Today we chat with Suzanna Brusikiewicz, co-founder of Thought Cafe which is an animation studio that focuses on social awareness. She also vlogs over at her YouTube channel VegiBub. Suzanna is compassionate, creative, fun and hard working. We were meant to chat for 30 minutes, but we ended up going over an hour and a half!
Hope you enjoy this conversation as much as we did.
If you meet someone for the first time and they ask you what you do, how do you typically respond?
I tell them that I co-founded an animation studio that seeks to raise critical awareness, so we do a lot of what we call ‘factual content’, any message out there that has the potential to educate, inspire and expose an issue – that’s the kind of thing we want to put to animation and design.
We work with a lot of non-profit organisations and charities, socially-minded corporations, and a large chunk of what we do is on YouTube, through a popular educational series called Crash Course.
How do people usually react to your response?
Haha, I don’t typically give them that mouth full, more like bits and pieces, but often people’s eyes light up when they hear ‘animation’ and ‘critical awareness’ in the same sentence, and they always want to know more, which is awesome. I think it piques people’s interest and curiosity because you’re melding two different ideas together, much like veganism + minimalism 🙂
When and why did you start Thought Cafe?
I started it 2009, that’s when we officially incorporated. My now-husband and I went to school together for Graphic Design. We both graduated wanting to put our skills into something good, and something that would help educate people about current issues.
We were engaged in at the time (especially at that time, I think when you come out of college/university and expand your ideas about the world, it sends you on a questioning spree, we couldn’t stop reading non-fiction works, watching documentaries, and so on).
A big part of why we were together was our shared passion for that realm, and we kept having conversation after conversation about how great it would be to start something that relied on animation and graphic design principles. But at the same time, didn’t cater to the advertising world necessarily—and instead gave voices to those who we felt needed it most – great thinkers of our time, activists, progressive companies and organisations.
We felt like we couldn’t force everyone around us to read non-fiction books, and motion graphics (which is the blend of animation & graphic design), was a really good medium for breaking down issues and bringing clarity to the various angles of these issues in a visually engaging way. You could also really touch people through the addition of sound, music and pacing.
At first, we thought about literally making ‘movie trailers’ for non-fiction books, but we sought out a lot of advice from different mentors, people in the publishing industry, and were told there wasn’t much of a demand for that. When we opened it up to be a service we could offer to ‘anyone with an important message’, it opened a lot more doors and possibilities.
What did your friends and family think when you first made the leap?
I think a lot of parents want to see their kids come out of school and land a steady job with a good salary, benefits, and all that. So our parents were a little worried about us, being that we were starting out doing animations here and there for different clients from our home office, and had a lot of periods of time where we weren’t making enough money.
They’d encourage us to look for jobs, (or, slyly ask us how the job search was going as a way to nudge us, haha), but we stuck to it because we wanted to make it work. It was all or nothing, and we knew we eventually had to go all in, and give it our best shot to see if it could work out or not. It’s the only way you’ll know!
It took a long time (couple years) to reach enough stability to feel ‘normal’, the first couple of years are always the most trying, but now our family and friends have the utmost appreciation for what we do. And don’t get me wrong, no one told us we were crazy, we could just see the concern from time to time, and I think it’s natural.
It’s unknown, unfamiliar territory, and everyone’s path is different. It’s not like you can look at the way one business started up, and do things the same way. A lot of things come down to chance, luck, and… I’m even gonna say magic, synchronicity, that sort of thing (at least in my view).
What does your role look like in your company? Are you in management or doing more creative work?
I’m the CCO (chief creative officer), but I go by Creative Director because it’s simpler to explain and grasp I think. I do a mix of management and creative; we have a lot of great teams that work on different projects that manage those respective projects really well.
For an ongoing show like Crash Course, for example, we’re on the line to deliver five episodes every week, and the teams working on those episodes love what they do, they love the show’s fans, so they’d never want to let anyone down.
With other client projects that come our way, we don’t take it on unless we really believe in the message, so it’s always important to us to try to make it our best work. It can certainly be a challenge to do both creative work and management, however, but I think it brings a unique sense of dedication to the project because we’re so close to it.
I have various projects I’ll manage at a given time, but projects I’m also getting to execute, so I still get to do a lot of design work, which I appreciate. I wouldn’t be too happy with the management-only type of role.
Can you tell us about how you became vegan?
It frustrates me that I can’t remember the exact year so I can’t celebrate my vegiversary, haha, but it was probably about three years ago now. I was starting to cut down on my meat intake, though not too committed, for a while.
