Many companies show commitment to employee diversity, inclusion, well-being and advancement by sponsoring employee interest groups. These are voluntary and often informal. The employer usually provides a platform and sometimes a budget. Employees with a knack for organizing and community building can use the groups to advance a good cause.
One example is the Plant-Based Life group at Facebook, founded in late 2016 by Software Engineer Phaedra Anestassia*. Phaedra saw a growing interest in healthful and conscientious living, sustainability, and self-improvement and decided to found a group that gave co-workers an outlet for these interests.
After a few weeks of launch, Plant-Based Life had well over 200 members. And a few months later, the group had grown by 25% and organized nearly a dozen events around the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, CA. Phaedra is passionate about sharing her experience so others can build similar initiatives at their companies.
What is your background and what was your position at Facebook?
Phaedra: I have always had a deep desire to improve the world. In college, I took the pre-medicine route but also combined it with operations research and information engineering (ORIE) as I recognized that technology could be an avenue to solve the world’s biggest problems. Right before college, I became interested in the relationships between our agricultural system, the climate, and the major diseases Americans suffer from today. One article in particular explained how environmental devastation is deeply linked with the animal agriculture industry, which inspired me to adopt a plant-based lifestyle. After college, I began at Facebook as a Fraud & Risk Analyst, but quickly discovered a zeal for coding and eventually landed a position as a Software Developer*.
Why did you start a plant-based (vegan) employee group at Facebook?
Phaedra: I saw a growing interest at the company for healthier eating and sustainability improvements. While there was a dedicated group for ‘green’-ing our campus (mostly reusable water bottle and recycling campaigns) there was no real community or initiative to unite individuals around food, sustainability, and ethics. Since there was no real precedent for the kind of group I wanted to start, I ended up setting up a “lean-in circle.” Several months later, Facebook established a formal structure for corporate clubs and the Plant-Based Life@FB group was officially born. The organization was (and is) open to all employees.
What difficulties did you face?
Phaedra: The main challenges were in optimizing our time and resources to grow the group and have meaningful impact. The rules around the corporate club structure were still evolving so we definitely made some mistakes, but also learned a lot. Another challenge was awareness: how would we let everyone know that we existed? It took some research to find out what sources and conduits my coworkers used to learn about internal company initiatives and events.
What did you plan to accomplish with your group, and how did you go about it?
Phaedra: I wanted to create a community around healthful, sustainable, and conscientious lifestyles. The most effective approaches I found were curating intriguing and inclusive events and sharing meaningful content (e.g. employee stories and relevant articles). We ended up bringing in speakers right away, with a diverse set of industry backgrounds and skillsets. We invited researchers on diet and longevity, entrepreneurs in the food space, climate scientists, documentary producers, physicians, public health experts and more. We also included free and delicious food and offered gifts like cookbooks, research novels, interactions with film directors, and product vouchers or goods.
We also knew that there was an entire demographic of people who were not at all familiar with sustainable and conscientious lifestyles. To establish some familiarity, we employed a validation by proxy approach: collaboration with other employee groups, clubs, and even departments, which shared some of our goals–especially HR, sustainability, and philanthropy. We also found a great ally on the culinary team that became a true innovator and helped us provide more plant-based options on campus. Everyone loves good food–and we would pair it with conversations around reducing emissions and healthfulness for employees through body, mind, and spirit.
What ultimately made your group so successful?
Phaedra: First, we actively partnered with other groups and co-organized our events which boosted our presence and brought attendees who may not have ended up there otherwise. Second, marketing is also crucial, and it was important to get as much exposure as possible across the Facebook campus. Since branding our efforts widely and diversely across campus was so crucial, highlighting that delicious food and gifts would be included were paramount.
Lastly, employees are always incentivized by high-caliber speakers. We hosted critical thinkers, authors, entrepreneurs, researchers and other renowned thinkers on the topics of disease prevention, sustainability, climate change, entrepreneurship, and evidence-based diets. Some of our guests include Gidon Eshel, PhD, MPhil, MA (renowned expert on the link between diet and environmental effects, recently featured in the Leonard diCaprio documentary Before the Flood), Andy Levitt (founder & CEO of Purple Carrot, the plant-based meal delivery service that co-produced Tom Brady’s TB12 performance mealkit), Michael Greger, MD (founder of NutritionFacts.org and a bestselling New York Times author), Kip Andersen (film director of What The Health and Cowspiracy) and David Goldman, MSci, RD (a doctor at the True North Health Center which is renowned for treating disease through diet).
What additional advice would you give others who wish to start a similar group?
Phaedra: First, start by understanding what matters to your coworkers and company and create a group that will cater to those interests. Collaborate with others who may have similar interests, such as relevant departments or resource groups (for us these were HR, culinary, and the sustainability groups). Second, learn about the socially hot topics that matter to employees, and cater to those as much as possible. Health and sustainability are such topics, and even though for us the issue of animal well-being and food security are also important, these were less engaging to our employees. Third, network and find others who share your interests. Always remember to bring a positive attitude and a willingness to find common ground.
Finally, and this is a piece of advice useful in many areas of life, do not let perfection be the enemy of progress. The best way to start is by doing. You will likely make a few mistakes, but these are the way you learn so be prepared to re-assess and iterate. Just like with start-ups or product development, your first goal is to create a “minimal viable product” (MVP). That should be enough to attract other engaged individuals to join you so that you can improve and grow.
* Phaedra has handed off the Plant-Based Life group to a board at Facebook, and she is now working on a new start-up.