It has been estimated that each year, more than 100 billion pounds of food is wasted in the United States. That equates to more than $160 billion worth of food thrown away each year. At the same time, in many parts of the United States, there is a crisis caused by people having limited access to healthy & affordable food options. The waste of food is not only a waste of money and bad for the environment, but it is also making vulnerable populations even more vulnerable.
Authority Magazine started a new series called “How Restaurants, Grocery Stores, Supermarkets, Hospitality Companies and Food Companies Are Helping To Eliminate Food Waste.” In this interview series, we are talking to leaders and principals of Restaurants, Grocery Stores, Supermarkets, Hospitality Companies, Food Companies, and any business or nonprofit that is helping to eliminate food waste, about the initiatives they are taking to eliminate or reduce food waste.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Wendy Gonzalez, CEO of Sama.
Wendy Gonzalez is an executive who is passionate about building high-performance teams that develop and scale innovative technologies solving high-impact problems. Wendy has two decades of managerial and technology leadership experience at companies including EY, Capgemini, Cycle30 (acquired by Arrow Electronics), and General Communications. She joined Sama as a Senior Vice President and Managing Director in 2015 and took over as CEO in 2020. Wendy has established Sama as the leading provider of accurate training data for machine learning algorithms that are used by leading technology companies, including Walmart, Google, and NVIDIA. Wendy is an active board member of the Leila Janah Foundation, a non-profit continuing the mission of Sama’s late founder of supporting social entrepreneurs in East Africa.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I am a child of immigrants married to a first-generation immigrant. This experience really showed me the transformative effect of hard work, which allowed my partner and I to raise three children and support our family members. Being a parent means living your values so that you can model them for your children. As a result, we would spend our weekends looking for opportunities to participate in causes that aligned with our values. That meant being actively engaged in our community and the world at large. It’s not enough just to spend money on causes you believe in, but taking action and “voting with your feet.” Eventually, I realized that this type of engagement was more than a weekend project. I wanted to make it my profession. After two decades of working in the technology sector, I was introduced to Sama and saw an incredible opportunity to align my values and my career. It allowed me to do what I do best: leveraging technology to simultaneously drive business growth and social impact. Our children were lucky to win the birth lottery, but many — perhaps most — are not as fortunate. Sama’s model is designed to help low-income people find opportunities in the digital economy and proves that businesses can be a force for positive social change by making purposeful decisions that improve the way they hire, pay, and purchase.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company or organization?
The story that stands out happened shortly after our incredible founder and my dear friend Leila Janah passed away. Leila was a brilliant visionary, and while I was grieving her passing, I felt an incredible responsibility to take care of her legacy at Sama. Only a month after Leila left us, the world went into lockdown from the COVID-19 pandemic. We shut our global offices and made taking care of our workforce our number one priority. The underserved have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, so we devised a way to support our workforce while ensuring we could continue meeting the needs of our clients. The result was SamaHome, a volunteer-run opportunity for our employees around the world to move to resorts where they would have reliable power, internet, safe housing, onsite medical care, and access to food. We also worked with three telecommunication companies in Kenya to lay more than 35 miles of fiber optic cable to the slums in Nairobi where the majority of our workforce lives and purchased uninterruptible power supplies so they could always work despite the unreliable power in the slums. This allowed us to continue serving our clients and ensure continued employment for our workforce. I am so proud of our teams because, despite the many challenges of the past year, we only grew stronger and more dedicated to preserving Leila’s legacy and vision.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One of the biggest challenges for a social impact business is that there are a million different ways to create positive change, and it can be difficult to find the right path among all these “shiny objects.” When Sama first started, we went through a period of experimentation as we tried to find how we could have the biggest impact on the world. We explored a lot of different ideas, such as training our workforce to become social media influencers to more out-of-the-box concepts like singing telegrams in Swahili!
