CEO of Second Harvest
Lori Nikkel is a visionary leader and champion of social and environmental justice issues related to food.
She is an international thought leader on Perishable Food Recovery with a strategic focus on increasing
awareness of the negative impacts food loss has on climate. Lori’s guidance has changed the way Canada manages food loss and waste. She is a co-author of the The Avoidable Crisis of Food Waste, a world first evidence-based research project that identifies where, why, and how much food is lost and wasted across the supply chain, and Canada’s Invisible Food Network
That identifies the extent of food support to charities and non-profits across the country. A favored media contributor, Lori is sought after for her commentary and recommendations. She was globally recognized by the United Nations as Canada’s Food Hero in 2020. Lori is also a Clean 50 recipient and one of Canada’s 2021 Women of Influence. In 2021 Lori was named one of Waterstone Capital’s Most Admired CEOs. As CEO of Second Harvest Lori has developed a national food recovery network that redistributes healthy surplus food to thousands of communities in need.
Work and impact
How is sustainability/social impact integrated in your work?
We are unique in that we are a charity. Our entire work is about sustainability and social impact. So it is integrated just by our mere existence. We achieve social impact by ensuring people have access to healthy food and sustainability, the protection of our earth, by ensuring food loss and waste does not end up in landfills. And regardless, inside of any business, there will also be other sustainability cases. For example, since we have a fleet and logistics, we have to understand energy, gas, fuel and make sure that we can move into a biofuel system.
What are your past and current areas of focus in a few words?
We work on food rescue and redistribution and research, training, and education as a food rescue organization. It is not just about the operation of moving that food but it is also about ensuring that we are building awareness and that we are getting the proper research through innovation and technology. We can connect businesses directly with the Food Rescue app and third-party logistics. We are, for example, focused on getting food into Canada’s North, which is very complex. The climate crisis has impacted the North and enhanced food insecurity, much harder than the rest of Canada, although the rest of Canada is not doing so well either. We are working on supply chain food to find ways to ensure that we give access to the right, healthy food to people. That has always been our core focus. Knowing what to do with those surplus areas since 58% of all food produced is lost or wasted.
How did you enter this space?
I went to school for computer science, so clearly not the same stream. I was low-income and had to feed my children. I have given to this place to find a way to feed my own family, starting in child nutrition. I am passionate, and it has grown organically over the past 20 years. For the most part, I have always worked in the impact space, but I have also been a bartender and a waitress, these are real jobs for everybody to work in the service sector, understand people and manage people.
What are you most excited about that has been happening in your industry/field for the past few years?
People are becoming more aware of food loss issues. It is essential to have credible research to inform policy reform. We have Canada’s Food Policy Advisory Council and I am a member of it. One of the pillars focuses on food loss and waste reduction in Canada and globally. I also sit on the ISO on measuring and monitoring food loss and waste. That is the most significant piece, that there is work happening here, and operational work, not just talk, actual work.
Are there any misconceptions about your profession or industry?
As I work in the charitable sector, the misconceptions are that it is not a business. Charities are businesses full stop. We should treat all employees as if they were working in the public sector and we should treat them better. There is this misnomer that if you are working in the charitable sector, you should not get paid properly or do it out of the goodness of your heart. I think the biggest problems in the world will be solved by charity because where the policy does not exist, charities do. Therefore, we should treat charitable staff, impact, and outcomes as our greatest resource until we have policies that can change this. One may say “I don’t want to get into a charity, there’s no money in charity”, which is nonsense and we are working on changing that. We are innovative, technical, logistics, marketing, and every piece of the public or the private sector is inside a charity, just with a different vision.
Life and aspirations
What does a typical workday look like for you? What’s your work-life balance like?
A typical workday does not exist. Every day is different. That is the beauty of every job, and especially for senior roles, every day looks different. As long as you can prioritize what is essential, you can have fun every day, and pick other things.
There has been this misnomer regarding my work-life balance: there is work and life, but your life is work. It is part of your life. So if you are doing something you love, it does not feel like work. That doesn’t mean you should not have friends and hobbies. But you should be able to do what makes you fulfilled. And if that means you work on a Saturday, you do it not because you have to but because you want to. But if you do not want to, you should not have to. That is the challenge: some people do not want it and do not have to. So it should not impact your career in a good or bad way if you work on Saturday.
What parts of your job do you find most challenging?
It probably always is human resources. Either you do not have enough or the right human resources, or you are not managing them properly. It is always the people part. Making sure you’re building a friendly, fun culture is vital in a time of extreme growth and change. And I think I am relating it right now to COVID because it is such a virtual world. It is a lot easier to build a culture and make friends when we are face to face when you are hanging out at the cooler and it is not all specific to whatever that meeting is about. So this virtual piece is the most challenging, but it is not an impossible challenge. You just have to figure out a way to do it.
What’s next for you, what are your long-term goals (if you have any)?
I am going to be in the Senate. That is my long-term goal and I do not think it is that far away. I want to work in Canada, which would have a system that is not so siloed. In the Senate now, we have a group that is not partisan and I think that it is the way the world needs to be: nonpartisan, which when we see a problem, we go fix it and we do it together. It should not be based on whether you are a liberal, an NDP or a conservative.
Advice for the next generations
What are 3 key skills required in your position?
Leadership, Integrity, and Emotional intelligence. Those would be the three that have gotten me to my position. All people should work in the service sector when they are young because that impacts your emotional intelligence.
Whether it’s from your own path or the ones from your colleagues and friends who have a similar profession, how important is it to have a specific degree to be able to work in your industry/profession?
I do not think it is relevant. I believe that we have been overselling university degrees. All these people are in debt, have a degree and cannot get a job. We stopped believing that the trades mattered for a long time. I do not have a university degree. And so whenever we post anything, and someone puts a university degree, I ask to take that off. I can be the CEO, and I do not have one. You do not need one. I am not saying nobody needs one, I want my doctor to have one, but there are certain areas and it’s not like they hurt you.
What are some personal characteristics that you value in someone you’re interviewing/working with?
Authenticity, integrity, and someone who likes to laugh: do not take yourself too seriously!
Knowing what you know now, would you have done something differently with respect to your career? If not, why and what is your best life or career advice for youth?
Be yourself. Do not give up. Make mistakes, you are going to make a lot of them, and it is okay. Errors are as good as successes because you learn so much when you fail. So enjoy your life and do not take it too seriously. I know it is hard: you still have to pay the bill to meet your commitments, but if you are so stressed, look elsewhere.