Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, interviews Nivi Jaswal, the social entrepreneur and educator turned vegan activist who travelled very far in her vegan journey

I have travelled quite a bit.

Before the pandemic, and especially in my 30s and 40s, I have done a fair amount of travelling. Mostly for work, then for survival (I am an immigrant), and a bit for leisure too. Some long distances through cultures, some shorter distances through landscapes. Therefore, I understand the mind of the traveller. Everything is transient, everything is impermanent, you remember where you have been, you don’t know what you will find around the corner, and you just carry the luggage your mind allows you to carry. Travelling makes you wiser, because it breaks stereotypes and old chains, and widens your horizons in all possible dimensions and meanings. 

Some people, though, travel a lot. They come from so far away, and they have been to so many places, that they reach early wisdom. Not the wisdom that comes from studying. Not the wisdom that comes from age. The wisdom that comes from moving from place to place. One of these persons is Nivi Jaswal. She defines herself as an intersectional vegan activist, a social entrepreneur, and an educator, with a corporate background.  I think she is much more than that. She is a proficient cultural traveller.

She has travelled a lot, through geographies, cultures, and worlds. Originally from South Asia, she has lived in many countries. Countries quite apart from each other (India, Singapore, Russia, and now the US). But one of the most distant journeys she has made is between two very different worlds. The worlds that explain why I decided to interview her for the Vegan FTA website. She travelled from deep in the underbellies of the carnist corporate world, to the world of vegans capable to change “the system”. Quite an interesting journey, as you will soon learn.

Journey to the Corporate World

Nivi Jaswal with a hand embroidered Phulkari Shawl by VIRSA Artisans_Punjab India

All journeys have a very distinct beginning, and to understand Nivi’s, we need to go way back to her routes:

“I was born in the northwestern part of India. I was raised partly in the northeastern part of India with Indo-Chinese cultures because my mom and dad were anthropologists based there for work.  I’m half Sikh and half Hindu. So, my dad’s a Sikh and he used to wear a turban. There was a lot of anti-Sikh sentiment in non-Sikh parts of India, so we were an ethnic minority very visually different from where we were living at the time. My father and my mother decided to move the family back to northwest India to the state of Punjab. I had a very privileged upbringing. I went to an amazing school and had an opportunity to participate in international exchange programs. I had a very privileged and liberal upbringing, which was contrary to the more patriarchal, more conservative, more traditional orthodox kind of cultural setting in the rest of the state, and indeed the rest of the country. So, I grew up without gender discrimination. I have a younger brother, but we were treated equally. 

I got my bachelor’s in sociology and psychology, and my elective was psychology. I developed a lot of interest in analytical psychology around that time, and I kept thinking that there’s got to be some application for it. That sort of veered me towards wanting to get an MBA [Master of Business Administration]. So, I got an MBA, and I was actually the first person to be placed on campus. I got placed with a big consumer goods company. My corporate journey started with them.  

I stayed on for 10 years, and I moved around with them as an ex-pat. I moved to Mumbai with them and then I was working with health and wellness brands throughout. We did this huge program which was a public-private partnership program between them and the United Nations. My team created a really large health and hygiene intervention for children in slum areas, so we worked with Asia’s largest slum, and we worked in South Africa’s largest slum. We created a clinical study where we were actually able to prove that if you wash hands with soap, you can reduce the level of diarrhoea, which is the biggest killer of children less than five years of age. 

I was living it up. I was living that lifestyle as a young person, and I was achieving a lot. I became a single woman ex-pat to go to the middle east. I then moved on to Russia, so I spent about four years in Russia looking after their food business, and so on. I moved on to corporate strategy for north Africa, the middle east, turkey, eastern Europe, Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia, and Poland.

I quit that company and joined a very large medical devices company. In retrospect, when I look at this corporate progression, I’m looking at food, personal care, health, and wellness. There’s this whole greenwashing of ‘you’re doing good for the community, you’re going to Asia and Africa, you’re giving good micronutrient stuff to people.’. 

I get to travel and live up my life. I’m doing good for the community; I’m doing good for the world.  I’m taking care of the climate while I’m doing this, and I’m uplifting people. So, really what had happened during this initial part of my corporate career is I had bought into the corporate nexus with international development agencies, and I had bought into that model that somehow Asians, Africans, Latin Americans, all of these people in the global south, or even the poor people in the global north, they had to be saved somehow. And the only way you could save them was through this formula, through brands, and through all of these international development agencies. And I didn’t see anything wrong with that model.  

