UK student’s journey from farmer to vegan entrepreneur

Sierra Foxtrot vegan clothing
Photo credit: Victoria Belton

This article about a UK student entrepreneur journey was published by the Great British Mag content team on 21 November, 2019

When Simon Plazolles-Hayes was 10 years old he and his parents moved from the U.S. city of Delaware, Ohio, to the nearby countryside in order to start their own farm.

Every day, Simon helped his parents tend to their goats, sheep, chickens, llamas and ducks. He got so involved that he even joined his local 4-H branch, an organisation that helps young people in rural communities learn agricultural leadership skills.

Life as a farmer

For Simon, the most memorable experience he had being a member of 4-H was when he participated in a Market Lambs course. During this project, Simon was given responsibility for one of his family’s lambs. He looked after the lamb for eight months, after which he took it to the local fair to be auctioned off.

Simon remembers he initially felt pride and enjoyed showing off the lamb. But he recalls how this feeling changed when a final bid was accepted and he had to give the lamb to the new owners, who would be taking it the slaughterhouse.

In a TEDx Talk Simon recalls the remorse and guilt he felt. “I tried to reason with myself. I told myself that this was normal, natural and right. And when the men finally came to collect my lamb, I apologised to him one final time,” he says.

Simon was involved in Market Lambs until he was 17, but he recalls feeling uneasy about it. Then right before his 18th birthday, Simon decided to make a drastic life change by enlisting in the U.S Army.

He knew that he eventually wanted to attend university, but didn’t quite feel ready yet. For Simon, joining the military became a way to hone his leadership skills, serve his country, and get a better grasp on what he wanted to do long-term.

Life in the army

After completing basic training, Simon served as an infantryman for three years in Fort Drum, New York—an army base which sees temperatures drop to as low as −34 °C. At times, this made it a pretty gruelling place to work.

“Three years in the army doesn’t sound that long. But you’re talking about a job that’s not nine to five, it’s your entire life. Although there are aspects of the experience I don’t miss, there are many I do. I was able to learn so much. Like an ability to never stop working hard.”

With the knowledge that he’d eventually want to go to university after serving, Simon signed up to an online associate’s degree course (a precursor to a bachelor’s degree) through a local college.

“I would have 10-hour days and then go home and do online classes so I could get my degree. It was pretty exhausting, but I’m always up for a challenge.”

Although this was a free option for those in the military, Simon and a colleague were the only two in their platoon of more than 100 people to sign up. With his love of learning this was a pleasure to do, but it didn’t make for an easy schedule.

“I would have 10-hour days and then go home and do online classes so I could get my degree. It was pretty exhausting, but I’m always up for a challenge,” Simon remarks.

During his third and final year serving in the army, Simon made another change to his life by becoming vegetarian. This was a big deal for him, as his parents still owned the farm and he’d been a devout meat eater his entire life.

But he couldn’t forget the guilt he felt over selling those lambs when he was younger. And he had an inkling that eating animals didn’t match up with his values.

Shortly after this, Simon was given the option to either move on from the army or re-enlist. Although it was a difficult decision, he felt that he’d gotten what he could out of his military experience and needed to pursue a different path. More specifically, he wanted to head to university.

One of the benefits of serving in the U.S. military is that you are able to access a grant under the Post-9/11 GI bill. This scheme offers higher education and training benefits to Veterans and service members, including covering tuition costs.

Recipients of this grant aren’t limited to attending American universities and colleges, they can apply for programmes in other places like the UK too. Simon had his heart set on studying abroad, and was fortunately accepted to study a bachelor’s in Business Management at Kingston University London.

Life as an animal advocate

A month before he went to Kingston, Simon switched from being vegetarian to vegan. Meaning he cut all animal by-products like eggs and dairy out of his diet and stopped wearing materials like leather.

Simon says that his lifestyle choice isn’t always understood by his family. “But at the end of the day, they’re still my family and I’ve got to remember that at one point that was me too,” he remarks.

“My veganism is certainly a point of contention between me and my parents.”

He also started researching animal agriculture and found many issues with the way it is carried out. And when Simon got to Kingston University, he started volunteering and working alongside his studies with a few different charities, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA UK).

During his Business course, Simon had the opportunity to brainstorm and plan an enterprise. His passion for animal advocacy led him to come up with the idea to create a vegan clothing line. He thought this “would spread the message of ethical issues within animal agriculture in a positive way.

“If you’re wearing a shirt that has a positive message towards animals, you can use that as a way of sharing your beliefs. At the same time, this might encourage others to engage with the issue,” Simon remarks.

Life as a vegan business owner

After his course at Kingston, Simon decided to have a go at launching a business out of his idea, which he named The Sierra Foxtrot. 

He worked with his brother, a tattoo artist in the U.S., to come up with first designs. Since then, he’s also worked with British vegan artists like Kate Louise Powell to create the graphics for his collections.

Simon says he’s committed to making the business ethical and eco-friendly. They only use British suppliers and ensure none of their products are manufactured in sweat shops, and that the ink and fabrics are entirely vegan. And when they can they use 100 percent certified cotton. What’s more, they donate 5 per cent of their profits to Animal Equality UK—one of the organisations Simon has volunteered with.

Even though he has taken on a part-time social media manager and collaborates with illustrators, Simon is often the only one working on the business. He mentions that juggling the demands of being a business-owner on his own is the hardest part of his job.

“Tomorrow, I’m going to wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning and get a train with all my stuff from London to Surrey and set up shop at the vegan market there. I do this across the UK at many other markets too, which is always very physically demanding.

But interacting with customers and seeing the connection they have with the products makes it all worth it,” Simon remarks.

Simon manages his business while being a full-time master’s student in Public Policy at Queen Mary, University of London and working part time at PETA. But as someone with an intense drive to always work hard, being a student entrepreneur and activist all at once is thrilling for Simon.

Even if the operation continues to grow once he finishes university, Simon says he’ll always be looking for other projects to get involved with. He’s kept this determination with him since his days in the military.

“The army taught me to push forward despite any obstacle. Once you’ve learned to sleep crammed in the back of a freezing cold truck in some crazy position, you can probably get through most things with a positive attitude.”

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