The ‘startup mentality’ in plant-based has brought plenty of trailblazing women to the fore. These women will now be crucial to the future of the industry as it suffers a sales setback
Before the term plant-based was even coined, high-profile women were at the forefront. “Think back to Linda McCartney and her championing of animal-free products,” points out Paul Milner, director of PMMS Consultancy, which has worked with the likes of Quorn and Revolution Kitchen.
“Then there’s Heather Mills, who also carried the torch for so many years,” he adds.
But the mention of Mills highlights a more recent problem. Her vegan empire – VBites – became the latest plant-based operation to fall into administration at the end of last year, as the industry suffers from declining sales. So are women still leading the way in the sector, and do they have a bright future?
Indy Kaur has positive memories from the early days of the plant-based boom. Having started out developing NPD for Tesco in 2018, she is now founder and CEO of Plant Futures, a consultancy and insights partner for plant-based businesses.
Kaur credits the “good gender balance” in plant-based as a driving force behind her career. “In the early days of me finding my feet, I was hugely inspired by the women I was meeting in plant-based – authors, chefs, investors, brand owners,” she recalls. “This had a huge, positive impact on me.”
Of course, that was back when the potential of plant-based seemed unlimited. Today the picture is less rosy. The likes of Plant & Bean and Meatless Farm have fallen into administration, meat-free volumes have fallen [The Grocer Top Products Survey 2023], and retailers have been busy rationalising sections.
For Kaur, though, this is “more of a reset than a slump”. She believes the downturn is partly fuelled by a return to pre-Covid behaviour. And “we’ve learnt a lot [about] what’s working, what’s not”, she adds.
So Kaur remains confident in the potential of plant-based to become a huge category – and the ability of women to lead that change. “Sometimes I think of it as the Suffragettes era,” she says. “It took two, maybe three, generations to create a seismic change.”
There is certainly no lack of candidates to lead the next generation. That’s illustrated by the level of expertise on this power list (p34), which could have extended well beyond the 10 names chosen.
Thea Alexander, CEO of fmcg consultancy YF, believes plant-based has been – and still is – a fertile ground for women to thrive. “If you look at it in the context of meat, dairy, and other categories that sit in a similar part of the supermarket, I think the plant-based category provides an opportunity for female leadership,” she says .
“It’s effectively a fresh start in grocery, so there’s a lot of startup mentality. In plant-based, you can join a business and be in a very impactful role very quickly.”
The core customer base also tends to be female-dominated. The Vegan Society estimates just 37% of the UK’s vegans are men. Although plant-based products appeal to a much wider audience, it’s certainly a bonus.
There remain some issues to overcome. One is the consistent underfunding of female-founded companies. For every £1 of venture capital investment in the UK, all-female founder teams get less than 1p, found a 2019 UK VC & Female Founders report.
Kaur would also like to see women take the helm as the category as it evolves. “I’d love to see more commercially savvy women in MD and CEO roles,” she says.
Ultimately, though, the future of plant-based will be about more than gender. Marisa Heath, CEO of the Plant-Based Food Alliance UK, says women will play “the same role as men – we all need to work together to go forward”. The potential is there, she says, “with the lowest meat consumption since 1974 and studies suggesting a third of meat eaten in the UK will be replaced by alternative proteins by 2040”.
Emily Brindley, head of commercial for the UK at Vivera, is also looking to the future. “Now we’ve come out of the early stages of excitement and fast growth, we need to be laser-focused on what adds value,” she says.
“The category could co-ordinate and share better on how to understand the consumer more and deliver for them – and this collaboration is something the collective female talent could trailblaze,” Brindley sums up.
Consumer director, Quorn Foods UK
As consumer director at category leader Quorn, Gill Riley is responsible for overseeing brand marketing and innovation, while also leading on category development and consumer sensory science. Riley spearheaded the Quorn rebrand in 2021, which included a fresh campaign, partnership with Liverpool Football Club, full range redesign and numerous product launches. The same year, the brand was named one of YouGov’s top three brand movers.
Riley says that “a particular highlight” of her time at Quorn was the launch of Quorn Roarsomes, a meat-free product developed specifically for children, which won The Grocer’s New Product Award in the Frozen category in 2021. Prior to joining Quorn in 2017, Riley held senior marketing positions at Merlin Entertainments and Kellogg’s.
Director, The Tofoo Co
Since founding The Tofoo Co eight years ago with husband David Knibbs, Lydia Smith has built a tofu business with more than £20m in turnover and played a key role in turning tofu from marginalised vegan offering to mainstream protein in the UK. From her wide commercial background at big FMCG businesses such as Arla Foods and Symington’s (where she was a business unit director), Smith continues to drive the development of the tofu category with major customers and is now an expert tofu maker and cook. Having helped build tofu category sales in the UK from £7m to £45m, Smith says the next target is hitting £100m.
Another plant-based power couple, former English teacher turned animal advocate Jane Land joined forces with her partner Matthew Glover to launch the Veganuary campaign in 2014. Since then, millions of people have signed up, and the drive has helped spawn numerous vegan product launches and thousands of marketing activations by food businesses worldwide, becoming a fixture on the retail calendar in the process.
Today, Land continues to guide the charity and shapes the strategic vision of Veganuary as the chair of the board along with a team of trustees.
