September 20, 2019

Rachel Sumekh

Rachel Sumekh remembers the moment when every expectation she had for herself as a “typical Persian girl,” as she put it, changed. 

It was the summer of 2010, and Sumekh, now 24, had just completed her second year at UCLA. But instead of focusing on finals like everybody else, Sumekh spent her days tabling outside the campus dining hall, trying to end hunger in her city. 

Through her friend Bryan Pezeshki, she’d gotten involved with a plan that was pretty ingenious: At the end of each quarter, students could donate whatever was leftover on their campus meal plan — in the form of “meal points” — thereby turning that surplus into meals for the homeless. Although UCLA resisted at first, because the cash-out disrupted its carefully balanced food budget (it expected students to have unused meal points leftover), the university eventually embraced the organization and developed a cost-effective exchange rate for unused points. Through the students’ program, called Swipes for the Homeless, Sumekh and Pezeshki could use the monetary exchange to purchase food and deliver it to Los Angeles shelters. 

But things changed on that sweltering June day, when Pezeshki and Sumekh suddenly realized hunger wasn’t happening only to the homeless, it was happening on campus — to fellow students. 

That day, after they cashed in that quarter’s donations and purchased hundreds of pounds of food — “soups, cereal, water bottles, canned food, frozen food,” Sumekh recalled — they decided to deliver the bounty to an on-campus “food closet,” where low-income students could anonymously help themselves to desperately needed meals. The only problem was: No one showed up to help them transport the pallets. 

“Our whole team was supposed to show up and help us move this food across campus, and no one showed up,” the Woodland Hills native said with a laugh. “It was just me and Bryan. So we spent five hours lugging all this food across campus, and it shifted my perspective — it exposed me to my capacity. That’s the moment I realized I wanted to be a social impact leader.” 

With that realization, Swipes for the Homeless began its transformation from a UCLA student group to a nationally recognized nonprofit, Swipe Out Hunger, which in 2012 was recognized by the White House as a “Champion of Change.” In 2013, Sumekh became the organization’s executive director — and its first paid employee — and expanded the program to 15 college campuses across the country. Since Sumekh took the reins, Swipe Out Hunger has increased the number of meals served fivefold — to a total of 1.2 million. Today, college students anywhere can set up their campus chapter and adapt the program to the needs of their school. 

Late last year, Sumekh was featured in a Web spot titled “#Gamechanger” produced by Sony Pictures and tied to the Will Smith movie “Concussion,” recognizing her social impact. She was also accepted into Bend the Arc’s leadership development program, Selah; she is a member of the ROI entrepreneurial community, supported by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation, and an American Jewish World Service global justice fellow. All this from a young woman who used to be told she was “too nice to be a leader.”

“On a regular basis, I was told by family and friends, ‘Rachel, why are you wasting your time? Go to law school already!’ ” Sumekh said about the Iranian-Jewish community’s expectations for her. “They’d dismiss [my work] as, ‘She’s just having fun, but then she’s gonna get real work.’ ” 

Sumekh said some friends and relatives still prefer she focus on finding a husband and having children. 

“As an undergrad, people would always say to me, ‘You’re not a typical Persian girl,’ and I would love it,” Sumekh said. 

“I’d say ‘Yeah, I’m not.’ And it would drive me to continue to want to make choices that were different.”