Nearly three decades ago, Philip Wollen left his position as vice-president of Citibank in Australia after an experience that changed him forever. The merchant banker visited a client’s premises, which was a slaughterhouse, and recognized the agonized screams of the animals inside as being identical to those of his dying father, who was ravaged by cancer.
While devoting his energy and resources to full-time philanthropy since his exit from Citibank, Wollen has stayed in touch with some of his colleagues in the international banking and financial services industry. Over the years he’s taken every opportunity to share with them the devastating impacts of animal agriculture on animals, human health and the environment, and encouraged them to join him in becoming vegan.
Many of these professionals dismissed him as eccentric and outlandish, until 2012 when a speech he made at a debate, ‘Should Animals Be Off the Menu?’, went viral on social media and the reclusive philanthropist – a recipient of the Medal of the Order of Australia and Australian of the Year (Victoria) award – was thrust into the spotlight. Since then, he says, more individuals in the corporate world have started to understand the issues and commit to being part of the solution.
One group, Vegan Leaders in Corporate Management (VLCM), is playing an instrumental role in facilitating this culture shift at large corporations. Started in 2014 by Darina Bockman, Senior Finance Director, Global Projects & Information Systems, at commercial real estate services firm CBRE in San Diego, California, VLCM is a platform that mobilizes influential vegans working in large corporations and supports them to advance plant-based initiatives.
“My personal experience had fueled this idea,” Bockman explains. “I was a vegan activist but also a rising Fortune 500 professional, and I felt there was no community encompassing both. I believed that the vegan lifestyle was a logical fit for high achievers in business – based on the same values of personal leadership, integrity, quest for knowledge and truth and so on. But the ‘corporate’ vegans needed a community that was all about non-fringe image, pragmatism, strategy and professionalism.”
Since its inception four years ago, VLCM has amassed more than 2,300 members and around 600 additional followers on LinkedIn, with a steady average of two to three new joiners every day. Around a third of members work at Fortune 500 companies and at least 224 work at Fortune 100 companies. “It could be more than that if the employment is with a subsidiary of a Fortune 100 company,” says Bockman.
Some of the companies with VLCM members include Amazon, American Airlines, American Express, Apple, AT&T, Bank of America, Best Buy, Boeing, Citibank, Coca-Cola, Dropbox, ExxonMobil, Facebook, General Electric, General Motors, Hewlett-Packard, Home Depot, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley, Nike, Target, UPS, Verizon, Walmart, and Wells Fargo, among many others.
Bockman estimates that 20-35% of members work in senior management (Director and above) and besides the 387 or 16% with leadership or executive titles (C-suite, General Manager, Partner, Executive Director and so on), many additional members have managerial or director titles within various other listed functions. The group also accepts members who are in the early stages of their career, even business students, if their LinkedIn resume indicates a corporate focus and ambition. “Our assumption is that corporate professionals tend to advance with time,” says Bockman. “Plus, even more junior-level vegans at major companies are a very valuable asset, being role models and drivers of initiatives.”
In terms of gender, Bockman estimates close to 50-50, with perhaps slightly more women members. “We’re very pleased to see a roughly equal proportion of male vegans,” she says. “There’s still this expectation in certain parts of society that the vegan lifestyle is not ‘manly’. Our numbers indicate that corporate professionals that are vegan can just as likely be men as women.” Age-wise, she estimates that most members are between 35-50, with an average age of around 40, and approximately 20% of members are under 30.
As well as connecting corporate vegans with each other, VLCM also provides them with tools and resources to initiate plant-based projects in their workplace. The most recent addition is the Vegan Leaders Playbook. This is a comprehensive guide, available to download as a PDF from the VLCM website, providing detailed strategies, information, statistics, email templates and case studies from employees who have rolled out successful vegan initiatives.
