Interviews

How Jenné Claiborne Leveraged Her Blog Into a Full-Fledged Career

11 min read

How the vegan chef has leveraged authenticity into a full-fledged career.
How the vegan chef has leveraged authenticity into a full-fledged career.

The greatest tool in a woman’s toolbox isn’t a cosmetic or a brush. It’s self-determination—the daily commitment you make to yourself and your future, and the hard work and rituals that create the foundation for that journey. Make Your Self is a series that spotlights the stories of women who fiercely embody this relentless pursuit.


When perusing Jenné Claiborne's CV, it wouldn't be a leap to assume that the food blogger and vegan chef had methodically planned her meteoric rise from the very beginning. Her blog, Sweet Potato Soul, boasts hundreds upon hundreds of easy-to-make vegan recipes. She has worked as a personal chef and certified health coach. Her YouTube channel is a runaway success, with nearly 500,000 subscribers. And at the start of 2018, she published her very first cookbook—endorsed by Chloe Coscarelli of By Chloe fame and John Mackey, the co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods.

But ten years ago, Claiborne didn't necessarily envision herself as one of the most popular vegan food bloggers on the internet. Her initial career aspirations were actually in acting—and after circumstance led her to adopt a vegan diet, she began to wonder how she might combine her performative streak with a career in food.

"I realized that sure, I want to be an actress," she said. "But it would also really be cool to have a cooking show and write cookbooks one day." She began work as a private chef, and launched her blog, Sweet Potato Soul, as a fun aside. And once it became clear that her relatable writing style and recipes were attracting a more engaged readership than she could have anticipated, Claiborne knew that she might have something major on her hands.

But even when her passion project gave way to a much clearer end game, Claiborne had no illusions about how she'd get there. "It wasn't like, 'Okay, I'm going to be a big blogger and I'm going to do this and it's really my job,'" she says. "That can be really overwhelming. It really has been one step at a time."

Claiborne's credits much of her own success to this willingness to start small; the foresight that thoughtful baby steps can pave the way to a much bigger impact. After all, accessibility is central to Sweet Potato Soul's DNA: In the face of a wellness industry that often errs on the side of overcomplicated, Claiborne is out to prove that a healthier lifestyle can start with one easy-to-make recipe.

It's a mindset that has felt particularly relevant to her personal life lately, after giving birth to her first child last year. As she transitions out of the chaotic, sleep-deprived, earliest phases of motherhood, Claiborne has her sights set on getting back to herself in the new year—bit by bit, step by step. She lets us in on her 2020 plans below—and shares some key advice for making good habits stick.

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On evolving her blog into a major business opportunity…

"I was around sort of figuring out what should I do next. And at the time [in New York City] I was working at a vegan restaurant—and I wasn't vegan myself, but I was vegetarian and I decided to become vegan for ethical reasons. And when I became vegan, it all sort of clicked. I felt like, oh this is what I should do. I should become a chef and I should pursue food.

"I started with a blog and it was just so much fun to me. So I realized, Actually, I should do this. I can make it work. I can be an entrepreneur and be creative about how I'm going to make money and make it a career. So from that point on, I've just been trying to make it into a career. I succeeded, and now I’m continuing to grow it."

On why her brand resonates so much with her audience…

"I think it's because it's so approachable. The food that I prepare—it’s recognizable. People feel, I think they feel like I am an approachable personality as well. And they trust me because of my background: I didn't go to culinary school. I did not grow up vegan. I grew up in the South and I learned how to cook from my family members. So I think people appreciate and resonate with the sort of normal person who I am, and with what my food is. It's colorful and approachable. I feel that people really feel like, 'This girl is speaking to me.'"

"I started my blog as a hobby that made me happy and then I just maintained it. I kept doing it, kept sharing, kept learning and growing it. And now this is my full-time job; this is my career."

On the biggest misconceptions around her plant-based lifestyle…

"A lot of people still believe that you have to really go out of your way to make it taste good. Where in reality, the spices and flavors that we use for all sorts of cooking are plant based, right? So it's not like you're seasoning your food with animal products, you're usually seasoning your food with plant based products to begin with. So I think it's important to recognize that plants have so much flavor and deliciousness on their own. And you can season them just like you would animal products. You can turn your recognizable traditional recipes into vegan recipes."

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On embracing a nutritious diet when you're not sure where to begin…

"In my cookbook I veganize all my favorite foods from childhood and the foods I grew up on because I wanted to keep eating them. And so that's something that anybody could do—you just start veganizing things that you know and love already so that you don't have to reconstruct your palate to begin with. And then I also think it's important just to start implementing more plants into your diet day by day, or week by week. So maybe having one extra serving of vegetables or beans or whole grain once a week and then adding on."

On how she’s starting small in the New Year…

"I have a new baby. She's ten months now—it still feels new. So my biggest thing is I just want to be more structured in my day to day; be better about healthy habits for myself. So much of what I've been used to doing, my self-habits and exercise, wellness stuff, has fallen to the wayside with her, but I haven't had the time or energy. So I really want to get back to that and find ways to maintain those while still obviously being busy and raising her.

"Take yoga, for example. I've been doing yoga for 12 years now. It's really about getting back to my practice—so, starting to go once a week to the yoga studio where I used to go almost every single day. Once a week is a start for me.

"I also make meal plans every single week that I share with my audience, my newsletter audience primarily. And I often don't make them myself—I will actually sit down and create the meal plan, write it out and make a shopping list, but I'm not actually in the kitchen cooking it myself. So that's another thing. Even if it's just thinking two recipes a week that we can have for more than one day, that would be so helpful. That's one of my little baby steps I need to start taking."

On how she hopes to pass on the spirit of healthy eating to her daughter…

"My mom was an example of that. Like I said, she didn't cook, but she has always eaten really well and what we would now consider plant-based. So I actually had an example of somebody living that way and being healthy and that's why I think I was able to discover that early on without anybody having to tell me. So I want to do the same for her. I just want to be a good example."

On what she’s most excited about for the future…

"I'm most excited about not being in the first year having a new baby. I don't want to rush her growing up or anything. But, for me personally, I’m ready for things to be easier. I have so many great ideas for Sweet Potato Soul that I just have not had the time, bandwidth or energy to do. I'm excited to be able to follow those dreams a little bit more."

References:

  1. Reay, T., Golden-Biddle, K., & Germann, K. (2006). Legitimizing a New Role: Small Wins and Microprocesses of Change. Academy of Management Journal, 49(5), 977–998. doi: 10.5465/amj.2006.22798178
  2. Gothe, N. P., Hayes, J. M., Temali, C., & Damoiseaux, J. S. (2018). Differences in Brain Structure and Function Among Yoga Practitioners and Controls. Frontiers in integrative neuroscience, 12, 26. doi:10.3389/fnint.2018.00026

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