Ronni Kahn was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. She emigrated to Israel in 1970 and then to Australia in 1988. In 1994, she founded event-planning business Ronni Kahn Event Designs. In 2004, Kahn founded the food-rescue charity OzHarvest and was instrumental in changing legislation that had prevented potential food donors from donating their excess food. In 2010, Kahn was named Australia’s Local Hero at the Australian of the Year Awards, and in 2012, she was awarded the Tribute Award for Innovation, Entrepreneurial Skill and Contribution to the Community at the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman Awards.
Ronni Kahn was interviewed about her life, career and hope for the future for 200 WOMEN, a book and exhibition project founded on the principle of gender equality comprising original interviews and accompanying photographic portraits. This landmark project is the realisation of an epic global journey to find two hundred women with diverse backgrounds, and to ask them what really matters to them.
Q. What really matters to you?
Family, friends and people. It’s really all we’ve got.
Growing up, I realised how important having access to financial stability is. My mother drilled into me that money is crucial for survival because, when I was six, my dad had an almost-fatal accident. He was in hospital for two years, so my mother – who had been a non-working mother – now had to provide for my father and for three children. She scrimped and saved her whole life so that she’d have money to live on in retirement – and she died unexpectedly shortly after her retirement. There was a great lesson in that; it taught me that money is just a means that’s useful for living, but that it isn’t something to live for.
I was born in South Africa, during the apartheid era. Growing up, my parents taught me that all people are equal and, although they didn’t fight the system themselves, they embedded in us that it was wrong. It was an exploitative society and the poverty wasn’t something you could avoid – it was right in front of your eyes. One of the tenets of the Jewish religion that I was brought up with is that it is incumbent on each and every Jew to live, ‘tikkun olam,’ which means, ‘repair the world.’ It is a duty. The history of the Jewish peoples instils in you the conviction that people must be treated fairly, something that remains very important for me.
When I left South Africa I went to live in Israel; it was an extraordinary experience. For ten years, I lived on a kibbutz, which is a socialist society – a commune – in which everybody works according to their ability and receives according to their need. You can’t get much more equal than that.
I then came to Australia and, over the years, grew my event-management and production business. But, thirteen years ago, I realised that earning a good living was not enough – it just didn’t feel like I was doing what I had been put on this earth to do, I wanted to know what more there was to life. That began a journey of discovering what my purpose could be.
In event management, one of the best ways a client can show generosity, abundance and success as a host is by providing wonderful food. What this meant – at the end of an event – is that there was always masses of food left over that goes to waste. When I could, I would take some of the surplus food to one of the agencies I knew, and it certainly made me feel good. So, when I got to thinking about what I could do to bring me joy, purpose and meaning, all this surplus food and the people in need of it came to mind.
It was a visit to Soweto – a township outside Johannesburg – that galvanised me into action to start OzHarvest. On a visit there with my activist friend, Selma Browde, she told me about how she’d helped to bring electricity to the area. It was my light-bulb moment; I wanted to know what it felt like to make that kind of an impact.
Australia is a first-world country, but there is huge need in that more than 10 per cent of the population do not have food security. OzHarvest rescues good food and delivers it to hungry people, and works to educate vulnerable people, consumers and the public in order to minimise food waste. What drives me – and what has driven the culture of OzHarvest – is the notion that every single person deserves the right to food and shelter. They deserve the same as those of us who, by sheer luck, have all they require to live a full and sustainable life. It’s not about judgement, rather, it’s about ensuring that everyone has the experience of feeling special. Because every single one of us deserves love, health and dignity – that’s what really matters to me.
One of the most poignant and meaningful things for me at this point is that Selma’s son, Alan, is in the throes of starting a South African version of OzHarvest. I’ve always had a modicum of guilt for having left South Africa, so it’s precious to be able to give back in some way to the country that gave me my core education.
Q. What brings you happiness?
I find happiness in seeing the smiles of the people who work for me – people who’ve found purpose and meaning through their work for my organisation. I didn’t ever intend to be an inspiration to anybody, but it turns out that people find something about what I’ve done meaningful. And that’s priceless.
Q. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
What makes me miserable is inequality, the fact that some people have so much and some people have so little. Personally, though, there’s very little that makes me miserable; I have no right to be miserable, because I have everything that I need. But when I think of what causes me sadness, it is ill health and lack of personal fulfilment.
Q. What would you change if you could?
I would love to be able to upskill people who have not had opportunity. I would love to share knowledge and wealth – not just the financial wealth, but the wealth of joy, love and friendship – with those who don’t have it.
I am totally aware that, in what I have achieved, I’m standing on the shoulders of all those extraordinary women who fought for my right to live a full human experience. So I will stand up and fight in turn where I can. When I think of my purpose, my fight is for disadvantaged children who are going hungry, and therefore cannot fulfil their potential.
Q. Which single word do you most identify with?
I have so much love to give and I just want to receive it – so it has to be ‘love.’