Benefits of vegan initiatives to employers
Case studies listed in the playbook include initiatives that have happened over the past 12 months at IBM, Qualcomm, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Caterpillar, General Electric, Volkswagen and Google. As well as inviting renowned vegan speakers, including MD and nutritionist Dr Michael Greger to speak to employees, Google also trialed New Wave Foods’ plant-based shrimp in its café. A board member of Fred Meyer/Kroger’s Cultural Council is also noted as having conducted an employee survey about dietary choices. “Based on findings, she collaborated with the cafeteria and events teams to improve vegan options,” says Bockman. “Early successes included better labeling, separating ingredients, and even having [plant-based firm] Beyond Meat’s products at the company barbecue.”
Facebook and Dropbox have also seen successful employee-driven vegan initiatives. Before she left the company, software engineer Phaedra Anestassia started a Plant-Based Life group at Facebook in 2016. Just a few weeks after the launch, it had attracted over 200 members interested in healthy living, sustainability and self-improvement. A few months later the group had grown by 25% and organized nearly a dozen events around the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California.
Anestassia initially started the group as an informal “lean in circle”, until Facebook established a formal structure for corporate clubs and the Plant-Based Life@FB group was born, which is still open to employees to join (the group is currently looked after by a board at Facebook). Key to her success, she notes, was focusing on topics of interest to staff, as well as partnering and co-organizing events with other groups within the company to boost attendance. Bringing high-caliber speakers in the areas of sustainability, disease prevention and evidence-based diets, along with offering gifts, helped to incentivize employees to attend.
Over at Dropbox, 26-year-old Cole Deloye wasted no time in rejuvenating a dormant VegBox group, just a month after joining the company as a compensation analyst in April last year. While his passion is animal advocacy, he decided to use buzzwords such as ‘plant-based’ and ‘sustainability’ to attract a wide range of employees, particularly those who don’t identify as vegan or vegetarian.
Deloye immediately contacted vegan public figures to speak to the group and liaised with the chef to discuss food sourcing and vegan options. He enlisted the help of the company’s in-house design team to create a logo for the group and put up an internal webpage for it. On the launch day Deloye emailed Dropbox’s entire San Francisco office to let them know about the group and invited them to join the Google Group and Slack Channel. The following week VegBox held its first lunch meetup.
The group – which currently has around 85 members – has since held a wine and cheese tasting event that included renowned vegan cheese maker Miyoko Schinner, who gave a talk and donated her artisanal cheese that was paired with Dropbox wine, and Deloye has plans for other notable speakers including vegan athlete and entrepreneur Brendan Brazier. He also requested book donations from animal protection organizations to add to the company’s library, and started a book club, which began with reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. He’s also aiming for VegBox to donate 20 Dropbox accounts to nonprofits this year (each staff member can donate one Dropbox Business account to a nonprofit of their choice).
While Deloye points out that Dropbox was already a veg-friendly workplace, offering vegan options with its free breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, afternoon tea and Friday happy hours, he’s keen to stress the benefits to companies of transitioning to a plant-based workplace. “In addition to reducing the costs of our in-house restaurant and snacks by dropping meat, the long-term benefits would be the overall employee health and wellbeing, plus the social goodwill of having a lower carbon footprint and being more animal-friendly,” he says. “Our society is increasingly putting more social capital on animal welfare causes and all companies would benefit from advertising their support of these causes.”
While millennials are strong adopters of vegan living, and these kinds of initiatives appeal to staff from this demographic, making a company a more attractive place to work, it’s not just the younger generations driving change.
Terry Barnes is the Finance Director, Global Capital Management, at General Motors (GM) in Detroit, Michigan. A vegetarian for 22 years and vegan for the past four, Barnes joined VLCM to connect with other corporate vegans and be inspired to encourage and support plant-based initiatives at GM. To this end, he’s offered to sponsor the vegan burgers at the company’s annual picnic this year and is liaising with the executive chef to make current vegetarian options at the cafeteria vegan, as well as improve signage to clearly indicate which options are vegan.