I had already realised on my own that something about it didn’t sit right with me, and I grew up in an eastern euro family, eating a lot of meat and dairy on a regular basis.
I had a vegan friend who I’d chat with about various aspects of the lifestyle and purpose, and when she told me about dairy production, I couldn’t bring myself to accept what she was saying. I wanted to believe (as much as I suspected she was right), that dairy cows were free of harm, and dairy was my last crux here. She encouraged me to look into it on my own and to consider we were so passionate about many current issues our society faces—mistreatment of animals was something I couldn’t ignore or a deny an interest in.
So I came home one night and started googling, I think I might have searched for something like ‘dairy truth’, and a PETA video narrated by Paul McCartney came up. I watched it, I think it was probably under 5 minutes, and I was literally curled up on the floor in the corner of my room, bawling. It shook me so hard, and I was horrified to see what was really going on. I think what upset me so much was that I chose ignorance. I had done the very thing our company was trying to reverse in people.
And the moment you get slapped with the reality around any issue, you can’t forget it, and you can’t turn your back so quickly. That’s why I think it’s so important that people seek out the reality of how their food ends up on their plate because if it makes them sick, or makes them breakdown into a crying frenzy, it’s probably not something they want to support. It hurt to see how much pain and torture we were putting these animals through so that I could put some cheese in my sandwich.
The worst part of it for me was realising that it wasn’t even an industry free of death or slaughter—because the female cows end up slaughtered when they’re spent anyway, and while they are used, their calves are taken away at birth and killed soon after for veal. I don’t think a lot of people realise that dairy supports veal, and that the two are so interconnected.
So I went vegan the next day, but I wanted to try it for a month and see how I’d feel because my ties to my euro diet were deeply engrained and I was afraid. This was around October, so my plan was to go all out again and eat the way I was eating come Christmas. So I did that, and around new years resolution-time mid-January, I decided that I felt a lot worse having gone back to my usual lifestyle than the month I ate vegan. I felt awesome during the month I ate vegan, I felt like my emotional self was finally in harmony with my actions, because to the best of my efforts, I wasn’t inflicting harm on any animals. So I took the plunge and never looked back!
How did you initially respond to the social pressures of being a vegan?
I think the social pressures were, and to a degree, continue to be the most challenging part for me. I think it varies from person to person, but I was always a people-pleaser and someone who avoided conflicts and confrontations like the plague. I hated the idea of being challenged about my choices and having to defend my values. But I was always put in a place where I had to do it, because often, as soon as you say you’re vegan, people want to know why, or have a series of questions that might come from a place of fear (i.e., is this a better diet than mine? should I be doing this too? Is what I’m doing wrong? How can I make what I’m doing right, and this wrong?).
I think we’re all faced with that on a fundamental level when we encounter something ‘different’ or ‘other’. And although veganism has changed exponentially and become so much more familiar to people, it’s still counter to society at large and a lot of the values and belief systems we uphold (like maximising protein intake, loving cheese, meat making us strong, dairy being our only calcium source, etc.). It’s not to say that all reactions are like that. However, I’ve encountered so many people that are simply curious and want to know more from a place of love, and that’s a totally different conversation and a pleasant one at that. I started to cower away in a lot of social situations and ‘hide’ in a way like I’d even eat something non-vegan if it came to me by accident because I didn’t want to embarrass anyone, or seem difficult.
I wouldn’t dare send a dish back at a restaurant if a mistake was made, and I’d even play down some of my vegan thoughts and perspectives to avoid discussions on the matter. I realise now that all those little actions are mini betrayals of myself and my values as a person, and they damage my confidence and make it even harder to be who and what I am. It’s so important to be ourselves, and express ourselves authentically, and I’m working hard at honouring that more and more.
Is your husband vegan?
No, he isn’t. He’s what I call a supportive vegan though. He eats vegan most of the time and practically all of the time that he’s with me. I think the food choices and meals really appeal to him, and so do the underlying values of compassion and nonviolence.
He does eat dairy on occasion on his own accord. Like if he orders food or eats at restaurants, and less frequently, he’ll have some meat. But he almost always regrets it because it feels so heavy compared to the food we usually eat, haha.
He doesn’t eat vegan with me because I ask him to either, it’s his own choice. So I’m not faced with us making different meals for dinner or anything like that, because he loves to eat and cook vegan too, and doesn’t want the meat & dairy enough to purchase it and eat it at home. He says he’s 90% vegan and I’ll say it’s more like 75%, hehe.
What matters the most to me is that he’s supportive of me, which he is, and that he’s open and receptive to learning about the issues behind all this – the animal exploitation, the environmental consequences, etc. As long as he’ll watch documentaries with me, listen to my rants, and read the books and articles, I’m happy.
It can be a hard pill to swallow if people see what you’ve seen and still decide to make it a part of their lives, but I was there too, and everyone has different triggers, and different values. Such strongholds are gripping us about the reasons we eat meat & dairy, things that go all the way back to our childhood, the culture we were exposed to, the ads we watched on TV. It’s tough to say, ‘alright, I’m going to turn my back on all of those things, and adopt a new way of life’. It’s a very personal choice in my view.
As long as people are open to learning, I can respect that, but what gets to me is when people don’t want to hear it, see it, or believe it – and trust me, I was there. *Update: we watched Cowspiracy the other day, and it really hit him (my husband). The arguments in that film, especially around the environmental aspect of eating meat and dairy, are super convincing, so he’s trying to eat vegan as we speak! We’ll see what happens 🙂
After watching your after work routine video it’s clear that you value mindfulness. Has it always been this way? If not, where did your journey of mindfulness begin?
When I was younger, I know that my mom was into meditation and yoga and would bring me into it when she could. We’d meditate together on regular bases for periods of time, mostly to treat my eyes. I was seeing an alternative eye specialist because I’ve had poor eyesight from a young age, and they wanted to try something different with me.
The meditations were a type of eye exercise aimed at relaxing the muscles around your eyes, so we’d listen to guided meditations while ‘palming’ (cupping our hands over our eyes). I think that was kind of like an opening for me, but I forgot all about it through most of my adult life. I got back into it around the same time I decided to go vegan. I felt aligned and fulfilled, and it awoke something in me spiritually speaking. I got hungry for more soul-searching, self-growth and alignment with a higher self.
Coincidentally or not, my best friend got into mindfulness and got her certification for mindfulness meditation. So she invited me to sit in on one of her class series, and I fell in love. Not only was she a fantastic teacher, but it united principles of meditation, relaxation, self-awareness and growth for me. It made me feel like I could listen to my thoughts and emotions rather than feeling enslaved by them, and doing it daily for an extended period started to show itself in my daily attitudes, approaches to things and people, especially conflict. I was hooked, and now I definitely try to make it a regular practice and ritual. Whether it’s, her or someone else’s guided meditations, or Headspace—which I’m really into now, it’s become important to me to tune in that way as often as I can.
When you hear the phrase “less is more”, what comes to mind?
To me, it’s about appreciating the simple things in life. I know that sounds cliche, but it’s become so true for me. I find the most solace and pleasure in bird-watching on my walks to places, pouring myself and enjoying a mug of tea at night, taking a few minutes to meditate, and so on.
That’s where I find my peace and higher self if I can get a little #newage up in here. I also read Eckhart Tolle’s book ‘A New Earth’ (awesome read) a few years back, and I loved how he pointed out that we, in the present moment, when fully present, are perfect. It’s everything that gets in the way of that that we end up trying to sort out, wade through or get rid of. But in that present state, at that moment, where everything we’re supposed to be. So it’s not about getting ‘more’ of anything, it’s about paring down, and being with the ‘less’.
What inspired you to start vegibub?
I started thinking about vegibub almost as soon as I decided to go vegan because I was always into cooking. As a kid, I’d watch the Food Network and mimic cooking shows while preparing food alone, haha. I’d literally act out being a cooking show host, explain what I was doing, show the final meal, and so on.
If I hadn’t gone into graphic design and animation, I would have considered (and really did) culinary school. So when I felt I had something unique to share, like my own spin on veganism, I knew that putting it out there was the next natural step. I’d been into YouTube for a while too, with lots of people I watched and subscribed to, it inspired me to embrace whatever I had to offer and throw it up there. For a time I really questioned it because there were so many vegans on YouTube already, wasn’t it over saturated? What was the point of yet another person making vegan food and talking about vegan things being out there?
Apart from the exposure it gives to the movement, I realised that everyone has something unique to offer. No matter how many vegans are on YouTube, my style, my personality and delivery will appeal to someone more than another’s. We connect with people we like, first and foremost, and if people want to learn about veganism and like the way I show my experience with it, that’s awesome, because I’m reaching those people where someone with a harsher, more preaching-style might not. I’m just being myself, really, and the rest follows naturally. I also worried for a long time that I wasn’t a vegan ‘expert’ or shouldn’t teach people anything if I wasn’t a ‘perfect’ vegan. But I also soon realised that it didn’t matter, and it wasn’t about that. We’re all doing the best we can, and we’re all here for different reasons.