Vikas Garg is the Founder and CEO of abillionveg (abv), a review platform that helps people discover vegan options everywhere. His mission over the next 10 years is to guide a billion people to adopt a plant-based lifestyle. I found Vikas through a common friend, as I was researching the vegan wave. All the vegans I knew seemed to be living on unending reserves of intrinsic motivation and self-discipline. And I just needed to talk to an insider to find out more. Instead, we ended up speaking more about his personal journey to found abillionveg, how he’s raising his daughter vegan and why it matters so much to him. Read on!
Q: What motivated you to start working on ABV?
A: I’ve been an animal-lover and activist since I was 8 years old. I’ve been a vegetarian all my life, my mom raised me to be compassionate to all living things. In fact, I’m one of those crazy people who feel bad for chasing a mosquito. It might sound silly but it’s just a part of who I am. So the awareness of these issues has always been a part of my DNA.
I started working at Wall Street when I was 13-14 years old, and my brother and I just naturally fell into this life in NYC. We were always good with people and numbers, and over time became fairly accomplished in the field.
But never had I felt so strongly about getting up, uprooting my entire life and going full steam ahead. For many years, I ended up going from one amazing role to another. Then one fine day, I remember sitting through a great performance review with my manager and thinking about other stuff the entire time. Later, on a vacation with my wife it occurred to me that all the things I’m most proud of in life had nothing to do with my career.
Q: And how did you decide to do something in veganism?
A: I wanted to build a business that really connected with my values. I kept revisiting the idea that as a vegan, you live a life that is inspired. Initially I found veganism to be restrictive, rooted in sacrifice and religion. But it’s one of the most inspiring things I’ve done in my life. It’s given me self-confidence, the strength to start this company, a different lens on the potential we have as human beings and the relationship we have with our environment.
That’s when I started thinking that I want to create the biggest business that helps people and animals. I started thinking about the concept of creating a network, a platform to help people discover vegan options. That was the Spring of 2017, and I started the company that July.
Q: You’re an activist and a strong believer in education – why didn’t you just start a school? Why an app?
A: It has to be bigger than that. I used to hate it when my clients took me to an Indian restaurant in Tokyo. I wanted to go to the trendiest restaurant around and not be limited by my options. I knew they existed, but I didn’t know how to find them.
Also, I’ve been a lifelong lover of communities. What made Amazon really great in the beginning?
Me: Oh you’re asking me. Um, books?
Vikas: They created a community through reviews. They did two things; the first was of course to cut costs buying books, and that was quite disruptive. But they also democratised book reviews.
Food or book critics can be annoying to both restaurants and to people. Who’re these self-proclaimed experts, and why are they speaking for us? In the New York Times, there used to be a weekly book review section. Amazon disrupted that – there are no more book reviews in the New York Times. It’s honest, it’s authentic and there’s no BS. This is why I love platforms like eBay, Medium and TripAdviser.
Q: Is it hard, doing this as the only founder?
A: I’m vegan.
(I chuckle, but Vikas continues to keep a straight face)
Vikas: I’m serious, I’m vegan. I can manage stress well – I’ve never had a meltdown. I get very emotional when somebody says Yes as opposed to when somebody says No. Saying Yes is validation and creates a strong emotional response. I was speaking to Wild Honey the other day, and they said we love what your platform is doing; thank you for doing this. It’s the same when an investor says, “Vikas, I want to be a part of this.” It creates positive stress, a sense of responsibility.
When someone says no, you go whatever dude. You expect people to think that this will fail. When we started fundraising in April, no one thought we had a chance. Ultimately, you just realise that there’s so much that you don’t know.
Q: Why do you think investors said No?
A: Many of them were obsessed with alternate meat or cellular agriculture. They believe in deep tech and science, and that’s great. I do believe that there’s a need for all of these products that’ll take many years to market. I only have a problem with the theory that activism of our kind doesn’t work, that it’s hard to change people’s minds.
Of course it’s hard, that doesn’t mean you don’t do it (emphatically). But I believe in people and in being able to inspire change in people. I believe in the 14-15 year-olds watching documentaries on where your food and clothes come from. Some of the most engaged users on our platform are 14 years-old. I want to support people like that.
Q: Why is it such a big deal to consume dairy?
A: Dairy is one of the most harmful things for us. Close to 80% of people have allergic reactions to dairy. I often challenge my cousins to give up dairy for a few weeks and see if their problems such as acne don’t go away.
In 2005, my father started to have heart problems and by 2009 needed open heart surgery. And I think: why is he getting all these problems, because he’s had a healthy diet. But when you start to understand diabetes, you realise it’s more about cholesterol rather than sugar. And most of the cholesterol comes from dairy.
We spend most of our grain in feeding cattle. We don’t need more food; we don’t even use most of what we grow because it looks funny.
Q: We talk about all of this and it makes sense, but then we forget all about it at the dining table.
A: It’s just people being people. We’re very separated from the source of our food. Once when my cousin was asked if he knew where milk came from, he said cows pee it.
Me (incredulously): Cows what?!
Vikas: (repeats) They pee it. He didn’t know that milk comes from female cows, who are reared for it and separated from their calves who are taken away to the slaughterhouse for veal.
Once when I went to the animal sanctuary with my colleagues, I found that they’d never seen a chicken before. A chicken is a big bird – they didn’t know that and wouldn’t be able to identify one if they saw it.
Q: What does veganism really mean to you? What does it signify?
A: Veganism is a philosophy that focuses on sustainability. It’s a way of life. My wife for instance, isn’t even vegetarian. But she eats healthier than 90% of the vegans I know. You could best call her flexitarian, but the point is that she doesn’t label herself.
We’re raising our baby daughter to be vegan, and we’re fully aware that if we walk past an ice-cream stall tomorrow, our baby girl wouldn’t be able to do that…but it is what it is- it’s a much better way of life.
Q: When you turned vegan, what physiological changes did you notice in yourself?
A: I started to sleep better, I didn’t feel tired, I pretty much stopped drinking, and I started making better choices for myself and my relationships. I’ve also become less wasteful… I just don’t buy clothes as much anymore.
Q: Do you think that all of these things could have also happened because you believe you’re living more purposefully- you know, a placebo?
A: I think it’s both, and I just don’t agree with this approach that you need to measure everything with science. Honestly, we give away too much of our lives focusing on scientific improvements. We rob ourselves of some of the simpler joys in life, if we choose to measure and replicate everything through science.
So much of it is mental. Mental clarity is everything. It’s all in your mind. And it’s all connected to your stomach. Most of the serotonin (the happiness chemical) you secrete comes from your gut.
Q: A billion veg by 2030. What does that mean for the world?
A: It has massive implications from the perspective of the environment; on greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, and the number of fish and animals killed. Even if 1/10th (1 billion) of the world in 2030 were to live plant-based lifestyles, it would be enough to get the ball rolling and inspire others to change.