Ajay Relan is a true hustler, not just in name but in actions. When he was only 11 years old, he learned how to use Avid film editing software so that he could help his mom sell movies out of their two-bedroom apartment. At 13, he sold Airheads candy to finance a pair of Air Jordans- every 90s child’s dream. From there, he sharpened his sales skills by dealing velour suits in the parking lot of an LA mall before moving on to selling fake designer bags at parties. As an “out of my trunk entrepreneur,” I paid for my business and psychology degrees from UC Santa Barbara. According to Relan, now 31, “All that time, I was just harnessing a set of skills and exercising the muscles to become an entrepreneur while admittedly not knowing where all of that energy would be focused.”
Spurred by a series of start-ups and business ventures, entrepreneur/investor AJ Rigodon created Hashtag Lunchbag. What was once a spontaneous act has turned into a “humanity service movement.” The organization provides thousands of bagged lunches complete with love messages to those in need. With the help of social media and a supportive network, Relan and his cofounders have expanded their business to new heights, serving 120 cities across 5 continents. They’ve even been featured in a Wells Fargo commercial!
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Hashtag Lunchbag wasn’t created to start a non-profit; it was birthed from Relan’s journey with battling mental health. He wanted to give back to others as a means of bettering his own life. Relan chatted with Levo about how the movement started, why Millennials’ mental health is key, and what he’s learned from experience.
Levo: Let’s go back to the beginning. Why, after being all about working hard, did someone start a non-profit like Hashtag Lunchbag?
Ajay Relan: For me, Hashtag Lunchbag came to be around Christmas 2012. I had an interesting, very transitional year. I started questioning myself as an entrepreneur. The part of being an entrepreneur that no one talks about is the toll it takes on your confidence and your self-esteem and your mental health. In some cases, it leads to depression. It’s a very tough thing especially when you’re doing it by yourself, especially when you’re young. The lack of experience at a very young age can take you down a very dark path because no one wants to be around miserable people; no one wants to be around company that’s not poppin’. So I started going to therapy.
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That’s a large step for anyone, let alone a man and young Millennial. Most individuals take the easier route and resort to other things. What did you glean from therapy?
AR: I thought that I needed to open myself up to things that are aligned with what I like to do. I walked away from my start-up. I realized I hadn’t had a long-term relationship in a while, so I went ahead and got one of those. I hadn’t met my dad before and I thought that could have been at the root of some of my issues, so I went off and found him and met him for the first time. I decided to get into the sports bar business because I like sports and I liked to drink, so hey, why not. Again, just all of these very sporadic things. But like anything that goes up, it has to come down. I got right back into this dark place for a myriad of reasons. I asked my therapist for ways that I could cope that didn’t require any pharmaceuticals, and she prescribed me volunteering.
AR: I thought it was ridiculous. I went to a Catholic school, I did a lot of community service. I was in a fraternity in college, I did service then too. But nothing connected me to the service. On Thanksgiving, a friend of mine invited me to volunteer at a soup kitchen downtown but I didn’t have a great experience. So on Christmas eve, after getting some inspiration from my friend Felicia, I thought to just do it myself. I woke up the next morning and went to the grocery store and bought enough food to feed 100 people, but I didn’t just buy anything. I bought food that I would want to eat. The kind of lunch that if your mom made it when you were a kid, all the other kids at school would be jealous of. Gourmet meat, cheese, premium bread, Gushers, premium flavored chips, Capri Suns, Hershey kisses, water, an apple, and an orange. I went home and very inefficiently started putting together the lunches. My roommate Will and close friend JD were at the house and they joined me in putting them together as we listened to DMX rap Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.
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You delivered the lunches to those less fortunate in Santa Monica and then posted about it online. How did that affect you, emotionally?
AR: Almost immediately we had our moments of these awesome feelings which were what we were looking for. It felt great. It was like “Wow, all that [stuff] I was going through doesn’t matter because this moment is what I have. I do have a lot of things and I should be grateful for them.” That moment is very fleeting, but we thought that we wanted to share it.
Are you saying that you travel to different cities each month?
AR: We never thought we were ending hunger. We were just creating a vessel, a social activity for people to do to help them have that euphoric feeling that we felt. From that point on, we started seeing people popping up in different cities wanting to do the same thing. [My cofounder] JD’s old soccer coach did it and drove around on his bicycle feeding military veterans. An old friend of mine wanted to do it in New York. Then Chicago, Detroit, Seattle— then it just started spiraling. Friends, followers, strangers, family members, everyone is getting in on it.
What is the goal, if not ending hunger?
AR: There are a lot of programs that feed the homeless. We’re not the only people on Skid Row passing out meals. The food isn’t the primary value proposition. Homelessness wasn’t the main driver. I know the reason why I started this was because I was going through some shit in my life and I was prescribed to do it and so I did it. And it’s no coincidence that over time, I felt a certain way. And I wanted to keep feeling that way. That’s why we ended up naming our non-profit the Living Through Giving Foundation, with #HashtagLunchbag as a program that uses meals as a vessel for others to experience these feelings for themselves. We want to make giving cool and find ways to help people benefit from integrating kindness and compassion into their daily lives. It’s a win-win situation.
Depression, mental illness, and stress are more prevalent than we think. It seems that nowadays, almost everyone is feeling overwhelmed.
AR: There’s this feeling that you’re all alone in your issues, social comparisons. It’s so easy to compare your worst to someone else’s highlight reel of their best. I have had five friends that have taken their own lives in the past few years. You never really know what takes them to that point, but I think that vulnerability is key. Whether it’s with your partner or a friend, it’s about being open and honest about how you feel and knowing that you’re not going to be judged. I have a hard time with it too.
How do you manage now?
AR: I’m very keen on mental health and emotional intelligence. It’s a combination of breaking a sweat and exercising—really getting your endorphins running to keep your mind clear. That helps me. You have to surround yourself with people that make you feel good and appreciate you for exactly who you are and what you are, not what they think you can do for them. You have to be mindful of what you consume. There’s a lot of [bad stuff] out there and a lot of distractions. The stuff that’s on television isn’t the healthiest. Of course, learn from other entrepreneurs, but don’t set your starting line at someone else’s finish line.
What difficulty have you faced that caused the most setback?
AR: A general theme in life is this feeling of it never being enough. We’re so obsessed with progressing and creating newsworthy headlines of “Look what I’m doing” and “Look where I’m at” that we often forget or discredit the work that we’ve done to date. It’s this notion of “We’re in 120 cities now so we need to be in 240 by the end of the week!” I feel that way all the time.
What advice would you other Millennials for juggling work and life?
AR: It’s a matter of really maintaining a passion and reminding yourself of why you started in the first place. You have to remind yourself of your “Why.” Money is slowly starting to lose its grip on why people do what they do. It’s not as much of a motivator as it used to be. Millennials are searching for more meaning. But it’s coming back to being enough as a person and doing the work to build your self-confidence. What you have at the end of the day is your relationships with your friends, family, and those who care about you. You have to eliminate the shame of feeling like you’re not where you would like to be. Defining who you are as a person is key and it’s something I still struggle with. So my advice is to stay physically active, eat healthily, and indulge in moderation. Most importantly, create and sustain really meaningful connections with people that you can share with but also those that you can listen to for perspective and insight.
Want to get involved? Join the movement at HashtagLunchbag.org.
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