Hi, I’m Mark Winstein. Here’s my story…
When I started my first environmental business in 1983 at age 23, I sought out mentors. But businesspeople back then just could not imagine how a person could build a business taking care of the environment. That was for charities, silly!
But I didn’t let that stop me. I grew a “green” business before that was even a word, and saved my clients millions of dollars worth of water, energy, and maintenance. But I knew almost nothing about finance. Without capital for growth, the company remained a one or two person business for 7 years.
My goal of this business was to prove that ecological values could be aligned with the economy. Here’s a report I archived from one of my first sales the early 1980’s. It shows savings of 10 million gallons of water per year from the $12,000 purchase of water saving showerheads by Washington University in St. Louis, my home town.
Huge additional financial savings came from the large reduction natural gas resulting from only having to heat half the water used for showering. My little green company did other major projects at the university medical center, library, and numerous other institutional and commercial clients including Golden Rule Insurance Company.
There are so many opportunities like this to align ethics and economy in every field. For example, today, $7.5 trillion per year is being squandered on pharmaceutical “treatments” for chronic and deadly illnesses that can be prevented and quite often reversed with lifestyle changes and adoption of a plant-based diet. This is one of the biggest economic and socially transformational opportunities of our time, fully aligned with vegan values. It was the main impetus for me to start Vegan Launch.
I Move to Washington, DC
The concept for my first green business came from an op-ed posted by Dr. Brent Blackwelder, former president of Friends of the Earth and founder of American Rivers, in 1982. When I moved to Washington, DC in 1999, he became my first true mentor and generously guided and assisted me in my quest to end the timber industry deforestation causing massive species extinction on US public lands.
I was invited to Washington to work as the lead forest policy aide to Rep. Jim Jontz who I’d met several months earlier at a forest protection conference in Oregon. After much trepidation about living in DC, I decided to go for it.
From working for a member of the U.S. Congress, I got a real sense of the game. Bit by bit, I met the lead lobbyists of the famous U.S. environmental groups. To be frank, as a prior businessman, I was shocked at how disconnected the major groups working on forest issues had become from what it would take to pass sweeping environmental legislation to protect U.S. public forest ecosystems. The last time legislation of comparable scope became law was in the 1970’s, 20 years earlier.
The scores or grassroots forest protection groups throughout the U.S. faced the common problem of spending time, money, and energy lobbying the big groups to carry the flag for U.S. forest protection and were getting nowhere with that quest.
Eventually, two friends and I decided to form a new national environmental group from scratch. By May 1990, I was suddenly one of the youngest executives of a national group, yet by September that year, we were on the cover of USA Today, the most read national newspaper of that pre-internet era.
To survive in Washington as a full-time activist and NGO executive meant learning how to raise money. By the end of the 1990’s, I’d raised over $4 million, and led a campaign that ended one of the most egregious anti-environmental laws in history. As a result the work of my NGO and so many others, logging on US public lands dropped 80%, to its lowest levels since the 1940’s.
My work in Washington created millions of dollars of revenue for businesses who benefited economically from the change in US forest management policy. But by 2000, when I left the NGO I’d cofounded, I had less personal savings than when I arrived there ten years before!
I pondered, “What type of industry is it where the sales people don’t get paid when they close a deal?” That’s when I decided to move into to the field of ethical finance.
Inventing a new playbook for activists
By 2000, the total annual budget of all of the environmental groups in the world was just $2 billion. At that time, the single smallest Fortune 500 company had revenues of $3 billion.
It became crystal clear to me why doing the right thing never seemed to get the upper hand versus humanity’s “pedal to the metal” drive toward global calamity.
Viewing ethical causes from the perspective of good vs. evil people and running movements on the charity platform instead taking a business and finance perspective has limitec ethical movements to the back pages of history for the past 100+ years.
Experiencing first hand how a small group of ethically-minded people could create such large shifts the economy during my activist work in the 1990’s, I decided that the best way to create positive change at scale would be to create a public, early stage investment fund that would allow activists to continue growing ethical movements as “grassroots citizen financiers”.
Vegan and environmental progress is typically associated in the public’s mind with some kind of sacrifice. Those of us who understand that ethical movements can unleash vast economic growth often find it very difficult to convey this truth with any economic evidence. But the examples are all around once we start look carefully. My years of research into these heroic successes has been fundamental to my drive to simplify and accelerate the financing of ethical companies.
By fusing public activism with public finance, I believe we can create a real flywheel for good, where everyone becomes more wealthy by changing course. This model has a vast potential for creating a peaceful transition away from humanity’s current self-destructive course.
Whether you love or hate Elon Musk, Tesla has already demonstrated his thesis that deeply entrenched heavy industries like automotive and energy utilities can be transformed when activism is organized and financed like a business.
Saving energy and reducing air pollution is very important, but environmental technology strategies barely touch the vast portfolio of animal rights, ecology, and human health economic transformations that Vegan Launch aims to help create.
