Friday, May 24, 2024

The (Vegan) World According to Jennifer Stojkovic

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Entrepreneur, author, and investor Jennifer Stojkovic is dead set on making vegan food the norm. And given how far she’s come already, the Vegan Women Summit founder is poised to succeed.

“I can eat like a bear,” Jennifer Stojkovic says as she plops into the chair across from me and grabs a menu. She’s hungry and a bit out of breath, running late from a site visit for the next Vegan Women Summit (VWS) happening in Los Angeles next spring. We’re sitting inside Real Food Daily, a vegan restaurant in West Hollywood, about 30 minutes later than we both had planned. Although one of my long-time favorites, the restaurant wasn’t our first choice that day; we were supposed to meet about a mile away at another popular spot. But, as I parked around the corner from that restaurant, my tire went flat. Fortunately, in Los Angeles, vegan restaurants are plentiful, and Real Food Daily was within walking distance from the tire repair spot. 

We order a few items and settle in on the warm September afternoon to chat and eat as I wait for the repair service call about my tire. It’s gashed, the serviceman tells me a few minutes later — I’ll need a new one. The irony isn’t lost on me here; Stojkovic is one of the biggest advocates taking on our severely gashed food system.

Despite numerous modifications over the last half-century including the rise of clean eating propelled by Whole Foods Market, the National Organic Program, a rise in Fair Trade certification, and increased animal welfare, these efforts have largely failed to move the needle on a number of issues, chiefly the climate and health crises. Instead of a whole new food system, they’ve been more like a bunch of patches on a badly damaged tire. It’s time for a whole new approach, and Stojkovic isn’t just up for the challenge — her bear-like appetite is leading the charge.

Changes that could truly move us past a tipping point to a healthier food system are ramping up across the globe. Plant-based and vegan food offerings are more plentiful and tastier than ever, but it’s the novel technologies like precision fermentation and lab-grown meat that offer an entirely new approach to the food industry’s biggest challenge: people are still eating too many animal products.

burger
Photo courtesy Tristan Gassert

The planet can’t handle it. This year alone a whopping 90-billion-plus land animals and trillions of marine animals will be raised or caught for food. These industries are responsible for the majority of global food emissions, according to the United Nations — about 60 percent of all food emissions and 20 percent of total global emissions. This includes the clearing of land to raise livestock. Land use change is also the leading cause of the spread of new diseases (like covid). Animal agriculture is causing biodiversity loss and deforestation at record levels and is one of the biggest drivers of human rights violations, including trafficking and threats to Indigenous cultures.

Stojkovic has got her hands in all of it. She is not only the founder of the wildly popular Vegan Women Summit, but she’s also a managing partner at Joyful Ventures, the first female and LGBTQ-led food-focused VC, which launched earlier this year. She’s also an author, advisor, and a TikTok sensation covering everything from methane emissions to women’s rights to why you need pet insurance (you really do; private companies have bought up all the vet offices and spiked service fees through the roof.) 

“That was my goal — to have access to all these Silicon Valley founders and to pass the baton to these food tech founders — because they’re the ones that I think are the next big boom.”

-Jennifer Stojkovic

But if she has to choose just one topic to discuss, Stojkovic will always put the focus on food because it touches all of these areas and more in one way or another. That conviction wasn’t always the focus for the entrepreneur, now 32. But after the murder of a close friend a decade ago, Stojkovic and her husband Pavle found themselves on a journey of compassion, which led them to give up animal products and adopt the lifestyle that’s still often met with an eye-roll and a Chandler Bing-worthy sarcastic dig: the ethical vegan.

A career in the male-dominated world of Silicon Valley combined with her new vegan diet put Stojkovic on the path that would eventually lead her to launch the Vegan Women Summit and to write the best-selling book about women founders in the food tech space, 2022’s The Future of Food Is Female.

“I thought there has to be a way that I can start to bring in what I do professionally in Silicon Valley as a leader to this [food] industry, which is the one that I privately am very passionate about,” Stojkovic told me. The jumping-off point for her was while working in a WeWork. The recently bankrupted co-working space famously banned meat from its offices in 2018. Stojkovic often had office space there as part of her work with startups and happened to be in the building at the time the ban was announced. ”This is my moment,” she recalled. “So I went to [WeWork co-founder] Miguel [McKelvey] and I was like, ‘let’s blow this thing up.’”

It worked. Stojkovic leveraged that ban to bring hundreds of food industry experts, investors, and entrepreneurs to the Bay Area to talk about how the future of tech will happen in the food industry. “That was my goal — to have access to all these Silicon Valley founders and to pass the baton to these food tech founders — because they’re the ones that I think are the next big boom.”

Upside Foods' cultivated chicken earned FDA approval today
Upside Foods’ cultivated chicken earned FDA approval | Courtesy

And boomed they have; Upside Foods, which is one of only two U.S. cultivated meat producers to have USDA and FDA approval to sell lab-grown chicken, has raised more than $600 million since launching in 2015. The cultivated meat industry as a whole has raised more than $4 billion in funding — not bad for an industry that’s only approved in two markets globally. (Singapore was the first to approve cultivated meat in 2020, greenlighting Good Meat’s lab chicken, which the USDA also approved earlier this summer alongside Upside Foods’ approval.)

