Featured Leader Series: Vegans in IT

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Left to right: Shlomi Cohen, Praveen Raj Ponraj, Kelcey Cox
Left to right: Shlomi Cohen, Praveen Raj Ponraj, Kelcey Cox

Three vegan IT guys in three different parts of the world! Shlomi (Israel), Praveen (India) and Kelcey (Texas) share their perspectives on being vegan in corporate IT. You compare...

It is an honor to interview three accomplished vegan IT leaders side by side. (It is also a great tribute to vegans in IT – currently the most represented profession among Vegan Leaders.) Shlomi, Praveen and Kelcey have different careers, callings and environments – each representing a unique vegan path. Be sure to read the full article to learn an interesting fact about each gent.

Shlomi Cohen, 29, is a Senior Software Engineer in Mc'Kesson Israel and a professional photographer. Shlomi has worked in leading corporate companies such as Cisco and Microsoft, and the intelligence corps of Israel's Defense Force.

Praveen Raj Ponraj, 27, has a degree in aeronautical engineering and works as a team lead at the world’s major aerospace company in Chennai, India. A passionate entrepreneur, he recently launched a green start-up Mystic.

Kelcey Cox, 32, is a CEO of a Houston, Texas company specialized in software training, support, and personnel placement for refineries and chemical plants. He’d started in software for the petrochemical industry at the age of 15! Now he oversees technical consulting, administration, development and design for SPI, sustaining his passion for computers and software.

What is it like to be vegan where you live?

Shlomi:Absolutely awesome! I am very fortunate. Israel is rapidly becoming a vegan empire. Everyone talks about it, it's all over the mainstream news and media, and vegan restaurants are sprouting up everywhere. It’s very rare to go to a restaurant nowadays without having at least a few vegan menu options, and most supermarkets have all sorts of plant-based alternatives. Almost in any group of people you find yourself in, you’ll probably find a vegan right beside you. It's a great time to be a vegan in Israel.

Praveen: Healthy vegan breakfast prolongs my endurance for commuting (32 miles per day on bike) and performance at work.

Praveen:Traditionally, Indians are mostly vegetarians. That being said, they consume a lot of dairy products (milk, ghee, butter, and curd) which they add to every dish. Many people find it difficult to transition from vegetarian to vegan, because of the lack of dairy alternatives in the Indian market. When we cook at home, we simply skip the dairy additives. Also most street food vendors and snack bars are “incidentally” vegan - as dairy would only increase their cost of ingredients.

Where I live, there are very few active vegan communities. Only occasionally we have meet-ups and potlucks.

Kelcey: Houston, Texas is not exactly vegan country. I do catch a lot of flak from people about my diet, but I don’t mind it. I’m eating healthier and feel great.

I’m in the southeast part of Houston which seems to have far fewer vegan options. I have to drive for about half an hour to the nearest Whole Foods. Chain restaurants have vegan options where I live, and local grocery stores are starting to carry more and more vegan protein and cheese options!

I’ve never especially sought out vegan communities. A vegan diet is just one part of me and I usually do not to base other activities around it. I do run into vegans every once in a while which is cool. Vegan Leaders is really the first vegan group I’ve been associated with – I’m excited!

When and how did you originally become vegan?

Shlomi: I became vegan about 2 1/2 years ago. I’d always known of the horrors of the industry but used to make excuses to justify eating meat. Eventually I realized I couldn’t consider myself an animal lover if I kept eating them. First I thought being vegetarian was "enough" until I watched Gary Yourofsky's video about veganism. It took me a while but in the end I moved to a completely vegan lifestyle.

Praveen:I made this conscious choice five years ago, when I became aware of the environmental degradation due to animal agriculture as well as cruelty on the factory farms around the world.

Kelcey: Going vegan was a huge step towards embracing good habits - thinking before eating, reading more, working out and socializing - that helped my career enormously.

Kelcey:I became vegan shortly after a trip to Las Vegas in 2013. I was already on a health kick. My coworker had tried going vegan for a month – plus I’d read that Arian Foster of the Houston Texans had briefly gone vegan - which made me start researching it.

A single eating experience during my Las Vegas trip launched me towards a vegan diet. My hosts (who were vegan) took me to a Thai restaurant and ordered many different dishes to share. It was all delicious and full of flavor! They told me that everything was vegan. After the trip, I still ate cheese for about a month before going fully vegan - I have now stuck with it for almost two years.

IT guys are often associated with a “24-7 on the computer, take-out food, no exercise” lifestyle. Is this true for you? How has your vegan lifestyle factored in?

