She may never be able to shake off memories of her four-year marriage to a famous Beatle, and the tempestuous relationship with the media that followed, but Heather Mills has been steadily building a business empire for the last 25 years, and has become a discerning voice in the global healthcare market.
As founder of plant-based cafe chain and vegan food company VBites, which now sells in 20 countries, Mills, 50, is a full-time CEO, animal rights activist, paralympic ski racing champ and mother to 14-year-old Beatrice, her daughter with Sir Paul McCartney.
Ahead of her talk at the three-day World CEO forum in Dubai starting on October 22, Mills spoke to Gulf News tabloid! about how her near-fatal accident in 1993 — which resulted in the loss of her left leg — fuelled her passion project VBites, how she’s planning to bring it to the UAE and why the world needs to give more thought to where its food comes from.
You became a vegan long before it became fashionable. Looking back, how difficult was it to stay vegan and attempt to educate people about it?
I became a vegan because of a leg infection and a major accident. After three months in the hospital on antibiotics, my friend said the only way to heal myself quickly would be to go vegan. I thought she was crazy but I did not want to lose my knee so I went to a health clinic and lived off a raw plant-based diet for two years.
After that, I missed meat, fish and dairy, so I started to develop my own products which became Vbites — all replications of meat, fish and dairy products.
What was the one biggest challenge about being vegan?
The biggest challenge about being vegan is being constantly questioned about where to get protein from. Our minds have been so duped by the meat and dairy industry believing the best forms of protein and calcium are from meat and dairy that we have forgotten that they can come from plant-based foods, which are much healthier for the body.
You not only became vegan, you turned it into a successful business venture. Take us back to when you first had the idea.
After two years living on a raw, plant-based diet, I started to develop meat, fish and dairy options from my kitchen, I then bought a small company and studied nutrition and food science to replicate every single meat, fish and dairy and desired product with a plant-based application and the deserts mainly being sugar-free. We now have over 540 meat, fish and dairy-free products, of which 104 are award-winning and the best sellers in 24 countries.
"The key to the future is the new millennials and their children who actually care about the planet and will be the ones to clear up the mess our generation have created."
— Heather Mills
How difficult was it to start the restaurant and then the company? What were the biggest challenges?
When I first started, I nearly partnered with an international cafe group that were highly successful. However, they did not want to manufacture or understand the intellectual property and how difficult it is to make vegan foods. Vegetarian food is very easy to make because you use egg and milk. However, egg and milk come from animal abuse on the whole and the future is vegan not vegetarian, so I was insistent that we operated from a 100 per cent plant-based factory.
It turns out I was right as the cross contamination with the growth of demand has killed some people and created severe illnesses. This is totally unnecessary and the cause of big corporates trying to cut corners and save money.
Can you tell us a little bit about how the company has grown over the years? What about bringing it to the UAE?
We have grown from a small start-up to three factories and are now finishing the fourth. We currently distribute to 24 countries and have the largest range of vegan products in the world. We will soon launch into America in January and hope to come to the UAE after discussions with Spinney’s and Waitrose and numerous other distribution avenues. We are also halal and have won every ethical and environmental food award in Britain for the last 10 years.
How would you rate yourself as a business person?
I would say I am chaotic in the mind and structured in the factory, I always think of the A, B and C plan for solutions and always imagine what the worst case scenario is. My greatest attribute is problem-solving, but I learn every day.
Currently, I am manufacturing vegan make-up and shoes and skincare and algal oil, as most people think omega three comes from fish and it does not. It comes from the algal it eats and is destroying the marine ecosystem.
What’s your top clap-back to detractors and people who dismiss veganism as a fad?
It has taken a small group of us 25 years to educate the governments, the scientists, and the politicians, and the consumers to understand the devastating effects on health, animals and the environment. It has been an endless project and the key to the future is the new millennials and their children who actually care about the planet and will be the ones to clear up the mess our generation have created.
If you were to attempt to convince someone to turn vegan with one sentence, what would it be?
I’m trying to educate people... it is very simple. I have come to terms with the fact you just must feed people great tasting food. Nothing else will keep them on the right path.
If you could only pick one, which issue would you tackle first: global health or climate change?
Do you want to potentially live 20 years longer based on health alone and spend more quality time with your loved ones? Global health, if I was only allowed to challenge one, as we will never achieve climate change until we stop consuming excess meat and dairy.
Do you have any close vegan celebrity friends?
I don’t hang out with celebrities, but I have converted a lot. Because of our awareness Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Richard Branson and Carl Lewis the runner have all benefited from becoming vegan.
What does a day in Heather Mills’ life look like?
4am start to go through correspondence in peace. Phone goes off from 7am to 8.30am for kids’ breakfast and school run. Phone back on for the day until end of school day. Phone off until kids’ bedtime at 8pm. Phone back on until midnight. Lots of travelling, lots of meetings, lots of speeches, lots of exhibitions lots of positive problem-solving on the rollercoaster of life and lots of stress. But I have learnt to deal with it after doing this for 25 years.
The World CEO Forum runs at the QE2 Dubai from October 22-24. Ticket packages available online start at Dh1,839 for a one-day pass, which includes access to talks as well as F&B services.