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
There are so many important aspects to leadership, but ultimately I believe that leadership is about listening, collaborating, and articulating a clear vision. This ensures that everyone is rowing in the same direction toward a common goal and feels empowered as an individual operating in a larger organization. That last part is a particularly important aspect of strong leadership because businesses are not monolithic entities. They’re collaborations between people who all have their own goals, dreams, and personal lives outside of work. Leaders should always treat their colleagues as people first and employees second. This not only produces the best results for the organization but also creates a positive environment that empowers people to learn and grow.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of the core values of my family that I’ve taught my children and do my best to model in my own life is to “always leave people and places better than when you found them.” This can mean a lot of different things, depending on the context. It might be as simple as stopping to pick up a piece of trash on the street rather than stepping over it. Or it might be more involved, like taking time out of your day to help a colleague who is struggling on a project even if it has no impact on your own work. Regardless of the action, it affects your outlook in a profound and positive way. It means adopting a problem-solving perspective and truly becoming the change you want to see in the world — whether it’s changed in yourself, your family, or your community. This is a guiding principle at Sama and ultimately what led me to join the organization.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition of terms so that all of us are on the same page. What exactly are we talking about when we refer to food waste?
Food waste is a global problem that requires local solutions. For example, approximately one-third of the 931 million metric tons of food that end up in landfills every year come from the food service and retail industries. Thus it is imperative to find solutions that help individual businesses operating in many different contexts avoid waste. Of course, the problem of food waste doesn’t stop once it’s arrived at the landfill. Over the past decade, food waste has accounted for around 8 to 10% of all human greenhouse gas emissions, which makes it a pressing global climate change issue.
Can you help articulate a few ways you or your organization helped address the main causes of food waste?
Food waste is an area that Sama is currently working on through our partnership with Orbisk. Our training data helps power Orbisk’s machine vision technologies that help restaurants, hotels, and cafes mitigate food waste. By using Orbisk’s devices to analyze images of the food that is being thrown away, kitchens are better able to plan and adjust their menus to minimize waste. The challenge for Orbisk was that it had a massive data set made of thousands of images of food that its system had to recognize. This is hard enough at a single restaurant, which might have dozens of menu items and become exponentially harder as you scale to hundreds and thousands of restaurants, each with its own menus. That’s where Sama comes in. We were able to provide structure and taxonomy to all that data by labeling the foods so that Orbisk’s machine learning algorithms could learn to recognize them. And it’s already had a significant impact. Orbisk’s machine learning algorithms can reduce waste in commercial kitchens by up to 70% and, to date, has saved more than 250,000 pounds of food from ending up in a landfill. That means that each business location using Orbisk has avoided wasting 9,000 pounds of food on average. To put that in perspective, that’s about the same weight as a full-grown Asian elephant!
What are a few of the obstacles that your organization faced when it came to this project?
There are so many challenges in AI, especially when it comes to machine vision, which is what Orbisk uses to reduce food waste. When you’re training a machine-learning algorithm to recognize images of something, you typically create a data set filled with examples of whatever it is you’re trying to teach it. For example, if you’re trying to create a machine vision tool that recognizes cats, you would feed it thousands and thousands of pictures of cats, and gradually it would learn to pick out the features of those images that suggest something is a cat such as pointed ears, whiskers, eyes with vertical slits, and so on. Now let’s suppose you want to go a step further and teach your AI to differentiate between types of cats. This is a bigger challenge. Now you need to go through that image data set and tag the images according to whether they’re a tabby or a calico or so on. This is a big part of what we do at Sama. But teaching an AI to reliably identify types of food is a particularly difficult challenge. Whereas there’s a limit to the variation you might see among a population of cats, there is virtually limitless variety when it comes to food. There may be dozens of different menu items at a single restaurant, and any given item may come in different portion sizes or maybe plated differently depending on which cook prepared it. Consider something as simple as a tomato: It can be presented in cubes, slices, halves, quarters, or whole. It may be cooked or served fresh. It may be mashed into a sauce or tossed on a salad. And that’s just one vegetable! The best solution to this problem is not just more data but more accurate data. That’s how Sama helped Orbisk. We labeled hundreds of thousands of images of food so that its machine vision technologies could accurately understand what types of food it was looking at in restaurants and accurately track food waste. It was a massive undertaking, but it’s already having a large impact on reducing food waste in the retail and restaurant industries.
Are there other leaders or organizations who have done good work to address food waste? Can you tell us what they have done? What specifically impresses you about their work? Perhaps we can reach out to them to include them in this series.
AI is rapidly being adopted in almost every industry, but the food and retail sectors have really been leaders when it comes to embracing machine intelligence. One company that really stands out to me is Wasteless, which uses AI to give retailers dynamic pricing for perishable food products instead of the typically fixed prices. The idea is that if you know you have a lot of lettuce that is about to go to waste, retailers should automatically lower the price of their lettuce to encourage customers to buy and use it before it spoils. By automatically tracking when food will spoil and adjusting its price accordingly, Wasteless helps reduce waste from unsold perishable products at the retail level.