It’s a complete immersion in what I call ‘the anti-carb pro-international development paradigm’, which is corporate-based. We can sit and talk about saving the poor people whilst sitting at an expensive steakhouse and really worrying about who’s going to make it to senior vice president, who’s going to get that corner office and who’s going to get promoted and so on. So, it was very hypocritical.

Then I moved to work for the largest media buying and research conglomerate working for their research division. In a way, if you think of animal agriculture, and manufacturing companies that use animal products in their supply chain, as the head and the heart of the octopus, the tentacles are really the research, the consumer research organizations, and the media shops advertising creation and media buying. I went from the head and heart over to the agency ecosystem working for these tentacles. So, I was working for just a few months for them when something happened in 2015.” 

Journey to Plant-Based Food

Nivi Jaswal -the virsa foundation

Often, the vegan journey of a person begins with an event that triggers a series of changes and decisions which, over the years, awaken people to the reality of animal exploitation — and what can be done about it. Health events are often one of such triggers. 

“I went whole food plant-based oil-free due to health reasons in April 2018. And prior to that, for about four years, I was dabbling in a ketogenic lifestyle with the express goal of preventing chronic illness because I was told, clinically, that it was my genetic destiny to get type 2 diabetes and several other chronic illnesses — given that they run in my family. I lost four of my grandparents by the time I turned 18. My father, who passed away during COVID-19 in 2020, was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes as early as 1992, and I was around 11 at the time. I was told that if I didn’t watch my carb intake, I was going to go down the same path. So, I was doing keto under clinical supervision. 

After four years of doing it, I realised that it actually brought me to a very dark place. In 2015 I was diagnosed with pre-diabetes. I was borderline diabetic, my cholesterol levels were very high, and I had a very high body fat percentage, even though I was not outwardly obese. I have since learned that, with my genetics and with my ethnic background, that is something that tends to happen, where on the outside of it you don’t really see it. But there’s a lot going on on the inside with chronic illness. I would eat meat, beef, and pork. I actually loved eating meat at the time, and I felt that ketogenic sort of was good news for my bad habits. So, when I fell ill and was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome, I had severe oedema, I had very frequent migraine attacks, and I was chronically like an insomniac. I wasn’t able to sleep for longer than three and a half to four hours a day. And my resting heart rate was anywhere between 146 and 266 beats per minute, so it was a really bad situation. And at the age of 34.

I was based in Singapore in 2015, and I travelled to Hong Kong. I had just finished a workshop. I went back to my hotel room, and 30 minutes later, I woke up. I regained consciousness on the floor of my hotel room, and there were no signs of somebody breaking in or anything. In that flash of a moment, I was very scared, and I thought, ‘maybe I had a cardiac event,’ but thankfully it wasn’t a cardiac event. The following morning, I took a flight back to Singapore, I checked myself into a hospital, and I walked out with all these diagnoses that I shared with you. The big switch for me was that I was going to the gym, I was doing keto, I was in a really high-profile executive regional position, I was looking after multiple markets for a very large organization, and I did not identify with the label of a patient. I identified myself as someone who was healthy. 

I spent the next year sort of wrapping up my job with the corporate world asking for a sabbatical, thinking that if I de-stressed myself, things would be okay, and I would be rejuvenated enough to be able to get back to work.  Six months turned into six to seven years running. At this point in time, I haven’t gone back but I ended up spending about a month in New Zealand climbing glaciers and hoping that it will de-stress me. I would get some answers, I would meditate, and so on. 

In 2016, I stumbled upon the China Study. I read the book and watched a few documentaries. It took me two years to actually unlearn everything that I had known about diet, wellness, and like how my body works. And to let go of that fear that if I were to pick up a piece of bread and eat it, that somehow I was going to die because that’s carbs and that’s poisonous. 

I remember, in April 2018, picking up this book by Dr Esselstyn: “How to prevent and reverse heart disease”.  The back of the book, 50% of the book, is filled with recipes written by his wife. So, that’s how I learned, because I didn’t know how to cook, even though I have south Asian ancestry and I grew up watching my grandmother’s and my mother cooking from scratch vegetables, lentils, dal, and all those things. I kind of had that knowledge but it was latent. And it was hidden in my brain somewhere. And, thank goodness for it, I picked it up pretty quickly once I had to, and I made the switch to plant-based. I went wholefood plant-based in April 2018.

