This International Women’s Day, I’m reflecting on my experience at the Vegan Women Summit in San Francisco last month. A gathering of more than 250 remarkable women, the event was a first-of-its-kind, one-day summit to inspire and empower female vegan changemakers from a wide variety of fields. As the president of Mercy For Animals, I had the honor of speaking at this exciting event.
The gathering had a markedly different energy from the conferences I usually attend. This was about lifting one another up and helping one another excel. The room buzzed with professional women carving out new paths with their ideas and businesses—everything from vegan prosciutto to vegan schools for children—leading the way to a better world through their talent, vision, and entrepreneurial spirit.
I had the honor of sharing a panel with Pinky Cole, founder and CEO of legendary restaurant Slutty Vegan, and Jasmine Leyva, filmmaker, actor, and director of the mind-opening documentary The Invisible Vegan. Pinky spoke of the need to have an exceptional operational leader working under you and a high-functioning support team to drive your success and vision. This is a woman whose business went from food truck to multimillion-dollar restaurant in just 18 months, and she plans to open 13 more brick-and-mortar locations in the next three years. Her advice was clear and strong: “You are only as good as your team.”
On the panel, I talked about my journey to veganism, the path that led me to Mercy For Animals, and my experience being a woman of color in this movement. People often underestimate women, especially women of color, but although this can be disheartening, I’ve learned to use it to my advantage. If people don’t suspect what we are capable of, they’re less likely to see us as a threat or challenge, and we can use this to get into conversations and rooms we might not otherwise have access to. For me, this has meant collaborating with unlikely allies, chicken farmers and poultry executives, to address the cruelty of factory farms. This work led to major exposés in the New York Times, bringing global attention to the abuse chickens endure.
I have always been led by the question, how can I best help animals? Just as I decided to focus on chickens because I had discovered a gap in the work on their behalf, in 2018 I decided to lead Mercy For Animals because I’d seen another gap. There had never been a female or Latinx president at Mercy For Animals. In fact, although the nonprofit workforce is made up mostly of women—more than 75 percent in some U.S. sectors—just 18 percent of organizations have a female president or CEO. Research also shows that the percentage of people of color in executive director roles in the nonprofit space has remained under 20 percent for the past 15 years. And leadership by women of color has hovered under 10 percent for 26 years.
Taking risks and leaps of faith has always been my approach to activism and life. I believe it’s essential to empower women across our movement to do the same––to reach higher, even when we don’t feel 100 percent ready. We need to help women claim their stories, because only we can tell them. Sharing our journeys and confronting the issues we face can put a spotlight on the plights of others, including animals. When we stay safe, stay quiet, and allow others to speak for us, we do an injustice not only to ourselves but to the animals we aim to help.
We’ve committed to this empowerment at Mercy For Animals by making our hiring practices more equitable, holding regular meetings for women to connect and discuss opportunities for personal and organizational growth, and implementing policies that provide equal opportunities to all.
This movement is far more diverse than we—or mainstream media—often recognize. When we look beneath the surface, as many of us did at this recent summit, we find we have an incredible range of people, talents, skills, and ideas at our fingertips. Being there allowed me to appreciate just how equipped women are to lead the charge in creating the compassionate food system we are all striving for.
Cover Photo Credit: Vegan Women Summit