Plant-based product development manager, Tesco
Tesco has long been a plant-based pioneer among the mults, and since joining Tesco UK in 2013 Fay Hasnip has been instrumental in maintaining its market-leading position. With 23 years of food industry experience in the UK and USA, Hasnip now manages the development of Tesco’s innovative own-label plant-based range, including reformulating to make products healthier and relaunching the Plant Chef brand this month.
Hasnip’s passion for making it easier for customers to eat more plants recently led her to complete a course with Winchester University, titled Plant-based Nutrition: A Sustainable Diet for Optimal Health. Running since 2019, it’s the first university-based course on plant-based nutrition in the UK and is accredited by the British Society of Lifestyle Medicine.
CEO, Plant-Based Food Alliance
Believing that collaboration is key to progressing the category, Marisa Heath was at the forefront of setting up the Plant-Based Food Alliance, which counts Danone, Quorn and Oatly among its members. The alliance has built a strong profile with the UK government and has been actively engaged in developing policy. Heath also speaks on behalf of a number of well-known brands – including Oatly, Danone and Quorn – as members of the alliance at conferences and to government.
She has worked with the Department for Business and Trade, gaining its support to grow the category and representing the UK sector when exploring export opportunities. Looking further afield, she is also a co-founder of the International Plant-based Food Working Group alongside representatives from the US, Canada, India, China, EU and Mexico.
Founder, Deliciously Ella
Ella Mills is a best-selling food writer and founder of Deliciously Ella, which began in 2012 as a food blog in response to the onset of a sudden debilitating illness. It has since morphed into a multimillion-pound brand with more than 100 plant-based, additive-free products on sale in all the major supermarkets, as well as Plants, a plant-based restaurant in West London.
Mills continues to spearhead the brand and has now written seven cookbooks, which have sold 1.5 million copies, launched Deliciously Ella products in 40 countries and garnered four million followers on social media.
Dr Kelsey Kanyuck
Senior R&D scientist, THIS
Dr Kelsey Kanyuck joined This in 2021 as a scientist and ascended rapidly. She is now leading the core science function at the meat alternative challenger, with its R&D innovation playing a key part in the company’s impressive growth. Her visionary approach has contributed to the development of innovative products such as the brand’s streaky bacon, chicken pieces and the recently launched “hyper-realistic” skin on chicken wings.
Kanyuck holds a PhD in chemical engineering and is an expert in hydrocolloids and structure-function relationships of food. She is an inventor for four unique patent applications for “materials that deliver the succulence and bite of meat” in plant-based alternatives.
Head of Alpro brand
After 17 years in FMCG marketing, Zoe Gardner joined Danone in 2022 and immediately began working on the brand’s Alpro portfolio, which has long been the king of plant-based milks but saw a 22% decline in volumes in 2023. Her focus has been on leading integrated, multi-channel marketing campaigns that tempt consumers into trying plant-based drinks and yoghurts – and hopefully claw back some of the brand’s sales.
Gardner previously worked with numerous household names including Weetabix and Britvic, leading innovation launches, pack and price architecture projects, brand communications planning and CSR campaign development. More recently, she brought those experiences to bear at Alpro with a new campaign and visual identity that aim to bring a fresh, modern feel to its packaging.
Head of sustainability, Europe and international markets, Oatly
Oatly ranks sustainability as one of its core values, making Shaunagh Duncan a key player for Britain’s second-biggest alt milk brand. Having previously worked as global head of sustainability for renewable energy company Bulb, she joined Oatly in 2021 and is behind recent high-profile campaigns from the brand, such as calling for all UK food and drink companies to publish the carbon footprint of their products and getting dairy alternatives included on the EU School Milk scheme.
Own brand lead, M&S Food
M&S has pushed its 200-line own-label brand Plant Kitchen hard recently. And since last year Beth Elliot has been right there behind it. She joined M&S food in 2021, taking responsibility for the whole own-brand team in the summer of 2023, including leading on Plant Kitchen. This January she launched the M&S Food x Zoe Gut Shot, working with scientists at Zoe to bring a first to market product to M&S Food customers.
A MESSAGE FROM THE SPONSOR
With Veganuary in full flow, it seems apt to consider the world of plant-based. Across the industry we’re seeing new products and ranges, as retailers and suppliers aim to make the most of this month-long focus on meat-free. This is not, however, just a trend for January. Since 2020 there has been a 21% growth in the category, which could be worth as much as £50bn globally by 2030.
In the UK, this growth has been driven by market trends as well as the significant contributions of women who are actively influencing the industry. From leadership roles and scientific breakthroughs to grassroots activism and business innovation, women are leaving an indelible mark on the plant-based landscape.
These include women in senior supplier roles, from Quorn Foods consumer director Gill Riley to Kelsey Kanyuck, senior R&D scientist at This.
Another growing trend has been female entrepreneurs, who have founded and led many successful ventures, showcasing their business acumen in this rapidly expanding market. For example, Lydia Smith, co-founder and director at The Tofoo Company, and Ella Mills, perhaps best known as the founder of Deliciously Ella. What started as a food blog has evolved into a household brand.
As their influence continues to grow, the UK plant-based sector is set to become a model for a more inclusive, ethical and environmentally conscious approach