Meet Haile Thomas, the 18-Year-Old CEO and Vegan Activist Taking Over the World

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Photo: Courtesy of Haile Thomas; Design: The Kitchn)

Haile Thomas has spent nearly half of her life passionately advocating for the health benefits of leading a plant-based lifestyle — and she’s only 18 years old. You do the math.

At age 12, she founded The HAPPY Org (Healthy Active Positive Purposeful Youth), a nonprofit to bring nutrition, health, and prevention education programs to underserved and at-risk communities. Close to a decade later, she’s spoken at the United Nations, Expo West, and SXSW; attended a State Dinner at the White House; befriended former First Lady Michelle Obama; and has grown her following as one of the most well-known vegan activists on Instagram. Although she may have just crossed over into adulthood, Haile Thomas is more accomplished than most adults will ever be in their lifetimes.

We caught up with Haile to talk about the power of plant-based eating, her new book deal (!!!), and why underestimating her generation is a huge mistake.

You took on the title of CEO when you were 12 years old ( … nbd). What were the earliest days of The HAPPY Org. like?

I definitely have a lot of great support from my family. My mom is the co-founder because you can’t really start a business until you’re 18, so she helped on the legal side of things and made it possible for me to navigate our goals and programming. My mom had no experience either, but we figured it out. We started in 2012.

I was already a couple of years into my health activism, which started when I was 10 and I started public speaking. For the first two years, I was speaking at different health conferences and at schools about how important it is to be apart of the health and wellness conversation. It’s a birthright to know what you’re doing to your body through your choices. This peer-to-peer connection was super important to me; I wanted to bring what I had learned into my community as a sort of low-cost nutrition education that’s fun and engaging and nutritious.

What led to your choice to become vegan?

It has definitely been an evolution. Since my family was able to reverse my dad’s type 2 diabetes, I’ve been interested in health and wellness. That was around when I was 8 years old. [At first] it wasn’t about being vegan — it was about eating fruits and vegetables, and understanding where your food comes from and how it affects our bodies.

I went vegan when I was 13 or 14 after I read an article about how red meat can cause cancer. That really struck me — I was just like it would be counterproductive to make a choice that could lead to this issue. I grew tired of the things we were eating in general and was intrigued by plant-based eating. That was the main entry point to me, so I made it a few-month challenge and stuck with it. Then my family joined me and together we learned about the movement as a whole, the ethical and environmental benefits, and how you can take a stand for something just by what’s on your fork.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions that people have about your food choices?

People think that everything is bland, like all we eat is lettuce and cherry tomatoes. That’s the furthest thing from the truth for me. I’ve had some of the best food of my life through veganism, when real care and attention go into veggies just to release their superpowers. The perception that vegans only eat grass, juice cleanses, and smoothie bowls is wrong — it’s so much more than that. Another misconception is that you can’t be healthy and thriving with a vegan lifestyle. Or that you have to be vegan to enjoy vegan food or eat more plants — that’s simply not true.

What’s the best trick to make veggies taste better?

Boiling vegetables needs to be canceled at this point. The quickest way to make vegetables taste good is to roast or sauté them. We do a roasted broccoli or Brussels sprouts with maple-balsamic glaze with almonds, dried cranberries, and pumpkin seeds on it. Or roasted cauliflower, Buffalo-style. Broccolini is really great just with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper. Boiling is just the death of vegetables.

Is there an ingredient that you’re obsessed with right now?

I will never get over avocado. I know that’s a basic thing to say. In terms of something different, I’ve been playing around with jackfruit. It can be really fun because you can prepare it sweet or savory and you can experiment with the texture. We do pulled jackfruit barbecue-style in taco form, or put it into stir-fries.

Was there a moment when your Instagram following just blew up?

I had about 10K followers this time last year. Instagram shared my story of this pumpkin Bundt cake that I made for Thanksgiving and that changed everything. I now have tens of thousands more followers, which is overwhelming and exciting and crazy. I’m so grateful for Instagram — I’m an ambassador for them now and get an inside look at how seriously they are taking the issue of making sure Instagram is an inclusive and safe place. To be apart of that family is surreal because it’s my favorite social media platform and I want it to be a place where we can share our voices without being afraid of bullying.

