Wednesday, June 13, 2018

10 Questions: Vegan Rock Star with Nicole Sopko

You know that whole vegan ladyboss phenomenon covered recently in Forbes? I think if there were ever a patron saint for vegan ladybosses, it would be Nicole Sopko, also known as Gopi Om.

Nicole and her partner Dan Staackman run Upton’s Naturals, the seitan, jackfruit and vegan prepared meals company recently profiled in Crain’s Chicago Business, a business that seems to be on fire with success and growth right now. When she’s not doing her Upton’s work as Vice President, and helping to run the Plant Based Foods Association (of which she is a founding member and Secretary of 
the board), Nicole also runs not one, but two yoga studios and, again, not one, but two restaurants. I just got tired from typing all that out. Nicole is a staunch believer in the many benefits of yoga and runs Nature Yoga studios, one in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago, and more recently, one in Oak Park. She also helps to fill bellies with tasty vegan food at Upton’s Breakroom in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood and the lovely Nature Yoga Sanctuary & Café, attached to her Oak Park yoga studio. Okay, that’s a lot! To me, Nicole is the living embodiment of balance: a smart, conscientious entrepreneur who also happens to want to share the yogic principles of mindfulness and compassion with the world. She is kind, generous and a deeply committed vegan who happens to love hugging a cow or two or three or more. I am grateful to know her and honored to share feature Nicole Sopko as this week’s Vegan Rock Star. 

1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?

So, I first learned about veganism through the hardcore punk music scene. To be honest, I didn’t even really know that much about it in terms of the specifics of either the ethical arguments or the day-to-day lifestyle stuff, but the idea instantly appealed to me as a concept, because I mean…why DO we use animals if we don’t need to? As soon as I heard that, I was in 100%. This was in 1996. Prior to that, I’d always loved animals and spent as much time with them as possible. I spent a lot of time living with my grandparents as a child and they had a large property with a lot of barn cats and I would spend hours and hours out in the barn just hanging out with cats. They also had a chicken that had fallen off at transport truck and just showed up at dinner one night with the barn cats, so she was my first “farm” friend. I would come into the kitchen and my grandma would be cooking chicken and would joke that it was her and I would run outside to make sure she was alright. So, that didn’t hurt in terms of making me a vegan.

When I was 8, I wrote a poem at school for Thanksgiving:
There once was a turkey named Fred,
He never wanted to get out of bed.
He had a brother named Matt,
Who was very, very fat.
On Thanksgiving they sang a low gobble song,
Cause they knew they wouldn’t live very long.
And they didn’t.

So, I mean, I look at that now and just, OF COURSE, I’m vegan. It was there all along.

2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?

I guess I just feel like I didn’t need a lot of convincing, personally, but I think that anything heavy handed or accusatory probably would have turned me off and caused me to retreat even if I agreed with the message. Part of my becoming vegan was a rebellion against societal norms. I had become straight edge (abstaining from drugs, alcohol, or other intoxicants) the year before because I didn’t think it was ethical to participate in industries that profit off of the destruction of people’s lives, families, communities, social skills, etc. and I felt really similarly about veganism. What you do and what you consume is like a vote every time for the kind of world you want. I can’t control much, but I can control what I allow for in my own sphere. I was 16 when I put the pieces together and I was lucky that I had a job and was making a little money to buy my own food so that I didn’t put my family out. I think having somebody leading by example would have been helpful for me, but luckily I was stubborn enough to figure out the basics on my own and stick with it until I had a community to show me what else was out there.

3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?

Personally, I’m just honest with people. Not like over the top, jarring “honesty” where I feel like I need to tell you the real truth about where your “food” comes from in graphic detail without consent (though, I will do that if you ask), but just that the reasoning is simple. I have this great shirt from The Herbivore Clothing Company that says, “I love animals too much to eat them.” I do. It’s that easy. Don’t you?

4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?

I think the vegan movement is so diverse and we shouldn’t miss that. My partner and I have two vegan restaurants in the Chicago area, Upton’s Breakroom and Nature Yoga Sanctuary & Cafe, and I see all kinds of people coming and going from those locations day after day and that is one of my favorite things. Vegans don’t look one way, they don’t act one way, they’re not all in it for the same reasons, and that’s part of what makes it so amazing. Because if you want to be vegan, I bet that there’s someone out there that you can really relate to who can help. It’s not one size fits all, but there is a right place for every body here. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?

Oh boy, I think sometimes we are our own worst enemy. I see a lot of confronting and seemingly ineffective tactics from other vegans sometimes. In fact, I think that generally speaking, if your way of interacting with other people is a “tactic” and you have an endgame with your interaction, they know and are going to be suspicious of you from the start. No one wants to be approached by someone with an agenda to get what they want. Let’s not be tactical. Let’s just connect. Lead by example.

6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.

Personally, I’m vegan because animals deserve to be comfortable. When I look at the animals I live with (I currently live with a dog, 13 fish, and 3 snails), it’s clear that they have wants and needs (I know, because I’m tasked with providing for many of them). It’s important to do your best to minimize harm to other beings.

7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution?

I love the message of the Dhammapada, which I first read after becoming vegan which says, “All beings tremble before violence. All fear death. All love life. See yourself in others. Then whom can you hurt? What harm can you do?” I think that about sums it up for me. I also love and try to follow the work being done by organizations like Farm Sanctuary, We Animals, and all of the dedicated smaller animal sanctuaries around the world that are giving animals the comfortable lives they deserve.
8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?

Okay, so outside of the work of “being a vegan,” I work a LOT. I run a global vegan food company, Upton’s Naturals, alongside my partner Dan. On top of that, I also own two yoga centers by the name of Nature Yoga Sanctuary. We also have the two restaurants that I mentioned before. I teach yoga multiple times per week and on weekends am often teaching additional trainings or workshops for yoga teachers and students. This year alone I’ve traveled so extensively for business that I’ve spent more than a week in the air. I love all of what I do, but it is a lot. I consider my work to be my form of activism. We are making vegan foods available in a number of countries worldwide and sharing the reasons for veganism at home and abroad. My studies on yoga and yogic techniques with my Guruji, Sri Dharma Mittra, are what make all of this possible. Letting go of attachment to the results of effort is part of a daily practice and yoga also offers a variety of relaxation techniques that can be helpful when life is hectic. Studying the truths of karma can give some comfort when confronted with the cruelties of the world. I don’t always have time to dedicate too much of a physical yoga practice at this point in my life, but the other practices and knowledge are always present.

9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?

Oh boy! I don’t even know how to pick just one. I feel like issues are constantly capturing my heart, but the plight of dairy cows is one that just really touches me. When I have the opportunity, I seek out the company of cows. I love their presence. I have spent time with cows in the US, India, and other countries and one thing remains the same – they are loving beings with definite personalities and strong ties to their loved ones. I think many people see cows as “milk machines,” rather than as individuals with desires, needs, personalities, friends, and family and that breaks my heart. The dairy industry, no matter how big or small the farm, is harmful to them. Milk is for babies. 100%. No exceptions.

10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is...”

To me, being vegan is living in a way that is consistent with my values.

Om Shanti!