Within six months I had a clean check by the doctors. They called it a miracle. My ovaries didn’t have any scarring anymore, I was super excellent, and I was healthy. I dropped down several dress sizes. From a body image standpoint that was really awesome.” 

Journey Through the Five Dimensions of Veganism

Photo By JLco Julia Amaral via Shutterstock (Royalty-free stock photo ID: 2014813910)

Over the years I have become more convinced that there are five distinctive gateways to veganism: animals, the environment, social justice, spirituality, and health. I call them gateways because those vegans who say they are “vegan for” any of these, tend to embrace the other dimensions of veganism with time. They become more attached to the gateway they first use (in my case, the gateway of the animals), and that may continue to be their priority, but they can explore the other dimensions without fear of contradiction and can expand their appreciation of the philosophy of veganism. 

In my case, I entered veganism via the animals’ gateway about 20 years ago, I then explored the environmental dimension about 15 years ago, then the health dimension ten years ago, the social justice dimension five years ago, and the spiritual dimension a couple of years ago. Other people went through a different order and timing — and some new vegans remain only in the vestibule of their chosen gate as they may feel very comfortable there — depending on how deep they dig and the circumstances of their journey. Nivi seems to be moving faster than I have been in exploring all the rooms of the vegan mansion. 

“There was a step between whole food plant-based and veganism, and that step was a bigger leap for me, that sort of dictated how my professional career turned on its head. I was pretty sceptical about the “V” word. My perception of vegans had been that they are militant people. They want to burn down things. They are anti-establishment, that sort of thing. And you’ll recall, with my corporate background, I sort of represented the establishment. I felt antagonistic against this word.

As I explored new connections and networked with people, they would interchangeably use the word plant-based and vegan. Every single time somebody said the word ‘vegan’, it was a trigger word. I knew that I had to explore why it was a trigger word for me, so I joined a course. I became friends with Victoria Moran and I joined a course that she was organising at the Main Street Vegan Academy. The pandemic had started so it went from being in-person in New York City to Zoom. 

Until a year ago nobody would have thought that I would associate with ‘these people.’ The ‘crunchy granola hippie hot smoking vegan people’. That was sort of the perception in my head. I sat through the lectures, and they made a lot of sense. There were two speakers specifically that changed the course of how I viewed the world. Number one was Dr Milton Mills. He presented on the intersectionality, colonialism, and systemic racism, and how sometimes gene expression can alter because of trauma, because of all of these things. And there’s energetic trauma that resides within meat. He prepared a very coherent argument, and coming from a doctor, there was a lot of science to it. I started to think about my own ancestry and where there was a colonial legacy. The fact that you and I are speaking a certain language and conducting this interview in this language already goes to show the colonial impact of certain cultures over others. 

The second speaker was Jasmin Singer, who conducted a very special session for the Main Street Vegan Academy in 2020, and it was all around storytelling. Sort of sitting with yourself and thinking about different stories of animals that might come to you. There was this one specific flashback that I have no clue to this date how it emerged. I remembered that in 2005 or 2006 I was in Jakarta, Indonesia. I was working for a consumer goods giant, and I was driven to the office. It was Eid time, and a cow was being slaughtered on the side of the road. I had never seen something like this, and the driver slowed down because there were a bunch of people that were gathered around witnessing this. They were in some sort of a ritualistic religious trance. I remembered that flashback, and I also remembered that I saw it, felt pity for the cow, and then we soon snaked our way out of that crowd, reached work, forget about it, did my meetings, and went and had steak at a steakhouse that night.

And at that moment remembering that experience, the penny dropped from me. How far removed I had become from life and sentience around me, and especially non-human sentience, that I only had sympathy at that moment to offer to them? So, that’s how I went vegan, in August 2020. 

I’m a big believer in Jungian psychology.  I’m a psychologist. Dr Jung spoke about individuation and self-actualization and really sort of dipped into the archetypes and the collective unconscious. And what it tells us about our culture, about our families, about the way we eat, what we eat, and what we don’t eat, and so on. I just sat there at the end of the Main Street Vegan Academy program just completely shocked and thinking about what was I going to do. I can’t go back to working with organisations that are spreading diabetes on the planet, that regularly use animals in their supply chain, and that participate in greenwashing.” 