The urgent need to create new financing strategies for ethical movements
By 2001, I could already see that Venture Capital Funds are designed in a way that can’t support the kind of cultural shifts needed to resolve the world’s biggest environmental and social challenges at scale.
Without broad public participation as investors, I could see that charity-driven movements start running out of steam at the very point where that they start shifting peoples spending decisions at any meaningful scale.
From 2001 to 2010, I struggled mightily against the anti-free speech financial laws of the 1930’s and 1940’s to achieve my vision of a public investment company to finance all kinds of ecology-driven businesses I was discovering. A lot of what I know today came from failing over and over for that decade, until I finally stepped back in 2010 to focus on making money to support my young family.
There are so many ways to organize money that are ideal for the dynamic economic shifts that go hand in hand with successful movements. But instead, in the 2000’s, I witnessed literally thousands of amazing green businesses fail due to their pursuit of VC funding.
It is sad for me to consider what has been lost to society and biodiversity as a result of my failure to boot up the first iteration of my novel financing strategy in time to save the extraordinary businesses founded by the first real generation of green business pioneers.
Two years after I went vegan in 2016, I decided it was time to try again, this time aided by new, sweeping reforms of the our antiquated financial laws.
Can the vegan movement learn from these past financing errors?
Today, the vegan movement is farther along than the environmental movement was in 2001, but the dynamics holding back real vegan economic growth are very much the same.
The vegan movement is inadvertently being squashed by well-meaning VC’s who don’t realize they are for the most part playing a losing game dominated by the entrenched animal exploitation industries. These companies are not about to let the vegan movement destroy their markets and all the sunk capital they’ve invested in infrastructure over the last 100 years.
Based on discussions involving today’s vegan VC’s, I discovered that only about 1 in 200 vegan companies seeking funding from VC’s raise any money that way. And if they do raise funds, they are setting themselves for an ethical implosion when it’s time to get bought up by a giant animal-exploiting conglomerate.
The exact same thing happened with the organic food industry in the 1990’s. Today, organic food remains a rare, costly commodity rather than the mainstream of global agriculture. This lack of scale can be directly attributed to incorrect business, financial, and even political models used to grow the original organic industry.
Going Vegan – My Epiphany
I finally went vegan in 2016 through my quest to heal my body. I had struggled with GERD for decades, and chronic fatigue was becoming more and more of a problem as well. While I never felt good about eating meat, I, like so many people, wrongly believed if I didn’t eat at least some that I would die. By 2018, my GERD was mostly healed and the fatigue was lifting as well.
Also I n 2016, the same year I went vegan, US finance laws changed in powerful ways that ended the free speech blockade between founders and investors which had existed in US finance law since the founding of the U.S. SEC in the 1930’s. These I’ll-conceived laws concentrated financial control of the U.S. economy in the hands of big Wall Street banks, and led directly to the design of VC Funds.
The long hoped-for reforms in those laws created a whole new playbook I could use to fulfill on my vision of combining activism with finance in ways that were simply not possible before.
With my health and energy coming back, and with the new free speech finance laws, I was able to resume work on a comprehensive approach for solving the many challenges I lived through in my life – deforestation, ocean collapse, wildly spreading chronic illness, and the horrific torture and slaughter of animals.
The latest update of these new U.S. financial laws in 2021 have opened the doors fully for my vision of financially supporting ethical movements as they move into the mainstream economy. Vegan Launch is poised to make the fullest use of this generational opportunity that has been nearly 100 years in the making!
Where things stand today
I’m the kind of person who thinks that doing the impossible is only a little harder than following the normal path. Vegan Launch has been a continuous effort to find the sweet spot between effort, results, and generating revenue.
In May 2022, I posted a public fundraising campaign/strategic plan for a Vegan Closed End Mutual Fund that would help the vegan movement grow even faster at the point where so many other movements had lost their momentum, and started laying the groundwork needed to make the plan into a reality.
The public demand for ethically-oriented investment opportunities has never been higher, yet the ethical investor market still has no access to financial products that can produce strong investment returns and economic transformation at scale.
Instead, the ethically-minded public is only getting spoon fed the dregs of the VC game. Public plant-based stocks like Beyond Meat and Oatly crash soon after the private investors have taken all the profits and “pumped and dumped” their ridiculously overvalued stock IPO’s into the public market of ethically-minded investors starving for meaningful investment products that can truly make a difference.
As Vegan Launch enters its fifth year of operation, I aim to keep increasing our ability to serve ethical investors and entrepreneurs of every type, everywhere in the world, who are working diligently for a vegan future.
My original motto was “start big and get bigger”. Today, with plenty of hard lessons behind me, I’m taking more holistic approach that provides exceptional value to the vegan movement in the near term, yet can scale quickly once a critical mass of people understand what’s possible and are ready to step into this new paradigm for ethical movements.
Thank you very much for reading my story. I hope it will inspire you to learn more and take part in this exciting new opportunity for the vegan movement.
Founder, Vegan Launch