On a mission to inspire, educate and empower future and rising female leaders in food tech, Vegan Women Summit (VWS) is an events and media organization building a global community of strong and ambitious female-identifying change makers.
Founded by tech and communication leader Jennifer Stojkovic, Vegan Women Summit was born as Jennifer became aware of the inequities facing female founders in the food tech industry, blending her passion for change in the food system with her experience and network in Silicon Valley.
We had the chance to speak with Jennifer – following her recent epic trip to Mount Kilimanjaro – to get to know more about VWS and its roles and goals in the plant-based sphere.
What is the mission and vision of the Vegan Women Summit?
Vegan Women Summit (VWS) is a global platform dedicated to empowering women to build a kinder, more sustainable world. We strive to create a diverse, inclusive, and equitable future for plant-based and animal alternatives across food, fashion, beauty, and biotechnology.
What particular factors contribute to women being underrepresented specifically in the plant-based business landscape?
The plant-based landscape, in many ways, mirrors the issues of the greater business ecosystem — women continue to be underfunded, underrepresented, and under supported. While our industry may be mission-driven, these issues are pervasive in society as a whole. In our 2020 study of women founders and CEOs in the food tech industry, we found that nearly half of all founders had experienced bias from investors with 75% citing gender bias specifically.
“There are more white male venture capitalists in America that went to school at Harvard or Stanford than there are women investors or Black investors altogether”
Gender bias is a complex issue that affects the entire system from founders and investors all the way to suppliers and customers. When looking at the investor landscape, there are more white male venture capitalists in America that went to school at Harvard or Stanford than there are women investors or Black investors altogether.
With such a monolithic group in charge of funding, the perspective of which products get developed, which founders get funded, which problems need solving, and so on, is thus through a very narrow lens and lived experience of members of society, resulting in entire categories and markets being underserved.
The food tech product example which captures this best is the infant formula category. Until several years ago, there was nearly zero innovation on dairy infant formula in over 60 years, despite it being a massive consumer category with usage across the vast majority of mothers and a whopping 10% of the global liquid dairy market. Even more shocking, more than two out of three human beings on the planet cannot consume lactose and nearly 80% of the Black population is lactose intolerant.
Now, we are finally seeing plant-based, high-quality infant formulas (like Else Nutrition in Israel or Sprout in Australia) hitting the market across the world, as well as technology-driven breastmilk alternatives (like BIOMILQ or Helaina in the US and Turtletree in Singapore), as investors are now seeing the massive demand.
Unsurprisingly, every single one of the companies listed has women founders. If more women and people of color were in positions of power in venture capital, these issues would have likely been identified long ago and we’d be significantly farther along with innovation in this consumer category.
Tell us about your recent climb to Mount Kilimanjaro and the purpose of the trip.
Last month, I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with my good friend Milo Runkle, Founder of Mercy for Animals, the world’s largest farmed animal non-profit. We set out to summit Kilimanjaro to both demonstrate to the world the power of plant-based fitness and to draw attention to the issues posed by factory farming worldwide. For myself, coming from a career as a woman leader in Silicon Valley, I am constantly underestimated in my abilities. By summitting the world’s tallest freestanding mountain, I am hoping to inspire and empower other women to take risks and jump headfirst into their endeavours, especially when it comes to saving the planet from the climate crisis and the monumental issues posed by animal agriculture.
“For myself, coming from a career as a woman leader in Silicon Valley, I am constantly underestimated in my abilities”
With this year’s VWS Pathfinder event coming up on October 29th, what can attendees expect to see?
We’re thrilled to bring back VWS Pathfinder, the world’s only women founder summit and pitch competition in the future of food, fashion, beauty, and biotechnology, next month. We will be featuring over two dozen women founders and CEOs from around the world, including plant-based industry titans like Heather Mills and Miyoko Schinner, as well as leading cell-based CEOs like Dr. Sandhya Sriram and Carrie Chan.
Connecting across six continents, attendees will learn from these CEOs and founders, as well as watch our signature pitch competition, where five new finalists from around the world will compete for a $50,000 prize package in front of our jury of VCs.
Out of those conversations came the Plant-Powered Glow Up campaign, which received hundreds of applications from around the world. In November, we will be announcing our winner and rolling out a limited time menu item at select Copper Branch locations across North America. Stay tuned for our announcement and more opportunities from VWS and Copper Branch in 2022.
As founder of the Vegan Women Summit, what have been your greatest success stories since launching?
I am fortunate to receive messages about the impact of VWS from incredible women around the world every single day. Whether it is helping a Kenyan founder launch a plant-based meals program in Nairobi schools, placing our women professionals into leadership roles at Omni Foods (Green Monday) or Rebellyous Foods, or inspiring an Indian founder to start a plant-based ice cream company after attending our founder summit, there are countless examples of our impact in the industry.
What KPI’s does VWS have set for the coming years?
Our work is simple: increase the leadership of women, particularly women of color, at all levels in the plant-based and animal alternatives industry. We endeavour to increase representation of women founders, women investors, women in positions of leadership, and women professionals in roles of all levels across the industry. It’s an ambitious task, but the fact remains — the longer we leave the talent and expertise of women on the table, the longer we leave animals on the table.