The world is hungry for plant-based meat.
Over the past year, one major fast-food chain after another has announced plans to add meat alternatives to the menu. Most recently, Starbucks said last month that its more than 15,000 U.S. locations would offer breakfast sandwiches stuffed with Impossible Foods’ meatless sausage.
Such startups are scrambling to disrupt the $1.4 trillion meat industry, and Neal Donnelly ’14 is one of the people making it happen. Working in strategy for Impossible Foods, he helps the company prepare for major steps like taking on Starbucks as a customer.
The job aligns with Donnelly’s bent toward environmental and social justice activism. But he wasn’t always that way. When the Massachusetts native arrived at Princeton, he says, he had a knack for coding and simply wanted to learn how computers worked.
Then he met classmate Agnes Cho ’14.
“She grew up the child of Korean immigrants in Los Angeles, with a very strong focus on social justice, anti-imperialism, breaking down this paradigm of a neoliberal American-centric world order,” Donnelly recalls.
Cho, who became Donnelly’s girlfriend, lit an activist flame in him. Though, ironically, there was one opinion he couldn’t abide: Cho didn’t believe in eating meat.
“She had given it up when she was a teenager. I reintroduced her to it,” says Donnelly, who was president of Terrace eating club. “Terrace was all about ‘food is love.’ If you have some food that brings you a lot of joy, you really want to share it.”
After college, the pair moved to Nicaragua, where Donnelly started working as a software engineer for the nonprofit SumOfUs, which pushes corporations to treat workers and the environment better.
“We had these campaigners who would go into the PepsiCo boardroom and deliver them a presentation on why their current palm oil policy was totally inadequate, what the consequences of it were and what we needed them to do to step it up,” Donnelly recalls. “I saw that and said, ‘That is so cool.’”
Donnelly decided that he wanted to effect change more directly. After a brief stint at the consulting firm McKinsey, Donnelly got wind of an opening at Impossible Foods, a company with an activist bent.
Over the past 14 months, Donnelly has helped Impossible chart a course through another tumultuous period. Lockdowns resulting from the coronavirus pandemic have pushed many restaurants to the brink. At the same time, the pandemic is leading consumers to think twice about eating meat. Headlines remind consumers that many diseases originate from human interaction with animals, Donnelly says. They also shine a light on animal agriculture, which has struggled with outbreaks of the virus at meatpacking plants.
Donnelly hopes future generations will come around to his new way of thinking about meat production.
“There’s a very good chance that our practices around mass raising and slaughter of animals — especially smart mammals — I think there’s a very good chance we end up where that’s somewhat reviled down the line,” Donnelly says.
As for his now-fiancée Cho, the shoe is on the other foot.
“I’m trying to push us to eat more plant-based and she is kind of dragging her feet,” Donnelly says.