If this 17-year-old vegan chef doesn't inspire you, no one will.
Haile Thomas
Credit: Tenneal McNair, Haile Thomas, 2018

When Haile Thomas’ father was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, the family knew they had to make a change. They eschewed processed foods and swapped heavy sauces for spices. In about a year, Thomas’ father had reversed his condition—and she wanted to tell the world.

She was just 10 years old.

Thomas brought her healthy-living message to the Partnership for a Healthier America and Clinton Foundation events, to media outlets, to the Food Network, and spoke about their success story. “Those years were very cool,” she tells Food & Wine, “but I wanted a one-on-one interaction that felt authentic. I wanted to make a difference in a more direct way.

So, at 12 years old, Haile Thomas, with the help and encouragement of her mom, launched Happy, a non-profit dedicated to teaching children good nutrition and the culinary arts in schools and summer camps, and within the year, through an online virtual learning system.

“I always received the message to be my own person—to be a leader and not a follower—and always be confident in asking questions no one else is asking,” Thomas says. “And that made me a lot more confident in sharing my voice and opinion—I felt more validated.” Case in point: when Thomas told her mom she wanted to take her healthy-living message from behind the podium to a more intimate setting, her mom didn’t dismiss her. Instead, she sat down with her daughter to help her brainstorm what would become Happy, Thomas says.

“My parents never really babied my ideas,” Thomas says. “I think a lot of parents might hear their kids say, ‘I want to teach other kids how to eat healthy,’ and say, ‘Oh, ok, cute!’”

Not Thomas’ parents. And with Happy, according to data gathered by the non-profit, 87 percent of the children the organization has reached have maintained healthier lifestyles.

“I learned so much from helping my dad,” Thomas says, “and I felt like the knowledge I had was a birthright to everyone. To know not everyone has this knowledge was disheartening, but so was seeing young people all across the world being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and heart disease and becoming obese—not just because of what these kids are eating but also because they don’t even have an awareness of how what they eat affects their bodies.”

In her spare time, Thomas develops vegan recipes—which you can find on her blog. (She once cooked for Michelle Obama; her recipe for black bean and corn quinoa won a White House competition in 2012.) Thomas also runs a podcast dubbed, “Girl Empowered.”

“I’m in so many different spaces and places, and I get to meet so many amazing women and right now, there is an uprising—in this notion of supporting each other and sharing our stories—and that in itself just motivated me,” Thomas says of the podcast. “I know so many women who are amazing and inspirational but just don’t have a platform to talk about these things—and some I’ve interviewed have humungous platforms—so I like to have that mix and share their stories as equals because everything these people do is so incredible.”

If Thomas has inspired you to make a difference, here’s her best advice for how to do it.

1. Tap into what you’re passionate about.

To make a difference in the world, Thomas says, “It’s about identifying the thing that you do or enjoy doing no matter what and then finding a way to connect that to your community—finding gaps that you may see in the world that you can fill.” Choose something you can live and breathe. “It’s definitely about identifying something you can always do,” she says. “I never really get tired of what I’m doing because it’s always expanding and there are always new things to learn about and create within it.”

2. Be confident.

“If you don’t doubt yourself, then you don’t really leave room for others to doubt you,” Thomas says. “You have to be a firm believer in what you are trying to do and not waiver when there are naysayers or people who think you can’t get something done.”

3. Build confidence.

For those who don’t yet have the self-confidence to launch a business or speak in public, Thomas says that’s something you can change. “So many times we look outwardly for acceptance or validation,” she says, “and I think it takes a certain amount of strength and boldness to say, ‘you know what, I am going to believe in myself and I believe I am enough to activate myself. It’s a decision and a mindset you really have to commit to.” To get in that confident mindset, “I love to do affirmations,” Thomas reveals. “Sometimes it’s hard, but I think once you push through that blockage—whatever preconceived notions you have of yourself or standards society pushes on you—then your potential is unlimited.”

4. Find your tribe.

Not only do you have to have confidence, but to be successful, you also have to have a support system, Thomas says. “Find that tribe of people that you can go to for support, whether that’s family or friends or people in the community,” she advises. “It’s super important to have those resources to grow and expand, and get second opinions.”