Introducing our ‘In Conversation’ series with AERA Co-Founder and CEO, Tina Bhojwani. We’re speaking with the movers and makers working to pave a path and shift the effects of climate change.
This month, CEO Tina Bhojwani speaks with Elizabeth Novogratz, whose range of leadership extends from animal rights to mindfulness. Read about what motivates her in our exclusive interview.
You founded Species Unite, an organization to help people transition off the use of animal products. Can you share a little bit about your background and how it relates to why you started this organization?
I was a kid who loved animals. When I was 13, I walked into my biology class and was pretty shocked when I saw that it was the day we were going to be dissecting pig fetuses. I looked at the teacher and said, “I’m a vegetarian,” and I walked out of the class. I wasn’t a vegetarian but from that moment forward I never ate meat, chicken, or fish again. That said, it still took me decades to go vegan. So, I understand how tricky conditioning is and how and how deep it goes. For many years as an adult, I’ve sought out people who have dedicated their lives to creating a more just world for animals, all over the globe. Mostly because I wanted to hear their stories and see how I could help. That’s really how Species Unite started, giving a platform to these extraordinary voices. But as we grew, I realized that if you’re going to shift the mainstream off of animal products, you need to focus on solutions. Most people don’t want to hear about cruelty and suffering, but they seem to be open to solutions.
What challenges have you faced while setting up your non-profit? And on the flip side, what have been some unexpected positives?
The biggest challenge was that I had no idea what I was doing, so every step in setting it up and getting it running was something brand new. I think because of that, I probably made things harder for myself than they actually were.
The unexpected positives have been the support. We have an incredible audience and our members have become this awesome community of humans who want to do better – for animals, the planet and people. I think the most surprising thing for me has been the number of non-vegans/non-animal rights people that have joined Species Unite. That was the point of the organization, to talk to the non-vegans, but I am still pretty shocked that so far, it’s worked.
Your work is widespread - you also co-founded a virtual reality meditation game focused on mindfulness, Maloka. How did that project begin? Do you think there’s any sort of correlation between mindfulness and sustainability?
I’ve worked with my sister-in-law, Sukey in the mindfulness space since 2010. We’ve done many projects including a daily email, a mediation book called Just Sit: A Meditation Guidebook for People Who Know They Should but Don’t and a few years ago we co-founded Maloka, which is a virtual reality game and mobile app as well as a platform for all things mindfulness.
For me the connection between mindfulness and sustainability is clear and distinct. I went vegan around the same time I started consistently meditating. It felt obvious that it was the awareness that caused the breakthrough in my conditioning. The more I meditated, the more I saw things as they actually were and was able to let go of things that were not really aligned with who I wanted to be and I was able to do so with a surprising amount of ease.
I also quit smoking at the same time. And I did it without any mental or physical withdrawal (for real) after a twenty year over a pack a day habit. I think, because of all the meditation, it allowed me to witness the addiction and drop the attachment without any drama.
I think that the more we meditate and the more that we pay attention, the more easily we see our operating systems and our role within the world. Things we think that we need or think we have to have lose their power, what’s actually important becomes more clear.That goes for everything, including how we treat the world, the humans and non-humans we share it with, and who we want to be in it. Meditation is truly a superpower, if you actually do it (that’s the tricky part).
Living mindfully, with a more sustainable outlook, and changing up your personal habits - it can be easier said than done. What would you say to someone who’s curious, or looking to live a more sustainable lifestyle? Where to start?
Sadly, the easiest way for most humas to do big change is through pain, whether that be a crisis or medical diagnosis or anything where it feels like the universe just gave you a cosmic slap. But if life is going fairly well, then my suggestion is to start small. To remove one food from your diet at a time and probably don’t start with cheese. Starting with one food group or one meal a day makes it way more doable than trying to change your entire world at once. We have a 7-day vegan challenge that people sign up for and each of the days has one thing to focus on – so it’s not all food, like many vegan challenges. I think it’s a better way to show people the many upsides to transitioning off of animal products. We talk about shoes and clothing and what to buy at the grocery store and how to trick your friends into coming over for a vegan meal. I think if you make it fun and enjoyable, the chances are much better that you’ll stick with it.
If someone were to walk up to you and say, ‘we need to use animals; that’s what people did before we invented manmade materials anyways, think of the overpopulation of certain species’ how would you respond?
There is no good reason to use animals in food, fashion, materials or entertainment anymore, unless of course you live somewhere where it’s not an option. I sometimes get asked about cows and what would we do with all of them if we stopped eating them. First of all, we’d stop breeding them, so it wouldn’t be an issue. And, for those who say it’s better to wear them than alternatives because otherwise the skins are going to landfills, cow hide that comes straight off the cow biodegrades. Most tanned cow-hide (leather) does not. Leather is far worse for the planet, the workers who spend their days surrounded by toxic chemicals, and for the poor cows than any non-animal leather out there. And, the vegan materials that are now available, like those in AERA’s gorgeous shoes and boots, are sustainable, eco-friendly, and harm no people nor any animals in the process. It’s the obvious choice for me.