A wholesale shift to the food system

There are exciting innovations happening in every corner of the food system from growing pork proteins inside soybeans (via tech called molecular farming), to cheese proteins made by microbes, to AI-generated formulations for eggs and milk made from peas and beans. There are also scores of engineers and entrepreneurs tackling food and agricultural waste by developing new markets and tech; there are engineers tackling packaging issues, sodium and sugar content, palm oil, and ways to extend a product’s shelf life. Earlier this week, Chipotle Founder and ex-CEO Steve Ells announced the launch of Kernel — a restaurant chain concept that will serve meat-free sandwiches made predominantly by robots.

This is all a big step up from where the industry was a few decades ago, but there’s still a long way to go. Obesity is now the number one childhood disease in America, something Stojkovic says is a direct consequence of our government failing children by not giving them access to healthy foods or sound nutritional advice. This is despite efforts like former First Lady Michelle Obama’s successful Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Schools are still often the main source of hot meals for children; during the 2021–2022 school year more than 15.5 million children received breakfast at school and nearly 30 million children received lunch on an average day, according to the Food Research and Action Center. In California, nearly 60 percent of students receive at least one meal a day at school. 

While efforts are underway to bring healthier food to schools, companies including PepsiCo and Tyson still have a stronghold. “I think it’s a crime what we’ve allowed our children to eat in the school system,” Stojkovic says. Part of the problem is certainly outdated health information, even despite updates to the food pyramid (it’s now a plate).

But enough examples already exist that prove it’s not only possible to go in the other direction toward healthier food, but that these changes are also being well received and beneficial. School districts in New York and California have dramatically increased vegan options to rave student, teacher, and parent reviews. Historically big meat-eating nations like Germany have reduced meat consumption by nearly 50 percent. Just this week, a new effort in the E.U. launched aiming to elevate the plant-forward Mediterranean Diet as both a health and climate-friendly approach for bloc nations. The Mediterranean Diet has been named the healthiest diet for six years by U.S. News & World Report.

Jennifer Stojkovic
Jennifer Stojkovic | Courtesy

For Stojkovic though, there was another big component missing from the conversation: women. “As a woman in tech myself, I continue to have the same experience of being the only woman in the room. So I thought to myself, ‘what if I find a way that solves the lack of women’s representation that we face in tech for this new industry, and we prevent it from ever happening so that this next big boom, doesn’t miss 51 percent of people as the first tech boom did?’” And that, she says, was the impetus for VWS.

Vegan Women Summit

While the summit and her book have given women a long-overdue platform, it hasn’t moved the needle fast enough. According to Crunchbase, only about 17 percent of startups are founded by women. And, earlier this year, a post from Stojkovic went viral after a male founder harassed her on LinkedIn when she rejected his company pitch as part of her work at Joyful Ventures.

“We’ve made three investments and looked at over 300 companies,” she said. Rejecting founders is part of the job. But the founder, who also pitched her husband (an angel investor), responded differently to the two. To Pavle, the founder politely thanked him and left it at that. To Stojkovic, though, the response was insulting and chastizing. While it upset her, it didn’t shock her; it’s just one more example of why she has been so focused on creating a safe space for women.

“The accessibility aspect has been the cornerstone from the beginning of what we’re trying to do,” she says of the summit. The event, now entering its fourth year, continues to draw new attendees and brand interest. “We want to make sure that we’re building a cultural kind of groundswell to support this movement for women.”

Stojkovic says the food industry, particularly the plant-based sector is heavily bifurcated. “We have the industry people who never talk to any consumers — it’s the same 500 men in blue suits. I go to these industry events all the time, all over the world, and they never change. It’s the same group of people having the same circular conversations,” she says. And on the other side of that are the vegan enthusiasts, often women, the “veg fest” goers who regularly shell out good money to go and wait in line sometimes for hours just to try the latest vegan burger, nugget, or cheese from a hot new brand.

“So our goal is to figure out a way to create a cultural forum,” Stojkovic says. “I really want to do what South By Southwest has done, where it’s become a cultural meeting point where you have social impact and activism and philanthropy all meeting with music and cultural leaders, investments in innovation, and it all just kind of all comes together to create that magical space.”

The last VWS event, which took place in New York City this past spring, saw opportunities for attendees to try some of the new food tech Stojkovic is so excited about. There was cultivated wagyu beef and mushroom seafood, for example. These are foods that flexitarians and meat-eaters say taste indistinguishable from their conventional counterparts. And that’s a critical piece of shifting the industry — people want to eat healthier for themselves and for the planet, they just don’t want to give up what they’re used to.

While consumers, particularly Millennials and Gen Z, have been happy to swap out dairy for oat milk, other foods have been a harder sell. But it’s not without interest. In just the few years and one pandemic since its launch, VWS has seen a churn of thousands of attendees (not all women, either, about 20 percent identify as male) along with celebrities including Alicia Silverstone and Emily Deschanel, participating in the annual event and its supplemental virtual events.

“VWS is probably the only conference that focuses on the culture of change in the way that we think about the food system and the future,” Stojkovic says. It’s part festival, part talking heads, and part brand activation. But Stojkovic is the first to tell you that it’s what happens in between all of the event’s structured talks and presentations where some of the best outcomes happen. It’s the personal connections, the relationships between attendees and brands that offer a glimpse of a world Stojkovic knows is possible. 

“It started with a very singular goal, but it’s broadened to become kind of like a tentpole for people to come and just engage,” she says. “It’s really a 360-degree experience with cruelty-free fashion, the cleanest plant-based beauty products, and where you can eat foods that don’t come from slaughtered animals.”

It’s a place where Stojkovic says guests can really feel what that kind of world could be like, “even if it’s just for one day,” she says. “That’s all we’re really trying to do.”

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