father had the opportunity to start his own company with a friend of his when he was young, but he chose not to move to the Bay Area, instead staying with his family in Southern California. The friend moved to the Bay and sold the company to AOL for $10 million. She said it was a huge lesson for her — to her immigrant parents, that would have been tons of money.

"That stuck with me and I sort of always thought to myself, if I ever had an opportunity like that, I would totally take it," she said.

So when Tung was faced with the decision to go into restaurant management or learn about entrepreneurship, she chose the latter.

Her first gig was at Moo Chocolates, a one-woman run shop, where Tung was the first employee. The owner basically taught her everything about building a brand and food product, a field that Tung would continue to work in for several years.

"Taking that risk showed me in the future if I wanted to do that, that I could do it again. I think it showed me that the thing that made me happy was to try different things," she said.

While Tung was at Yale, she didn't focus on science or math, which had been her strengths as a child. But she did work at The Yale Farm, where she saw firsthand how technology could make the broken food system more sustainable. One of the things she concentrated on was food justice and assets, which she had been studying because while she was at school, the only grocery store in New Haven, Connecticut shut down, and it took a long time to lobby and get a new grocer into the space. Still, by the time she graduated, no new grocer had moved in yet.

Her first tech job was as an assistant food buyer at Fab.com, where she helped promote the local sustainable food movement and small businesses in order to provide the best ingredients and services to customers. That's when she realized how business and technology together could really move the needle in the food system, encourage more conscious consumption, and make it more mainstream.

She then moved to a company called Purpose, which was trying to fill a hole in the food advocacy space. A lot of nonprofits touch the food industry — whether it's animal rights, water conservation, workers' rights, environmental concerns, etc. — but they all had their own newsletters and audiences. Purpose wanted to build a community of people who cared about the future of food in the entire food system.

"The idea being [that] instead of serving up siloed campaigns to a million or less than a million users, they could circulate their topic areas to get a wider audience."

That meant Tung was researching quite a bit about conversations in the food and tech industries and finding out what issues were most critical to address. At the end of 2013, some major reports on food waste came out — specifically, a United Nations report that showed the world throws away a third of its food every year.

The issue of food waste piqued her interest. There were a lot of businesses trying to promote the farm-to-table movement, and others answering the dinner and lunch delivery question, but this was being largely ignored. So she decided to look at the food waste landscape to better understand how to use technology to solve a massive distribution problem.

At the same time, she was interested in the sharing economy model, which focuses on collaborative consumption and turning unused resources into business opportunities. She got a few friends together to research the space, and with her two co-founders, came up with the original idea for PareUp — people opening fridges to each other and selling food that would otherwise be wasted. But the price points would have to be low and it seemed somewhat sketchy to buy things out of homes, so they decided to change course.

They thought the best way to tackle this would be figuring out where people are already buying lots of food. They talked to cafe owners, grocery stores, and food retailers to better understand the problem, and why so much food was being thrown away.

"Consumers who aren't really digging into this problem, they don't really think about it. I remember in my life before this, I thought obviously they're donating it, and assumed there are all these natural solutions," she said.

But when she started asking questions about the process, it quickly became obvious that wasn't the case. New Yorkers, for instance, throw away six million pounds of food a day. What Tung and her co-founders discovered was that businesses don't feel comfortable donating and aren't likely to change their minds, or logistically, it doesn't work out well, causing them to give up on partnerships. Throwing things away is much easier than staying late for donation pick ups, or taking the food somewhere.

She wanted to give people access to the food that wasn't being donated, to create a new market product with sustainable branding and new customers. In 2014, they successfully crowdfunded PareUp on Indiegogo, and thus the company was formed. PareUp, which has a tagline of "Good food is a terrible thing to waste," is a mobile app that allows retailers with extra food to sell it at discounted rates or give it away. Whoever is nearby using the app can purchase it, and the app itself is free to download and use.

PareUp launched in April 2015, and now has 50 stores and 1000 users.

"I always wanted to work in the sustainable food space because food is something some people get to enjoy three to five times a day. I's something that has been ignored for a very long time and it has a lot of external impacts — on our environment, in communities, in some ways on structures of societies and equality," Tung said.

Food waste often gets overlooked because many people see food and having access to food as fundamental human right, and many people don't look at it from a macro scale to see what's working and what's not working in the system, Tung added. And the model hasn't changed in a very long time.

Mainstreaming more sustainable ways to grow, distribute, and eat food is important to Tung. She said it's inspiring how quickly the food movement has grown, and said that makes her "work harder and want to keep [her] eyes open" for more opportunities in the space.

Her mission with PareUp has become less about her original passion for the specific issue of food waste, and more about her interest in solving problems for the global food industry, and raising awareness about environmental justice. And that's all come from her travels through the food industry, and learning more everyday about the sustainable food movement.

"It's funny," she said. "It's all added up."

In her own words...

How do you unplug?

"I love doing anything outdoors. I also love art. I grew up painting, so if I want to unwind, I break out a sketchbook or go and take a drawing or painting class. I also definitely love cooking, so I cook with friends. We'll do Sunday night dinners because that's a really good time to unwind and a great way to start the week. I love hiking, love running, sometimes I take day trips out into nature to get away from the city a little bit."

What's your favorite type of food?

"That's hard. I've been really into Southeast Asian food lately. Vietnamese food might be one of my favorite cuisines. And of course anything my parents make, I love. And then in summers I really love salad. A really good grain salad hits the spot."

What kind of culture do you try to create at your company?

"Be kind to ourselves and each other. This is a hard thing to do be doing. There always is potential, but [entrepreneurs] are hard on themselves. It's all about you. If you don't want to do it, no one else is going to. It's hard to take losses. As much as a lot of this is about ego, working with other people really closely [who are] as invested as I am, I remember that it's not about me, it's about the company as a whole. In many ways, it makes me think more intentionally about how i manage my team and communicate, how I balance work with personal life."

What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs?

"Whenever people ask me for career advice I always say think about the things you like to do, and interested in, and things you're actually good at doing, and write those down. Talk to as many people as you can who seem to be doing those roles at companies they believe in, see if any of that resonates with you. And if it does, you should try it. When you're young, you should try it for a year or two. If you like it, reevaluate in six months and see if you should stay. If you feel like it's time to move on to something else, you need to listen to yourself while you have that luxury of time to do so. That's been my general philosophy."

Also see:

About Lyndsey Gilpin

Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox