“Haile is an example for all of you, what your little powerful voices can do to change the world.” – Michelle Obama
Haile Thomas first met former First Lady, Michelle Obama at The Partnership for a Healthier America Summit. Some would say, “Well obviously, Haile’s a celebrated vegan chef and Michelle is very passionate about healthy eating habits.” However, one detail that may not be so obvious is Haile’s age: she is all of sixteen years old.
In fact, this eleventh grader’s entire journey from bright, bubbly teen to CEO of her own health organization sprang from a very surprising source – her father’s diagnosis of type 2 diabetes.
Haile was just 8 years old when her dad got the prognosis. Its gravity sank in when they acknowledged that diabetes is a very serious disease with possible complications including vision problems, kidney failure and heart disease. “The diagnosis forced our family to get things together and start making permanent, delicious and approachable lifestyle changes,” Haile says.
Thus began a journey through which her family took on a healthier lifestyle and Haile discovered her passion for cooking and health activism. Not only did her father reverse his diabetes completely, but Haile has spent the time since developing her non-profit, the Happy Organization, through which she aims to educate others about nutrition and health cooking.
How has her blossoming career developed? Well, she now produces swoon-worthy vegan dishes like Buddha bowls and chia puddings for her Instagram profile and YouTube channels. Oh, and since the age of 10, she has given 3 Tedx Talks, worked closely with the Obamas upon several occasions, presented Chelsea Clinton with the Power of Women award, and recently became the youngest certified health coach in the U.S. through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition.
Here’s how she did it:
1. What is your background?
I grew up fully exposed to different cultures, ideas, people, foods and flavors. I think this set the foundation for who I am. Growing up in Tucson, Arizona for most of my life and having Jamaican parents created that foundation and fueled my interest in unique foods and trying new things. I constantly had really delicious Jamaican, authentic Mexican, Native American, and even African foods to try and enjoy. Also, my mother is an incredible cook, she can make and duplicate almost anything from a restaurant and make it taste nearly authentic. I learned most of what I know about cooking from her. When I was younger I would always cook or watch the Food Network with her. So I absolutely inherited the foodie trait.
When it came to healthy eating and cooking, that idea was one that our family immersed ourselves into after my dad was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes when I was about 8 years old. We made sure that we learned all about the food system, reading labels, childhood obesity, factory farming, GMOs and more. It was shocking, but eye-opening and empowering for me. I found a love for not just food and cooking, but nutrition and health advocacy too. And because of this knowledge we attained and applied, we were able to reverse my dad’s condition with no meds, only healthy lifestyle changes. That’s when I truly realized that when it comes to food and nutrition, knowledge and action is power. Then I realized that a lot of kids and families around the country (and even the world) didn’t possess those two things. This alone inspired me to take a step further and start my journey to becoming an activist for youth health and wellbeing.
2. What was it like to meet the former President and First Lady?
Meeting former President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama was honestly one of the most surreal and best moments ever. I was lucky enough to interact with the former First Lady around 5 or 6 times (introducing her, sitting in her box at the State of the Union, meeting her at health conferences, etc.) and the former President 3 times (State of the Union and two Kids State Dinners), each time was so magical and inspirational for me. The former First Lady’s genuine concern for the well-being of children definitely helped to drive my efforts to do more.
3. How did you join the White House Kids’ State Dinner? What made you choose a salad of quinoa, black beans and corn?
The Kids State Dinner was the prize for submitting a healthy recipe through the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge. Kids from all over the country would submit recipes for their state, and then one would be selected from each area…resulting in a prize trip to the White House for the Kids State Dinner where some of the winning dishes were served. I won for the state of Arizona the first year the challenge was hosted, and my dish was served at the dinner as well. I chose to make a Black Bean & Corn Quinoa Salad because it really encompassed the flavors of the west… smoky, slightly spicy, & fresh. I wanted to make sure I represented my state well through the dish I made.
4. How did you decide what you were going to discuss on your TEDx Talks?
I’ve done 3 TEDx talks so far. And each time the topic is different, but I always want to make sure that I’m able to adapt or tie in my story to whatever the theme may be, while still making my talk thought-provoking for the audience. That may be pushing them into action or changing the way they perceive something.
5. What are some things you’re working on right now?
Currently I’m working on a lot of things. My non-profit HAPPY is always evolving, so we are currently working out the kinks of our HAPPY Kit which is a Nutrition and Culinary Education program for schools that launches this September in schools across the country. We also have an annual summer camp that we are preparing for, coming up in August. Personally, I’m working on some e- content, speaking engagements, a show, restaurant partnerships, and a book! Also, In the future, I definitely see myself studying Nutrigenomics at Stanford or Cornell.
6. What is one key tip you give for motivational speaking?
My key tip for motivational speaking is definitely to be your authentic self. So many times I see a lot of people try really hard to be “dynamic” and “empowering” or “inspirational.” I believe the most impact and inspiration comes out of a message that is coming from an authentic place, that isn’t overly rehearsed or set up to be moving for the audience. Once you embrace yourself it gets easier to spread your message, because you aren’t trying to be anything! Just living up to your own standards and speaking your truth.
7. Where do you hope your career will take you?
I have lots of goals for the future, and I feel like the past six years have really been setting the ground work for an amazing 10 years ahead. I hope to have some type of vegan cooking show or health show, have a few best-selling books, have HAPPY be represented in schools and community programs all over the country and even across the world when it comes to plant-based nutrition and culinary education for youth. To speak and travel all over the world and just continue to do what I do and spread the knowledge I have with others.
8. What has been your proudest moment?
I think my proudest moment was actually when I did my first speech in front of 1000 business leaders in D.C. at the Partnership for a Healthier America Summit. I was only 10, and it was kind of my first “test” at the whole speaking and activism thing, and I could see just how proud I made my family. I got a standing ovation and was able to get some awesome partnerships out of it. I also met First Lady Michelle Obama for the first time at that same event. I was beaming and energized for the whole year after that!
9. What has been your hardest moment and what have you learned from it?
I won’t lie, I’ve had a pretty smooth journey so far, I have a lot of support from family, friends, and mentors to help guide me and my mission in the right direction. There has been a lot of struggles when it comes to fundraising for HAPPY, and of course the occasional sleepless night, but nothing that would cause me to take pause.
Some facts about Haile:
- Her favorite dish? “It changes constantly, but currently my favorite is the vegan Farro-Fennel Sausage Pizza with Cashew Mozzarella from Double Zero Pizza in NYC.”
- Her favorite easy recipe is Buddha Bowls.
- Her dream job would be her current job!
- When does she feel happiest? “When I notice my impact on kids, specifically when engaging with kids and seeing them become aware of the power they have to be health based on their choices.”
- On a cheat day, she would eat homemade golden milk coconut ice cream.
- She wishes she made more time for “sleeping!”
- Her mentors and role models include her parents, Deepak Chopra, Joshua Rosenthal, Michelle Obama, Oprah and Sam Kass.
Cover photo shot by Adelle Goldenberg for The Glam Salad ©