Can you describe a few of the ways that you or your organization is bettering this world? Specifically referring to your Ethical AI Supply Chain?
At this point, it’s clear that AI will profoundly change the way the world lives and works. At Sama, our goal is to ensure that no one is left behind in this transition. Aside from partnering with innovative companies focused on sustainability like Orbisk, we’ve also prioritized building an ethical AI supply chain. The basic idea is to equip people in underserved regions with the digital and machine learning skills that they need to earn a living wage. At Sama, we’re combining leading AI training technology with a vertically integrated global workforce to vastly improve the quality of AI training data. None of this would have been possible without our amazing team, which is composed of more than 50% women and hired from under-represented communities in East Africa and elsewhere. To date, we’ve helped more than 55,000 people lift themselves from poverty and support their families and communities. If you’re interested in the details, you can read more about our sourcing model from a 3-year study conducted by MIT that measured the success of our impact.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help address the root of this problem?
First and foremost, it is imperative that we acknowledge that AI is already causing disruption in many industries and that this is just the beginning of a paradigm shift in the way we live and work. That means businesses and governments need to take proactive steps to mitigate the potential inequalities that will result from this transition. Second, the tech industry must acknowledge that positive impact and profitability are not mutually exclusive. Tech businesses, in particular, should evaluate how they can align their business goals with broader social values and take steps to make those changes. And finally, everyone shouldn’t underestimate the power of purposeful action as individuals, family members, employees, and citizens. You’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish when you start looking at the world this way.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Know what your values are from the start: I’ve always said that purpose and ethics will drive a company’s long-term success. If you don’t know what you’re fighting for from the very beginning — such as the why, how, and when — then you’re setting yourself up for maybe some short-term success but long-term failure. Know yourself and know your company’s values. That’ll be your driving factor when fundraising and help you stand out from the crowd.
- Network, network, network: Networking can be hard. I get it. But buildingthat strong initial group of angel investors, friends, family, and other figures in your industry can make your startup journey far easier. Sometimes, it takes knowing the right person to connect you to the perfect investor to help you start your company.
- Creativity is a boon, not a hindrance: As the CEO of an AI company, I’ll point out why Sama’s success can be strongly attributed to our creative teams — they help us stand out from the crowd. While slick graphics and colorful websites won’t make you an instant success, they’ll help develop your company’s image and perception to the rest of the world — including potential investors and customers.
- Partnerships elevate everyone: No one does it alone. Sustainability and reducing waste around the world take cooperation, coordination, and collaboration. Find those groups of people who align with your vision and core values and seek them out. Eventually, you’ll find that a greater pool of resources, ideas, creativity, and motivation will get you further than going solo.
- Success takes time and practice: Quick success is uncommon. Don’t take it to heart if your first startup or attempt to create a company doesn’t pan out as you’d hoped. Learn from why and how you failed and take those lessons with you as you continue down the path of being an entrepreneur. When you finally do succeed, the rewards are so much greater now that you can compare your past failures to your current successes.
- You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
As an employer, you also have a duty to provide both a healthy and safe working environment and help your employees grow from their work. When recruiting, don’t just employ them — teach your employees actionable and helpful skills and lessons that they can take to future jobs down the road.
One of the greatest benefits of Sama is that we believe in the idea that giving work, instead of aid, will help alleviate some of the obstacles that individuals from underserved areas face when acquiring new opportunities. Over the course of Sama’s existence, we’ve already lifted over 56,000 individuals from poverty through programs, such as SamaU (Sama University), an initiative that trains employees with a range of skills in AI, machine learning, and training data skills that are focused entirely on employee upskilling and upward mobility. Of all company agents in Sama’s East African offices, over 50 percent are women who have been able to support themselves and their families with SamaU and Sama employment.
Movements work. Plant that seed and watch it grow. Eventually, you’ll find that the rewards are far greater when everyone can partake and share.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
If there was anyone in the world I could have lunch with, it would be Michelle Obama. She’s been an incredible inspiration on how to create an impact in your community. Not only does she lead by example and action but does so in a truly authentic way.
How can our readers further follow your work online?