Compassion in Action
The Rise of the Power Vegans
Bloomberg Business Week (Bloomberg.com)
November 4, 2010, 5:00PM EST
Steve Wynn, Russell Simmons, Bill Clinton and a comparable cast of heavies are now using tempeh to assert their superiority. A look at what gives
By Joel Stein
It used to be easy for moguls to flaunt their power. All they had to do was renovate the chalet in St. Moritz, buy the latest Gulfstream (GD) jet, lay off 5,000 employees, or marry a much younger Asian woman. By now, though, they’ve used up all the easy ways to distinguish themselves from the rest of us – which may be why a growing number of America’s most powerful bosses have become vegan.
Steve Wynn, Mort Zuckerman, Russell Simmons, and Bill Clinton are now using tempeh to assert their superiority.
As are Ford Executive Chairman of the Board Bill Ford (F), Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, venture capitalist JoiIto, Whole Foods Market (WFMI) Chief Executive Officer John Mackey, and Mike Tyson. Yes, Mike Tyson, a man who once chewed on human ear, is now vegan. His dietary habit isn’t nearly as impressive as that of Alec Baldwin, though, who has found a way to be both vegan and fat at the same time.
It shouldn’t be surprising that so many CEOs are shunning meat, dairy, and eggs: It’s an exclusive club. Only 1 percent of the U.S. population is vegan, partly because veganism isn’t cheap: The cost comes from the value of specialty products made by specialty companies with cloying names (tofurkey, anyone?). Vegans also have to be powerful enough to even know what veganism is.
“CEOs are smart. There just hadn’t been enough exposure for people to glom onto this trend,” says Ingrid E. Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “The information is everywhere now. Instead of ‘Better buy this blue chip,’ it’s ‘Better eat vegan.’ ” When Newkirk learned Wynn had become a vegan, she didn’t think the news was crazy. “Having dolphins in a small tank outside a casino is crazy,” she says. “Ordering vegetables is not.”
Wynn agrees. The self-described “animal nut,” who included the Humane Society of the U.S. in his will, sold the Mirage Hotel—and its dolphin tank—in 2000, and gave up meat and dairy this June. Wynn was converted when his friend—telecom mogul and recent vegan Gulu Lalvani—made him watch Eating, a documentary in which director Mike Anderson explains his strict meat- and oil-free diet.
“I watched it, and I changed the next morning,” says Wynn. “Bang! Just like that.” The transition was eased by the fact that Wynn happened to be on a yacht with a personal chef. As soon as he got home, he began spreading the gospel as only a mogul can—like buying 10,000 copies of Eating, one for each of his employees. “I’m providing the ass for the insurance. If they’re sick, we’re picking up the tab,” says Wynn. “If I can keep them healthier, I’m acting like a smart businessman.”
Though he swears it’s not a condition of employment, Wynn has persuaded most of his senior management to go vegan. And since the majority of Wynn’s lunch companions ask his assistant in advance what he likes to eat, he’s got the upper hand at lunch before even sitting down. He can also suggest one of his own joints—Wynn now offers vegan menus at his restaurants in Las Vegas and Macau, including the steakhouses. “Last night I had dinner with Terry Semel, and we were eating at Wing Lei, the Chinese restaurant,” Wynn says. “They couldn’t believe the stir fry wasn’t in oil. Everybody switched to my food.”
Wynn’s a convincing salesman, but a decade ago even he couldn’t have given away free seitan. Being a vegan then was so weird that pundits listed it as a reason Dennis Kucinich couldn’t be the Democratic Presidential nominee. “People weren’t sure if it was another political party or an ethnic group they’d never heard of,” Kucinich says. While the Ohio representative failed to win the Democratic nomination in 2004—and in 2008—Kucinich’s diet has become so accepted that he was able to persuade Representative Robert A. Brady (D-Pa.), the head of the Committee on House Administration, to include vegan options in the congressional cafeteria. When Bill Clinton announced his dietary epiphany—”I got back to basically what I weighed in high school,” he told Wolf Blitzer this September—Kucinich decided to finally finish his own diet book, whose working title, The Cleveland Diet, will probably be changed by its publisher. Kucinich, however, did not go vegan for power, but rather for love. Fifteen years ago, he says, “I met someone who was vegan when I went to the state senate. This was someone I was very fond of. This was kind of a courtship strategy.”
This is how most guys go vegan. According to Bart Potenza, co-owner of Manhattan power vegan restaurant Candle 79, the rise of the power vegan coincides with the rise of the vegan second wife. As the Four Seasons of seitan piccata, Candle 79 regularly hosts not only Zuckerman but also News Corp. (NWSA) CEO Rupert Murdoch and former Viacom (VIA) CEO Tom Freston, who both have pro-vegan wives. “I live in the shadow of a power vegan,” says Freston, whose wife, Kathy, got Oprah to convert for a three-week trial. “I’m well on the way myself. It’s pretty clear the benefits are undeniable and many.” In other words, as Potenza says, “I think she has him pretty much handled.”
For others, veganism is a moral imperative. In 2000, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone went to visit Farm Sanctuary, an animal rescue organization with a location in upstate New York, and returned a vegan. So far it hasn’t hurt business. “My meal companions are sometimes curious at most,” says Stone, “but never judgmental.” Though that tends to happen when you run a company with an estimated value of more than one billion dollars.
Farm Sanctuary’s board includes a number of powerful vegans, including Tom Anderson, a former partner at McKinsey and CEO of college financing company Upromise. As an associate at McKinsey, he kept his veganism quiet for fear it would make him seem like a hippie. However, as he’s climbed the corporate ladder, he’s become increasingly eager to share the gospel of his eating ethics. In fact, he’s bonded with a few executives over their shared anti-meat-and-dairy proclivities. The only times it hurts him, he claims, are when potential business partners tell hunting stories. “I’ll have to say, ‘I don’t want to hear about that.’ Then someone is on the defensive, and you don’t want that in a business context,” he says. Though as one associate of Dick Cheney can tell you, it’s less uncomfortable than getting shot in the face.
Veganism’s image, however, could still use some updating. While it remains associated with indie rock stars, such as Moby, and people with pixie haircuts, such as Ellen DeGeneres, it also counts among its newest converts ex-NBA star John Salley, Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, former National Hockey League brawler Georges Laraque, professional poker player Daniel Negreanu, and, less recently, pop star and amateur bodybuilder Madonna. Ultimate Fighting Championship mixed martial artist and vegan Luke Cummo says that he drinks his own urine.
And herein lies veganism’s appeal to moguls: It affords them the opportunity to control their own health with the same manic id with which they control everything else. Wynn says his new diet has allowed him to get off Lipitor (PFE). Clinton’s diet made him a fashion darling at his daughter’s wedding this summer.
“It’s probably a good thing in a CEO,” says Freston about veganism. “At least they won’t be toppling over like those McDonald’s (MCD) CEOs.” This latest show of power, in other words, gives them all the more time to enjoy the Swiss chalet and the private jet.