What do you say to people who are fixated on your age rather than your actions?

I think my generation is amazing and am proud to be apart of it. The times that we are growing up in are just so interesting. We are so much more aware than any other generation that came before us. We have the world at our fingertips — the latest news, what’s happening in politics — and we are intrigued to learn. So in that sense, it’s amazing to see more and more young people passionately standing up for what they believe in and what’s right. I’ve been able to connect with so many people my age and even younger that are just killing it. I’ve learned that there is no limit to our potential, no matter how old or young. It’s an honor to be someone who can set an example in 2019.

What’s something you wish people would stop asking you?

It’s more like a statement that undermines my ability to be in this industry and to do what I’ve done at such an age. When people say “Oh you did this all by yourself?” or “How did you get all of these opportunities.” That’s something that just bothers me. Maybe on the surface it looks like it’s an easy job or that it’s fun all the time, but there’s definitely sacrifice and struggle. It’s been almost a decade of doing this work, and I know what I’m doing.

Michelle Obama has spoken so highly of you and the work that you do. What did that mean to you?

It’s definitely surreal to be praised by the former First Lady. To be acknowledged and supported has been a dream. When I talk about it it doesn’t even feel real. I was able to interact with her multiple times and each time has been so special and wildly crazy and out of this world. She’s such a genuine, comforting, and loving person and the attention and care that she puts into acknowledging young people in general is so uplifting. Within five seconds of being near her you feel like you’re part of the family, or important, or special, and doing something that matters.

Where do you find the time to do it all?

There are only 24 hours in the day so it’s definitely a juggling act for sure. I’ve been doing this work for almost 10 years now, the time has gone by so fast. I find time because this is so important to me so I have to make it happen. Sometimes traveling and speaking is really overwhelming, but whenever I am leading classes or giving a talk, I meet people and learn about how I’ve impacted them. (It can be something as small as they’ve just discovered that their favorite food is tofu.) That very notion is motivating.

How is school right now?

I graduated a year early from a homeschooling program and just finished that last spring. I also just finished a health certification program through the Institute of Nutrition — I’m the youngest health coach through their program. We learned about every single diet and taking a 360 holistic approach; it’s about not only eating well and enjoying food, but also having healthy relationships, and self-care days, and all of those things. Not everything works for everyone.

As far as college, currently I’m on my own path. I would love to study nutrigenomics in the future; that’s definitely an interest of mine.

But at the moment, I love being able to fully commit and dive into what I’m doing right now. I’m not necessarily looking to follow “how it’s supposed to be” right now. I am taking a permanent gap year — or maybe not! Who knows.

What are some of the ways that you wind down?

One of my favorite things to do is having mini spa days at home. I have a little sister and we both love doing face and lip masks together that we make ourselves using our own ingredients. We’ll do that and just watch a movie and eat popcorn. I also love walking every day as much as possible. In our neighborhood, we have a lot of trees, there’s like a forest surrounding us. It kind of gives me a pause before starting the day of content creation and meetings.

What’s next for you?

I’m excited about all the projects I’ve been working on with The HAPPY Org., including a virtual program that can be used at any school or community center. All the teacher has to do is press play. I’m really excited that that’s getting to the point where it’s close to launching. In the future, we want a facility where we can host summer camps and cooking classes and have a whole spice market built out in the building — that’s a huge goal.

Around two months ago, I announced that I’m writing a cookbook with Harper Collins which comes out in the spring. It’s called Lively. I’m super excited about putting out this message that food is fuel for your body — and also your potential. There will be lots of vegan recipes (and more).

Personally, expanding my message internationally and connecting with the global food community is going to be huge. A lot of other countries follow our lead in terms of the foods that we eat. I like to focus on five- to 10-year goals. Ten is even a stretch. Thinking about being like, 37 is very scary. That’s very far down the line.

Follow Haile around the Internet on Instagram and Twitter and find out more about her work at The HAPPY Org., here.