Shlomi: I'm “allergic to sports” so you could find me very typical in that respect.  Vegan food is no problem when you have to stay late at the office (and be a stereotypical Engineer who eats pizza to fuel coding). Lots of restaurants with vegan options deliver. Did you know that in Israel even Domino’s have a vegan cheese pizza?

Praveen: This is not true in my case. I wake up early in the morning to water my veganic terrace garden and ride my bicycle to work (32 miles per day). My mother who is a wonderful vegan cook packs me a delicious lunch. I usually have fruits, smoothies, seeds and nuts for breakfast to prolong my endurance for commuting and performance at work.

Kelcey: I was the IT stereotype. I used to sit at the computer at work then go home and stay up all night playing video games. I didn’t exercise. I ate fast food and processed junk food, and pumped myself full of energy drinks. To say I was at risk for many medical conditions would be an understatement. That being said, I actually gained weight when I first went vegan - as I still sought out junk food, just the vegan version. It took me over a year to kick that habit and discover “real” food – and I’m just now starting to see and feel the benefits of it!

To me the best part about a vegan diet is that it makes you think before you eat. You research food all the time, study the ingredients on the packaging, and ask what’s in food at restaurants. I believe this mind development has helped my professional career enormously. I’m reading more. I’m working out more. I’m going out and socializing more. All this has helped me develop into a more knowledgeable and confident CEO. I truly believe going vegan was a huge step towards embracing these habits.

Does your veganism come up in your work? What’s the typical reaction?

Shlomi:Heh, not a day goes by without someone talking to me about veganism! It usually happens around lunchtime. I am rarely the one to bring up the subject. My approach is not to confront people, or shock them with brutal images. I'm always up for a calm and open discussion about it which has proven to be fruitful. I find that it opens people's minds up to the concept.

Praveen: Of course, yes. My current role demands a lot of interaction with my team. When I talk about veganism and its benefits, I get all types of reactions. I also speak about veganism at public forums in my office. I have to say that quite a few colleagues have embraced vegan lifestyle because of me.

Kelcey: These discussions mostly happen at lunch time. Lots of Texans are huge BBQ eaters. I don’t like going because I’m pretty much stuck with a bunch of bland sides for a meal. Thus either I choose where we go or I don’t go. That disappoints all involved because I too believe it’s important to talk to clients and colleagues outside of work. I’m still trying to discover a third alternative where I get tasty vegan meals at BBQ joints - I think that will just take time. In the meantime, I can still meet colleagues and clients after work for drinks!

Technology and online social media has supercharged the recent social movements. How do you foresee the role of technology to further the “vegan revolution” from here?

Shlomi: Post vegan content on social media! Many people read it and let it sink in, without ever telling you. Share, share, share.

Shlomi: Social media has been crucial to promote veganism. Without it, we’d have been in a different place today. I believe all vegans should post vegan content every now and then, and mention it in their own personal profiles. A few of my friends who have never spoken a word about veganism with me, messaged me one day and told me that thanks to my posts they have turned vegan. You would be amazed by how many people read it and let it sink in, without even saying a word to you. Share, share, share.

Praveen:Social media powerfully creates awareness about veganism and environmental conservation. The internet and social media spread news like wildfire. However, especially in India, people in rural areas do not have yet easy access to the internet. Our government is working toward the Digital India Initiative, which should change this hopefully in the near future.

Kelcey: Technology and social media can help everything advance. I’m very interested in the creation of more vegan “pseudo-meats” – and technology and social media could play a big role in it. Recently, I’ve been studying the nutritional drawbacks of the vegan diet and what could be done to compensate for them. My current answer is fish which contain B12, D3, carnosine, taurine, sulfur, omega-3’s, heme-iron, iodine, etc. So I hope the chefs and scientists can create a vegan super protein to exactly mirror the nutrients in fish, and maybe social media can push it as a mainstream vegan option. Maybe it already exists?

Please share one unique or surprising fact about yourself.

Shlomi: I've met my love thanks to veganism! She had started a group for vegans, and I was the first joiner. After a few days we had our first group meeting… and from there it's all history. We now live together in our vegan apartment, with two dogs, two parrots, and one crazy cat.

Praveen: I want to be a social entrepreneur to satisfy the needs of people by producing earth-friendly products and services. My fiancee and I have recently started a venture named Mystic to provide earth-friendly alternatives, awareness and services. Currently we are focusing on healthy baking, dairy alternatives for fitness and daily consumption, and a blog. Once this is stabilized, we have further ideas for launching more ethical and natural vegan products.

Kelcey: I share a birthday with my father. Granted, I was a C-section baby, so I think my parents cheated a bit to make that happen . I was also born less than an hour before the astrological sign was switched from Aries to Taurus – so the C-section also caused me to be an Aries and not a Taurus. As a cusper, I guess I have to read both horoscopes.

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