How Slutty Vegan founder Pinky Cole turned the diet into a $100 million brand with a celebrity following

January 27, 2023, 6:09 PM UTC
Pinky Cole, Founder of Slutty Vegan
Pinky Cole, CEO and founder of the restaurant Slutty Vegan.
Courtesy of Pinky Cole

Happy Friday.

Let’s end the week with a dose of inspiration, one that I hope carries over to the next four weeks.

More on that in a moment.

Today, I bring you the story of Pinky Cole, 35, founder of the $100 million, Atlanta-based, fast-casual chain Slutty Vegan. Cole, an irrepressibly charismatic presence, has created a cult and celebrity following for her vegan burgers and sides. Now, every new store opening becomes a block party. “I didn’t know there were that many vegans in Brooklyn!” noted a new fan of the miles-wide gathering with a DJ that shut down a stretch of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, when the first New York store opened last September.

Cole is the focus of Fortune’s inaugural The Ground Up video series, which chronicles successful entrepreneurs who have built their businesses from scratch. The short video is well worth your time, if only for a hefty dose of Pinky power, who built herself from scratch, too. “I was a hustler at a very young age,” she says.

Cole has a background in television production, which gave her the confidence she needed to lean into her proclivity for spectacle.

“I know what people want when they watch TV,” she says. “They want something that’s in your face, racy, raunchy, that’s going to make them pay attention.” It was time, she thought, to reframe the deadly earnestness of veganism. “The two most pleasurable experiences in life are sex and food,” she says. Get people to think about both, and you’ve got yourself a new kind of veganism. “I can peel back the layer and educate you about veganism in a way you’ve never seen before.”

Fun is baked into the cooking, the merchandise, and the packaging: I’ll take a One Night Stand (the chain’s most popular burger with a vegan patty, bacon, cheese, and caramelized onions on a Hawaiian bun) and a side of community uplift, please.

Cole’s personal story is one of familiar hardships. She is the daughter of a hard-working single mother and a father who stayed in close touch with her, despite his 22-year incarceration. She had few prospects other than Teach for America when she graduated from college. (She lasted only five days on the job.) But what she did have was more good than bad luck, great ideas, a hustler’s work ethic, and an ability to attract enthusiastic investment—and not just the financial kind, like the $25 million Series A funding she raised in 2022. She’s emerged from the entrepreneurial gauntlet with a fully authentic product that reflects her vision, people, and unique sense of joy.

I’ll let her tell you all about it.

Cole’s story is a good one to note as we enter Black History Month, with a theme this year of resistance. As I’ve been collecting your ideas about how to best mark this unusual year, one thing keeps popping up: There’s no doing the work without embracing the joy.

“The lack of joy is my biggest gripe with BHM,” raceAhead reader Erica Nunnally told me by email. “Instead, it’s an entire month that rehashes themes of struggle, injustice, trauma, and grief that begins with slavery and is only briefly interrupted by success stories within sports or entertainment.”

Point taken.

Next week, we’ll be publishing raceAhead’s guide to Black History Month, so please continue to send me your expectations, gripes, ideas, and best practices.

And prepare to be joyful.

Ellen McGirt

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ruth Umoh.

On Point

Major changes to the U.S. census may be coming
If adopted, the long overdue updates would offer more detailed and accurate options for identifying the race and ethnicity of Latino and Hispanic populations and people of Middle Eastern and North African descent. The new checkboxes for "Middle Eastern or North African" and a "Hispanic or Latino" would solve various thorny issues. Until now, people with roots in Lebanon, Egypt, and other parts of the MENA region are automatically classified as white, even if they do not identify as such.

Tyre Nichols was treated like a “human piñata.”
On Jan. 7, Memphis police pulled over the 29-year-old FedEx worker and father and brutally kicked, beat, shocked, pepper sprayed, and restrained him for three minutes, according to the police video viewed by Nichols’s family and attorney. Nichols died three days later from his injuries. The five police officers involved have already been fired for the use of excessive force or failing to render aid. The video is expected to be released today. It is going to be terrible. I will watch it, so you don't have to.

Oscar noms are in. Where are the Black women?
With the exception of Angela Bassett, who got a supporting actress nod for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, no other Black women were nominated, despite a rich array of options from which to choose. The Woman King, Till, and France’s Saint Omer offered compelling stories, directors, and performers. “Black women have always created. But their heightened prominence in today’s Hollywood means the excuses for not highlighting them ring especially false. So why the inequality?” Film reviewer Robert Daniels breaks it down.
Los Angeles Times

How did this sweet young man turn into such a racist?
There will be too many opportunities to write a profile like this one of white nationalist darling Nicholas J. Fuentes, the Hitler fan, friend of Ye, and Mar-A-Lago dinner guest who has turned anti-Black racism and Holocaust denial into a dangerous stand-up act. “From Father Coughlin to Donald Trump, demagogues have long commingled racist and anti-Semitic appeals with fears of economic decline,” writes Ali Breland. “Fuentes’ power comes from layering on a generational critique that taps into young people’s apprehension that their prospects are dimming.” Young white people, mostly. And his message is taking root.
Mother Jones

On background

The #1619 project is now on Hulu

It is, in every meaningful way, the history that Republican lawmakers want us all to forget.

The 1619 Project docuseries has arrived on Hulu, barely three years after the New York Times published the in-depth package. While you’ll meet some experts and explore the searing history that informed the original project, it has been updated with new reporting, including more on voting rights abuses, Black maternal health, and even the backlash against the concept and its creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones. Oprah Winfrey is on board as an executive producer, and it shows: The storytelling is lush, personal, and unflinching, expertly handled by a team led by the Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Roger Ross Williams. Hannah-Jones is both the host and a subject, using interviews and footage of her family to center the deeply personal nature of the Black contribution to the American democratic experiment. Don’t miss it.

Parting Words

"We can actively trace the spatial and temporal control of Black expression from slavery and colonialism through to today. This is why the act of joy is resistance, and as we use our physical bodies to protest, march and demand change, we must also use them to experience the pleasure of joy."

Chanté Joseph, writer and broadcaster

This is the web version of raceAheadFortune’s daily newsletter on race, culture, and inclusive leadership. To get it delivered daily to your inbox, sign up here.

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