Tête-à-tête: Vegan and Dominican Entrepreneur Catherine Cuello-Fuente
On a chilly and wet Wednesday, I trooped from The Bronx to Prospect Park to chat with RAW Vegan, Dominican, Entrepreneur on what life is like being all of the above. The sun came out as I entered her new and beautiful Brooklyn home where Catherine lives with her husband, Alfred. The sun welcomed me with warmth and light and Catherine welcomed me with some raw almonds, a big smile, and an even bigger belly which holds a baby girl inside it.
Catherine Cuello-Fuente was misdiagnosed and almost lured into unnecessary chemotherapy and medication. That health scare turned her RAW Vegan overnight, going Vegan overnight then inspired her business, Green Hopping, an app that helps you find vegan and vegetaria food and juices in major cities...
Amanda Saviñón: Let's start here. Who are you?
Catherine Cuello-Fuente: Who I am?
CCF: OMG. Well by now… I always joke… when I first became an entrepreneur I wouldn’t say that I was one because it is scary. You don’t even know what it means, you know? But now, I say I am an entrepreneur, that’s who I am.
AS: What are you an entrepreneur of?
CCF: Green Hopping! It is an app and soon to be e-commerce site that will allow you to connect with green juice bars, veg(an) (etarian) eateries and other good stuff in main cities. First, we operated just in NYC and are now aiming to go national. We wanted to move into the delivery service. This was before Uber Eats and Postmates. Then they happened and it became much harder to penetrate the market, even if we serve a niche one. Now we are in the process of going back to our original mission, which is to serve as a finder and hopefully become a marketplace for brands online.
AS: How old are you?
CCF: I just turned 29 on September 17th.
AS: To jump straight to it, there are some many things I admire about you, starting with the fact that you are a Dominican Vegan! Especially because us Dominicans grow up eating everything fried, a lot of rice, beans, chicken, steak, pork, beef, dairy, sweets, etc.
The second thing is that not only did you make this change for yourself, but you are continuously working at raising awareness around food and food education. You learned that food and awareness/consciousness go hand in hand. How did this all start for you? Before you start...
AS: What does it mean to be vegan?
CCF: You are having no animal products whatsoever so, no dairy, no eggs, no butter, no meat, everything else is fine. I personally stay away from refined sugars, and refined carbs like white pasta, white bread. I stay away from refined suagr because I know it spikes up your blood sugars, your blood levels, and at the end of the day, chronic disease feeds off sugar.
"When you eat food in its purest form, your body does not need to spend any energy digesting it, the nutrients go straight to your cells and your body focuses on healing"
AS: Big deal. What does it mean to be RAW vegan?
CCF: Raw is raw. The products have not be touched or processed. For example, most nuts on the market are processed. They are heated and have added oil and salt to them. I am no longer raw. The Raw vegan diet is the most extreme one in terms of healing and reversing chronic disease. When you eat food in its purest form, your body does not need to spend any energy digesting it, the nutrients go straight to your cells and your body focuses on healing. There are so many things that go into it like food combinations for example. You aren’t supposed to mix fruit with nuts, or fruits and vegetables. There are also certain fruits you can eat on an empty stomach like watermelon and cantaloupe.
AS: What’s vegetarian?
CCF: You can eat animal products but not meat. So you can have dairy, butter, cream, eggs, milk, etc…
AS: Got it. Now, tell us, who, what, when, where, why and how are you vegan? How did this journey start for you?