Helping others in their Journeys

Colonialism Cuisine and Cow_Nivi interview with Chef AJ

Having entered veganism by the health gateway, and having discovered the animals’ dimension, Nivi kept exploring the vegan mansion. She discovered the social justice dimension too.

“I started thinking about my roots. I wanted to give back to the Punjabi community, so I said, ‘all right, I’m going to incorporate a non-profit.’ So, The Virsa Foundation I created is a 501c3non-profit based out of the Boston area, and our initial work for the first two years was entirely focused on rural women handicraft artisans in Punjab. 

You think that you’re going to rescue people and sometimes they rescue you right back. I was on this journey of trying to figure out what was wrong with my body, so in 2018, when this incorporation happened, I started to think about how I can create a digital marketplace for their handicrafts. But I was doing plant-based and I was seeing healing, and when by spring of 2019 I was completely healed, I thought ‘this is not about economically empowering them and selling their stuff, it’s really about teaching them how to eat right, so they don’t look as though they’re 100 years old when they’re only 40.’ It’s really about empowerment in that sense. Then my mom joined me and my father was instrumental as well to help because with their PhD network they had a lot of people who they knew in the state. So, I was able to leverage that and get into these handicraft communities, really small remote villages. We partnered with faith-based organisations and used the community kitchens in the Sikh temples, and the Hindu temples, to gather these women and to cook along with them in a whole food plant-based oil-free dairy-free kind of a way because a lot of them are lacto-ovo vegetarians. So, that was the starting point of it.

And then, the pandemic hit and all our volunteer programs in India came to a halt. My dad passed away, my mom was very sick, and I said ‘okay, I’m going to shut down the sister outfit in India and we’ve got to pivot. We’ve got to do something and continue the work.’ Now that there is a pandemic what can I do which can really be relevant to where I’m now? The Jiviniti Program, or the Jiviniti platform, was launched inside of the Virsa Foundation because the term ‘virsa’ is a Punjabi word which means ‘inheritance’ or ‘legacy’.  It has a lot of consumer understanding inherently in India but it doesn’t ring any bells for Americans. So, I needed to create another brand. 

At that time elections were going on, so in 2020 I created the Jiviniti coalition, and I said ‘I want to be a vegan, I want to start sort of getting rid of all non-vegan stuff in my lifestyle. I need to go and embed myself into that tribe even more.’ I created the coalition and we decided to write an open letter to Kamala Harris asking her to become vegan [US vice-president candidate at the time]. We’re going to do a coalition, and in less than six weeks we had 33 women-led organizations join us from six different countries — the majority of them in North America. We gathered around five thousand signatures. Kamala Harris didn’t go vegan but I definitely found my tribe. 

I organised a strategy workshop where I invited all of these women-led organizations and started brainstorming to find out what Jiviniti should do next. One of the big highlights was research. The Jiviniti research program came out, and we have done two projects so far. We did one project which is called project Shakti and it was entirely focused on non-vegan low-income women in the United States — white women, Latin women, and African-American women — doing a qualitative study trying to understand their relationship with food, their relationship with chronic illness, and what do they understand when we talk about food-related climate change, animal rights, and chronic illness. What is the baseline? What do they understand? 

The second one is ongoing. It’s a quantitative piece of research. We’re exploring the correlation between the COVID-19 experience of Americans and the impact of COVID-19 on their physical and mental health. We’re working with a very large consumer research organization that I was able to sort of bring in from my corporate background.”

Nivi defines herself as an intersectional vegan — a label I am happy to share — so I asked her to give me a little bit of insight into the vegan issue from the perspective of people of colour. 

“When colonialism happened, and then we were subjugated, our way of living changed. When that emotional laddering happens for a person of colour, irrespective of where they are,  if they happen to be a formerly subjugated or colonised racialised human being, the minute they connect the dots between what was taken away from them — and in not a nice way — there is an inherent human tendency, and an ego defence mechanism, very like ‘I want to reclaim my power.’ And that reclamation of power is very strong. 