Barnes also invites his team to his home for a mid-year appreciation lunch which features gourmet vegan whole foods cooked by his wife. “Most of my staff rave about the food and virtually everything is eaten,” he says. “Over the years, I’ve observed that people have become more curious than judgmental. They may ask questions about the foods that I eat, nutritional questions, or whether my reasons for being vegan are related to health or ethics, but rarely is anyone offensive like they used to be. The changed reaction could be partially attributable to me being an executive, but I believe it’s also attributable to veganism having become more normal than when I started my career.”
GM’s Manager, Global Wellness & Voluntary Benefits, Joshua D. Erdei, has also recognized the benefits of plant-based living on employee health, sanctioning a local organization The Plant Based Nutrition Support Group(PBNSG) to conduct more than 10 scheduled events between 2016-2018, as well as set up booths at several of the company’s health fairs, as part of the UAW-GM LifeSteps wellness program. Around 300 employees attended PBNSG’s events and according to Erdei, verbal feedback was “positive”.
Healthy, happy employees also have a positive impact on a company’s bottom line, resulting in fewer sick days, lower insurance costs, and increased productivity, as wellness coach Gigi Carter outlines in her new book The Plant Based Workplace. Jim Glackin, Vice President, Strategic Partners, convinced the HR department at telecommunications firm CenturyLink, which is headquartered in Louisiana, that the company could reduce its insurance costs by sponsoring employees to participate in the McDougall Wellness Program, an eight-day plant-based immersion program. According to Mark Molzen, Issues Manager, Corporate Communications, staff are invited to participate based on the results of their biometric screenings and having certain chronic medical conditions; participation is voluntary but requires a physician’s recommendation as medically necessary.
Since 2015, CenturyLink has put 300 employees through the program and seen beneficial results for both staff and the company. “The overall health costs associated with those who have participated in the program have decreased by approximately 32% and we’ve seen positive improvements in at least seven of the eight traditionally-measured biometrics,” says Molzen. ‘We’re proud to report that of the last group of employees, 99% said they’ve made health-related or lifestyle changes since participating in the program. In addition, it was great for the company by creating a 1:7:1 ROI.”
The annual Veganuary initiative, in which people pledge to go vegan for the month of January (many stick with it permanently afterwards), has also caught the eye of corporations. Co-founder Matthew Glover visited the head chef at TV company Sky UK recently. In a public Facebook post, he reports that the chef is excited about adding more plant-based offerings to the menu, and that the company may take part in Veganuary next year.
And these plant-based initiatives are not just limited to the West. The Green Monday project in Hong Kong works with small to large businesses to promote plant-based eating. One such venture involves a year-long collaboration with casino resort MGM Macau, in which 11,000 employees enjoy eating from an all-plant-based menu at the company’s staff cafeteria every Monday.
As corporations continue to be motivated to demonstrate their commitment to diversity and inclusion, sustainability, and employee health and wellbeing, vegan initiatives are set to grow, and this offers opportunities for plant-based entrepreneurs, particularly in the health and food spaces.
VLCM is already taking things to the next level in terms of supporting vegan employees to drive change in their workplaces. It’s about to roll out a Corporate Initiatives Support Program this year. “The idea is to offer some structured support to people who read the Vegan Leaders Playbook and would like to do something – and would benefit from a mentor, peer group and assigned goals, tasks, deadlines and checkpoints – to develop their idea into tangible steps,” says Bockman.
Smart corporations will be those that support and encourage these kinds of employee-led initiatives, both in terms of helping with marketing them and, where needed, providing financial assistance. The truly progressive ones will transition to a fully plant-based workplace and stand the best chance of achieving a win, not just for shareholders, but for all stakeholders, which includes our society and all of the earth’s inhabitants.
“We have to consider how we make the most of what we’ve got in the gentlest possible way, the most efficient, compassionate and most meaningful way, and that’s the ultimate way of looking at how we run our enterprises,” says Wollen. “I fervently believe that veganism is the engine of redirected economic growth.”
First published on Forbes