CCF: In 2012, I had a health scare where I was misdiagnosed for 8-months. They told me I was pregnant, then that I had an ectopic pregnancy, (because my tumor markers were high and they misinterpreted that for a pregnancy). Eight months later, as I was flying back from Rome to NYC, for the first time, felt ill, and 10-hours later ended up in the emergency room of Lennox Hill Hospital and 24-hours later, (after emergency surgery by this bomb-ass female boss, Dr. Elizabeth Poynor, who jumped in to save the day), I lost my left ovary BUT kept everything else in there. Although everything happened really fast and it felt like I bounced right back, that was really my awakening moment. My mindset was NEVER “I am sick,” or “I have a disease,” or “something’s wrong with me”. It is very easy to get into that mindset when not everything is going well in your body. Instead of going the negative way, I took that as an opportunity to awaken. I rejected “preventive chemo", which is what doctors wanted me to do. I had already lost one ovary and had I done that “preventive” chemo, my other ovary wouldn’t have worked either and I wouldn’t be here where I am today, pregnant and happy and in love. For the pregnancy, I didn’t take meds or any sort of hormone therapy, it just happened! The scare helped me SLOW DOWN and REVALUATE how I was living my life, what I was eating, what I wanted to do with my life, etc. During that evaluation, I decided I was moving to Miami, Florida to work on the re-election campaign of President Barack Obama. I did and that is where I met my husband, Alfred, in the Little Havana office of 2141. I was lucky at the time. There wasn’t much information on food. It is not like today where we know what Chia seeds are and stuff. In 2012, there was nothing on food education. It was all very hush, hush. But, I found this book called Crazy, Sexy, Cancer by Kris Carr. It was because of her that I went raw vegan overnight and started juicing from scratch.
AS: You went Vegan just like that?
CCF: RAW vegan, actually, which is all nuts, vegetables, fruits, and juices. I could have sprouted beans and rice but that was too complicated at the time. I knew nothing. So I stuck to the fruit, vegetables, and nuts. I did that for nine months straight.
AS: What was it in you that made you feel like the hospital, chemo, and the meds weren’t the way to go? Why did you so knowingly and courageously turn to food and decide that THAT was what was going to change it all?
CCF: Well first of all WTF is preventive chemotherapy? It is such a weird concept. I wasn’t familiar with the process but it still felt like it wasn’t right for me. Neither cancer nor any other illnesses ran in my family that I knew of so why resort to this? Why am I going to sit there and blast my body with poison? I observed my thoughts and said, “well, if this is my mindset right now, I can’t do this, it wouldn’t heal me.” When I saw that food had the ability to reverse chronic disease as well as prevention, I took a leap of faith, this is what I am going to do. A lot of people feel it is harder to change the way you eat than to do something like chemotherapy or take pills. More often than not, people would take the pills and do the chemo but will also continue their lives as it is: drinking, smoking, eating red meat, not sleeping, not slowing down… So they aren’t changing anything, they are receiving the outside therapy but they aren’t doing anything to change HABIT from the inside. So yes, it is harder to change your habits and your mindset. Thank god I don’t have anxiety issues but with people that do, changing the way that you think takes time. It is a process. But while all of this is happening, you start to feel really clean…well at the beginning you are detoxing so you feel dizzy, nauseous, and hungry but once you get over that you feel so great that you never want to go back.
AS: Can you say that you have lost faith in the health care system in this country?
CCF: Well, before this all went down, I wasn’t “alternative”, I knew nothing before the scare. But once I changed my mindset and embarked on the journey, I’d still go to mainstream hospitals to get my blood drawn and I still even see my doctors today. At the same time though, I think they can’t do their work without people like us who practice alternative medicine. Those doctors that suggested chemotherapy and meds have told me “You made the right decision by not doing that chemo.”
CCF: They have said that to me, today. Two of them mentioned that they are juicing or I’ll see on their website that they are providing acupuncture as an alternative. Instead of directly sending someone to surgery they say, “Why don’t you explore acupuncture?” (it’s an example) etc. Medicine is great but each body is different and you have to know. You have to know what’s best for yourself.
AS: I feel you. I myself am still trying to wrap my head around medicine for ADD or anxiety. For example, why is a 7-year old prescribed to medicine for ADD if he is a seven-year-old? Aren't kids still developing? What and who are we comparing them to when we decide they need prescription medicine because they have "too much energy"? A seven-year-olds body is a new body and a new brain, why are we polluting it so quickly? AND WITHOUT THEIR CONSENT? But that is another story for another time...