In the United States soul food was pretty much the leftover stuff, so begs the question of what western sub-Saharan Africans used to eat. It was mostly potatoes and tubers, and no dairy. Why is the United States government pushing dairy to us? So, when you look at the African American target audience from a veganism standpoint, the minute they make those very emotional hooks and connections, it makes sense.

When you talk to a south Asian, obviously, then it goes back to Mahatma Gandhi’s patriotism. There’s a lot of Bhagavad-Gita. The colonial record in India and parts of South Asia is a modern record, so you’re able to actually go back in and check into when was the first livestock census held in India. In 1924 is when the first dairy farms were established in India for the British troops who were posted there. British had preferential access to this white fluid and the other brown people didn’t. And then, since there is the whole idea of the subjugators as the people who are “superior”, therefore whatever they eat must be “superior” too. So, there are a lot of aspirational hooks over there. When you go up the geopolitical emotional ladder it truly becomes about ‘I want to reclaim my power; I want to individualise.’”

Plant-based burgers in big chains

Photo By Foodio via Shutterstock (Royalty-free stock photo ID: 1437332096)

As a person who has very quickly explored several dimensions of veganism, I was curious about what Nivi’s views would be on current topics of debate within the vegan movement. I chose one that worries me: big fast-food meat chains — like Burger King or McDonald’s — producing plant-based food, and some vegans being happy to give them money so they can eat it. 

“From a nutritional standpoint, there are three types of vegans that I’ve encountered. One is people who believe in wholefood plant-based eating, typically people who’ve come in through the gate of health, the door of health. Then there are people who believe in plant-based, but hyper-processed foods that mimic some of the favourites that they miss, or that the world will miss if all of the meat would be switched out. And then there are third who believe in lab cultivated meat, lab cultivated milk, and that’s a very big phenomenon.

If you were to look at a graph and on the x-axis supposing you have these three nutritional paradigms, and on the y-axis you have capital investments going into each of them, the answer is pretty clear. The highest capital investment that is going in the capital inflows is, at this point, to lab-cultivated meat and milk. Then you have processed plant-based products, and you have very minimal funds going into services, products, or offerings that talk about lifestyle medicine — a premise which is the whole food plant-based. 

When you look at the impact of these nutritional paradigms on public health it’s an inverse equation because you see the monies once again going to what might not be the healthiest option. Obviously, I lean towards the whole food plant-based side because of my own personal experience. 

If we only look at the hyper-processed plant-based animal mimicking foods, the target audience tends to be younger. And these younger individuals might just be at a live stage where chronic illness hasn’t had a chance yet to express itself. The human condition is that we are very inherently selfish beings. If I’m hurting, I’m going to look at what hurts first, and that’s the way it is. If you’re not hurting, at this point you’re either not going to see it, or you will, or as a function of your life stage, as a function of teen rebellion, you might sort of get swept up in a certain movement. 

There is another way to look at it. Is there a role that these hyper-processed animal foods have to play in the vegan movement? I definitely think there is. I think that people who may or may not be hurting but feel something for the climate, feel something for the animals, but they currently do not have either the wherewithal to, or the privilege to, be able to eat the rainbow cook from scratch, if they want to dip their toes, purely from a transition standpoint, into a Beyond Burger, Impossible Meat, and all of these hyper green KFC, it can open a little window for them. It can be a threshold. But you don’t live on the threshold, you live in the house, so if you cross that threshold, and you find yourself in the house, which is talking about public health and planetary health, climate change and animal rights, and so on, once you go into the house, I think that, eventually, these issues will rub off on you.” 

Nivi has confirmed to me something that I have been suspecting for some time: a vegan journey doesn’t need to be long. It doesn’t need to involve many years. You can go through all its phases in a relatively short period of time, as long as you are open to travel to it, you have access to the information and products, you have the support of others who can help, and you have the right mentality and approach. If you recognised the intersectional nature of ideologies and causes, if you appreciate the gift of transculturalism brings you, if you keep exploring, keep digging, keep questioning, and keep looking for more, you can reach the same philosophical and lifestyle destination in the vegan journey much faster than others who may have taken much more time to get there.

There may be a price to pay for travelling through it too fast, but perhaps experienced travellers can avoid it and get all the benefits without losing anything. There are different paths to the vegan mansion. There are different gates to enter its land. There are many halls and rooms to explore once you are in. There is plenty for you to feel at home for life. 

The sooner you get there, the more time you’ll get to experience it all.