2016 Mentee Cathy Chen: “Whatever I end up doing, I want to be damn good at it”

Cathy Chen has always been passionate about food and the social implications surrounding it. Working under Matt Moran, Kylie Kwong, and Karin Fransson, it was impressed upon her that the quality of produce, as well the provenance, are aspects that should not be taken for granted. She was lured to Sweden from Sydney with an exchange scholarship from the University of Western Sydney to study at Uppsala University and it was here she finished her Bachelor degree in Natural Science, specialising in Food Sustainability.

By day, Cathy is the Space Manager at Impact Hub Stockholm, and by night, a co-founder of a food-tech startup, and currently advising another food-based SME in Stockholm on sustainability. Cathy has entrepreneurship in her blood and has developed a number of ventures – her first being handcrafting spoons and butter knives from wood that has been foraged from local urban areas.

Cathy was selected to be a part of the 2016 Advance Global Australian Awards Mentoring program, working under the mentorship of Dr Dana Cordell, Research Director at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney. The future is looking bright for this young entrepreneur. In Cathy’s words during her mentee acceptance speech: “Whatever I end up doing, I want to be damn good at it, and I never want to stop learning.”

Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing and Communications Specialist, Advance

What are you most looking forward to as a participant in the 2016 Advance Global Australian Awards Mentoring Program?

The opportunity to connect with Dr Dana Cordell will be absolutely epic. She’s had experience with setting up an organisation (which I’m currently in the process of) and she’s incredibly knowledgeable in the area of food security, and sustainability in general. Having the opportunity to tap into her wealth of knowledge and experience will be absolutely invaluable in my own personal and professional development. It will be amazing to pick her brain and hear more about her work with OzHarvest as well.

What was your #1 takeaway working under such big names such as Matt Moran and Kylie Kwong?

Working under a number of very different chefs taught me the importance of remaining humble no matter how successful society portrays you to be. There’s definitely a right and a wrong way to be a leader. In my own journey, I try to help others when I can, to be generous with my knowledge, and to never maintain the assumption that I know everything.

What was the best thing about studying overseas during your time in Sweden?

Moving to a city on the other side of the world was a very difficult experience - one that taught me a lot about myself, and also forced me to address my own weaknesses. I’d like to think that the experience helped me to grow in many different aspects.

Did you learn anything about Australia from a global perspective in the process?

Having lived in Sweden for over three and a half years now, I comfortably call myself a feminist, which I would not have done before moving here. I had a typical image of feminists, and never really had any understanding of what it meant before. Now I embrace politics rather than avoid it and from a broader, global perspective; I can more easily see some of the areas where our country could really improve upon.

What was the impetus for you to study Food Sustainability? Was it something you were always interested in?

Growing up with very conservative Chinese parents, it was a given that I would study hard, go to university and be financially successful…I didn’t do any of that. After high school, I skipped University and went to a college that specialised in hospitality instead, with the intention that work experience in that area would make it easier to travel. In 2008, I started working at Billy Kwong, which was then situated in Surry Hills, Sydney. Over my two and a half years there, I learned a lot about the importance of provenance and how our purchasing decisions have the ability to affect more than just our wallets. I used to take vegetable scraps home on the train in a black garbage bag every night to dig down into the soil at my parent’s house and started a productive garden in what was essentially a pile of clay and building rubble. My interest in food sustainability really grew from there. I eventually made the decision to send in an application to Western Sydney University to study Food Sustainability (my parents were finally happy – although I’m still not sure my mother actually understands what it is I do!). I finished my studies at the end of 2015 and just received my graduation papers in the mail this week.

What does being the Space Manager of Impact Hub Stockholm involve?

Impact Hub is a global network of co-working offices for social entrepreneurs. As the Space Manager at the Stockholm office, I take care of the members and make sure that everything is up and running smoothly every day of the week. People can come to me when they need help with something or have suggestions for things they’d like to see. My job isn’t very demanding so I jump in and help out with events, outreach, train new staff, and work closely with the Communications & PR team. What I really appreciate is the freedom and flexibility that my position allows. If I have an idea for something that could be done in a better way, I can go in and change things without having to go through a lot of bureaucracy. It lets me test and pivot so we can optimise procedures and find out what works best by actually going out and doing it and seeing how people react.

What’s the most fascinating aspect of working with food?

I find food fascinating. Not only in the context of what we can do with it and how it can be transformed in the kitchen from humble ingredients to an ethereal experience; but also where it comes from, the ethics of how we deal with the end product and everything in-between. As a chef, it’s interesting to follow how other professionals are using their intimate relationship with the food industry to influence public debate. From an entrepreneurial perspective, what’s really interesting are the ideas and projects that are coming out now from all across the globe that address issues such as inequality, unemployment, food security, and cultural integration using food as the vehicle for change.

It’s clear you have entrepreneurial blood in your veins! What are you working on at the moment, and what’s in store for the future?

I’m currently working on co-founding a company here in Sweden. We’re developing a mobile app called Smaka Lokal (meaning to “taste local” in Swedish) that will connect retailers like restaurants, cafes and bakeries to consumers to sell off products that would normally get thrown away at the end of the day. We received a HK $100,000 grant and we’re hoping to get the pilot test up and running before the end of the year. We want to make it easier for people to support local restaurants that integrate greater sustainability into their business model, to engage companies with more sustainable practices to reduce food waste and to make food more accessible to people of lower socio-economic status, as well as to show people first-hand that being more sustainable can also be profitable. Once we’re up and running, we’d like to add food producers, supermarkets and charity organisations to the mix. Data that we collect through the app will be used to provide consultation services to enable the food industry to improve on sustainability even more. What’s in store for the future? Who knows! Hopefully things will work out, and I’ll try bloody hard, but we’ll have to wait and see.