CCF: At the end of the day it’s all about perspective. Instead of getting stuck in the mindset of what might happen to me should things not go how I planned… I focus on positive thinking and practice affirmations and mantras etc… Of course, this can only happen after you get over the fear hunch… which takes time. But, with practice comes mindfulness and with mindfulness comes peace. There is power in letting your thoughts sail by and to just observe…
AS: I know your parents are Dominican, were you born here or in the Dominican Republic?
CCF: My brother and I were born in Illinois. We moved to the Dominican Republic when I was 4-years old and I stayed there until I was about 10-years old. After that, we moved to Europe because my dad is a diplomat and work brought us there. Later, my parents separated and I went back to the Dominican Republic and so on. I have an American passport but I never say I am American, I say I am Dominican. At the end of the day, my grandparents, my mother, my aunts and uncle all live in the Dominican Republic.
AS: What do your parents do now?
CCF: They are both economists. My mom is still in that world but my dad is now a Diplomat.
AS: What kind of diplomat?
CCF: He’s currently the Dominican Ambassador to the United Kingdom (2010-present). Previously, he served as the Ambassador to the United Nations, the Ambassador to Brussels, Belgium and the Ambassador to the Geneva, Switzerland.
AS: Is it hard to come together with your family for dinner with your dietary restrictions and preferences?
CCF: At the beginning, it was but not anymore. Luckily, my mom has always been a visionary, alternative, still an economist, but has both sides. I remember she used to feed us alfalfa sprouts, and granola before it was a thing.
CCF: Eventually, my paternal grandfather went vegan because of me and he has reversed some of his illnesses (diabetes and high blood pressure). My dad is uber healthy and avoids carbs. He’s now mainly a pescitarian.
AS: Nice! You converted a family member, an older one at that!
CCF: Haha! Yes, I did. So now, they are all super open and accommodating. Even my husband’s family who is Cuban opened up to it, which was harder than my family because they were new to it, except for my husband’s mother, who is also UBER healthy and model to follow. Even my grandmother can now make me vegan habichuela con dulce and a vegan Tres Leche!
AS: My mouth is watering. Who said vegan dessert wasn’t real dessert?!
CCF: All you have to do is take out any and all animal products out or substitute it out and its vegan.
AS: You are what I like to call a “healthy twenty-something-year-old” and not because of how you eat but healthy in the sense of having your head on straight; planning for and believing that there will be a future. You know that life is all about right now because YOLO, but you also know that there is nothing wrong with it being about tomorrow, too. You’re not caught up with wanting to be in the scene, you're not on social media comparing your looks or your life and career to someone else, and you’re also not very interested in drinking or staying out late. Instead, you are a new homeowner, a mom to be, a wife, plant-based and an entrepreneur. Aside from having to have aided a major health issue at such a young age, why and how do you maintain your focus on what truly matters in life (personal health, love, and family)? How do you keep curiosity and temptation at bay as a human and a young, spontaneous, beautiful, educated, Dominican, wild-spirited woman living in NYC?
CCF: Once you’re awake, once you get that enlightenment, everything just flows. Of course, we still go out and I can have a glass of red organic wine if I feel like I want it (honestly once every 3 months if not more) but not how society says we have to drink it. Not EVERY time I sit down for dinner, I have to have wine. Why? What for? I am going to do what is good for me! It’s almost like becoming a little selfish with yourself, or FOR yourself. But, I do think about that life sometimes. I was coming home from NYU and heard a reggeaton and I was like “oh my god, I miss this!” I also get to work with one of my childhood friends with my businesses Green Hopping and Inside Crowd. That helps! Plus, as an entrepreneur, I choose how my days are going to go, I have freedom; THAT is my freedom.
AS: What are you up to at NYU?
CCF: I am getting a Masters in Food Studies and I focus on Food Policy within the department.
AS: You also do a lot of PR work…
CCF: Yes. So through Green Hopping, I launched Inside Crowd. Basically, I was getting clients that would find me because of Green Hopping. Aside from being the co-founder of Inside Crowd, I oversee any and all communications or media relations efforts and act as the business development head as well. My partner, and childhood friend manage the social media, branding, and website creation.
AS: Do Green Hopping and Inside Crowd cross-pollinate often?
CCF: A bit. I was just telling my husband the other day that although getting Green Hopping to where we want it to be has been so hard, it has opened so many doors and presented a lot of opportunities but Inside Crowd has led to a lot of great clients like Urban Vegan Kitchen, Cocoa V, the Blossom Restaurant owner, Love Grace, Organic Gemini, Cleancult and more. All of those came through Green Hopping and into Inside Crowd.
AS: Is there a food culture you think is healthier than another?
CCF: The Indian food culture is amazing. They operate under the belief that each body is made up of a combination of elements, fire (spice), water (water based-foods), earth, (greens), etc. This belief is called of Ayurveda. Look it up! Thank me later!
AS: How about money? Have you seen a huge difference in your money since going vegan?
CCF: They say that what you don’t spend on organic food you’ll spend on medical bills anyway.
I am a vegan that prefers to eat and buy organic… I choose to go organic because I know that if you are going to stay away from all of these other things, you should stay away from those chemicals used to import fruits and vegetables as well. You should go organic when you can. There is nothing wrong with not having organic one day or having something fried on another day. The problem lies in it being every day. That can be damaging. It is a personal choice and for me, I put my health first, and over anything.
AS: I know so many people who try going vegan and give up on day three or day ten, and then just give up. What are the first few steps folks can take to become vegan and stick to it? How were the beginning stages for you?
CCF: It goes back to your mindset. Everything is in your mind. At first, it was all about food. Now it is less about food and more about thoughts. How do I take care of my thoughts and my mental state? That’s where yoga came in and then meditation and then acupuncture and then essential oils, and everything else, THE WHOLE SPECTRUM essentially. I mean I am all the way in it and now my mindset is changed and I don’t have those thoughts of “OMG I am craving this or I think I’m going to cheat…” You learn to respect your body and take care of yourself. I haven’t been drunk since before the health scare, the concept of drinking until I’m drunk is now disgusting to me. I get that you are having fun but I can also have fun, sober. AND THEN on top of it all, you have to deal with the effects of flushing out those toxins and feeling gross. It’s a switch in your head. To go vegan, you first have to flip that switch and decide to put yourself and your health first.
AS: I guess it is about becoming selfish with yourself.
CCF: Yes. At the beginning, there is going to be a lot of social pressure: “Why don’t you drink? Are you not drinking? Why don’t you eat meat?” Now it is different. Once people know it, they know it.
AS: I think sometimes people associate diets like vegetarianism and veganism with superiority and wealth; the assumption that because you are more disciplined with your body than most people, automatically means that you are better than me. It’s like if- you-don’t-eat-meat-or-drink-alcohol-your-life-is-just-great, I,-however-am-still-fuckin’-up-in-my-life-with-lack of sleep,-over-drinking, and-poor-eating-decisions-but-you-seem-to-have-your-shit-together, type of attitude.
CCF: You know what, that's their problem.
AS: I really dislike peer pressure because people ACTUALLY believe that I am supposed to put something in MY body to make YOU feel better.
AS: Okay so now you are in the perfect mindset, you want to change your life around, what’s the next step?
CCF: Listen to your body. Some people have headaches weekly, daily and that is not something that is considered normal so have a look at what you are doing and how your body is responding. Sometimes people think they have allergy from the pollen when it really is inflammation caused by too much sugar or something of the sort. So go vegetarian first; limit dairy, and focus on fresh fruits and vegetables. That’s all you need to thrive.
AS: I really love that you are encouraging a change of perspective instead of a list of things you have to stop doing. Thank you for starting there.
CCF: AND get creative in the kitchen. Some people I know REALLY can’t but you can try. For example, sautéing something can be intimidating if you are just starting. You know you'll need oil to cook, look into alternative options aside from canola oil. Sunflower oil, coconut oil, olive oil, are some options. When I sauté something, I just use water and lemon THEN I’ll add the olive oil. I don’t sauté in oil because of how greasy the food can become.
AS: Veganism is a whole new world that doesn’t seem so impossible anymore. :)
CCF: Yeah. Jay-Z and Beyoncé did their 21-day Vegan challenge. The 21-day thing is scientific. Essentially, every 21-days, your palette completely resets. So if for 21-days you are eating a certain way, let's say no sugar, your palette forgets what sugar is and just doesn’t want it anymore. When you take it out you just stop having it.
AS: Where can people go to learn more?
CCF: Kris Carr is good. Well and Good, and Mind Body Green are great for daily information and inspiration. Mind Body Green at the beginning helped me a lot because they talk about mindfulness and perspective which helps a lot with any diet changes! I am also subscribed to this print magazine called The Lion’s Rawr and that’s a bit more Buddhist and with a focus on current events.
AS: What are your thoughts on the world today?
CCF: Everything that is happening in the world now is scary and upsetting and we have to deal with that. I was actually talking to one of my clients in Puerto Rico and he was saying that they are rebuilding and getting their basics back but how are people going to get their moral’s back? They feel like they have lost everything like there is no tomorrow. There should be emotional therapy for that. I also always say that in prison, inside of working out too much and having these bodies locked behind bars, why aren’t they taught instead to meditate or practice yoga?
AS: Or plant their own garden and eat their fruits and vegetables for breakfast and lunch…
CCF: Yeah. I mean meditation and yoga is a way to release just like working out and running but with more control and stillness.
AS: Your husband is not vegetarian or vegan…
CCF: No, he isn’t but he has a beautiful heart that has allowed him to learn techniques that help him get bay at work on a daily basis. Things like taking 10 minutes away from work when necessary, breathing exercises, and how to get out of his head when he’s too far in. He is now more aware of who he talks to, who he does business with, etc. He knows that if someone is going to drain your energy it might be best to not take their business as someone more fit will come along.
AS: What does your meditation routine look like?
CCF: Ideally every morning I would sit still if only for 5 minutes. You won’t feel connected every day but that’s common knowledge. Instead, you have to PRACTICE every day to feel more and more connected — and get to feel the spirit move through you. Currently, because I am pregnant with this beautiful girl, I discovered an app called Expectful, which is meditation sessions, designed for the expecting mother and the new baby to connect. So I would put that on for her and sometimes I am present and sometimes I am not. You don't have to sit and meditate, people talk about walking meditation. If you are going to go for a walk, go slow, be mindful, feel that you are walking and that is a meditation within itself. Essentially you need to be aware and in a state of nothingness, so if you are going for a walk, be open and aware of feeling the wind and hearing your environment. You can meditate on the subway, too. You can meditate anywhere, it's about being quiet and still.
AS: This is reminding me of the meditation podcast I listen to by Tara Brach. In last weeks meditation, she said that listening is another form of meditation mainly because you can't control hearing. If there is sound, it is coming into your ears. The more aware you are, the more you hear.
CCF: Not doing anything is good too. I am not saying don't make money, but once in a while take a day for yourself. A mental health day. Oh! And sleep. Do that, a lot of it.
AS: You are about to become a mom. Your baby girl is going to be half Cuban through her father and half Dominican through you. What a combo! Are you planning to raise her vegan?
CCF: Maybe vegetarian to start. Of course, I want her to make her choices and she will, but she will also have my example and food education. That is what matters
AS: HALLELUJAH! We still have so many questions but we will end with these: Where can we download Green Hopping? How can we find out more about your businesses and RAW vegan adventures? AND what are some good vegan restaurants that you would recommend to someone who is curious or starting on their vegan journey?
CCF: In New York, it’s so easy! Pocion is a Dominican vegan (organic) restaurant in Washington Heights with pastellon, yucca fries and all. Urban Vegan Kitchen is my favorite; it’s new on the block. It’s vegan comfort food like mac & cheese and burgers. They just won an award for the best vegan burger in NYC. Mother of Pearl is amazing… so is Cienfuegos. ABCV is the bomb too.
CCF: And for more info, the new Green Hopping app will be out in 2018 and you can follow us @GreenHopping on IG to be in the loop as well @InsideCrowd and my personal account is: @CatherineCuelloFuente.
AS: You're an inspiration. Thank you for having me in your beautiful, SUN FILLED, new Brooklyn home and for the delicious raw almonds.