Cayla Mackey is the cofounder and CEO of Unicorn Goods, the world's largest vegan catalog. Unicorn Goods is a Public Benefit Corporation with a mission to reduce animal suffering by selling and promoting animal-free products. As a serial social entrepreneur, Cayla has launched and run five businesses since 2012, including Native (the first magazine in the world to be distributed by bicycle), Taco Bike (the South's first certified organic restaurant), and Moonbase (Nashville's first creative coworking space). She is one of the youngest named members of Nashville's 30 Under 30, and is a Social Impact Fellow through the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Social Impact Strategy. Cayla graduated as an Ingram Scholar cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Vanderbilt University, having previously attended Phillips Exeter Academy. She enjoys farming, cooking, and helping other entrepreneurs get off the ground.
I grew up in Bradenton, Florida, as the oldest daughter of two lawyers. My parents run their own law firm together, so I guess you could say entrepreneurship and argumentation run in my blood (thanks parents!). When I was seven, the size of my family doubled as my triplet siblings were born. I'm proud to say that I named my sisters - they owe me one; their names are awesome.
I loved school growing up, and I soaked up knowledge like a sponge. School wasn't enough to keep me occupied and my parents were always worn out with trying to keep me busy. "I'm bored" was my mom's worst nightmare, especially with three other kids in the family. I took equestrian lessons and won dozens of prizes and ribbons for dressage, stadium jumping, and showmanship. I played piano and was constantly competing and studying music theory. In middle school, I was on so many clubs that the school made a rule limiting the number of clubs a student could join; I loved the Chess Club, and was President of the National Junior Honors Society. I took dance lessons, joined a high school sorority, was a cheerleader and on the tennis team, and was first chair in the orchestra and junior extracurricular orchestra. I took piano and violin lessons. I competed in state science fairs and traveled for church group activities. In the summers, I attended faraway music camps to improve on violin and piano.
I was making top grades in the highest classes, but I was still really dissatisfied. I came home from school one afternoon and cried to my mother because I felt I had gone the whole day without learning anything. Earlier that day, we had spent most of the previous the Advanced Placement English classes watching movies so far, and I had asked the teacher if we could read Siddhartha (the assigned book) together. The teacher looked at me funny, then sat down at her desk and said, "fine, go ahead." The ridicule from my classmates was enormous. I was fortunate that my parents supported me applying to Phillips Exeter Academy. And I was even more fortunate to have gotten in, and that they let me go. I wrote my application essay on Siddhartha.
I finished the last two years of high school in New Hampshire. When I told my Florida friends about Exeter, they thought I was going to Hogwarts or something. I was the only person from my country, to my knowledge, to have ever applied. I starting living away from home when I was 16. I was so excited to be in an environment where I didn't feel ashamed that I liked learning. I was finally in a place where I wasn't the best at everything, where I wasn't top of the class. And I loved it. I loved the challenge and the pressure and the striving to be better and, frankly, to stay alive. I don't think I'll ever do anything as difficult as graduating from Exeter. Despite how difficult it was and how depressed I got in the winters, I wouldn't trade the experience for an extra 50 years of life. I am who I am because of Exeter. I graduated on a merit-based scholarship because of my involvement in the music department.
I was able to attend Vanderbilt University as an Ingram Scholar, the school's only full merit scholarship. As an Ingram Scholar, I found answers to the questions I was having a hard time answering. I remembered the non sibi (not for one's self) that I had learned as Exeter's moto, and I finally began to understand what that meant. I wasn't achieving for myself anymore - there was now a greater purpose to my life. And I decided that my greater purpose was to make the world a better place. I started to explore the most effective way to do that. I was lucky enough to meet people who shared my desire to make the world a better place through a club my partner and I started, the Global Poverty Initiative. We brought social enterprise into the main stream consciousness in Nashville, hosting TOMS Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie and KIVA co-founder Jessica Jackley as speakers. At this point, I was financially supporting myself, for the most part. I became a Resident Advisor (RA) to cover my housing costs, and I worked as a waitress and at the computer lab on campus to afford food and books. I would later also be a Teaching Assistant (TA), as well. At one point, I was working three part-time jobs as a full time student. I graduated cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a self-designed interdisciplinary major in "Music, Language & Culture," basically ethnomusicology and foreign languages.
I am a trained musician and play the violin, piano, drums, guitar, theremin, and more. I also know a bit about computer music and am proficient in Logic (a Mac-based version of ProTools for music creation) and various looping pedals. I fell in love with a capella music at Exeter and continued at Vanderbilt for a time. In college I combined my love for service with my love for music, and taught guitar to low income children in Nashville at the W.O. Smith Music School. I also spent a summer there as a grant-funded researcher to develop and teach a Creative Music class. I also started writing for the Hustler, Vanderbilt's school newspaper, covering music. I covered SXSW for Vanderbilt.
When I graduated from college I was writing for the Nashville Scene, the local arts and culture magazine. I wanted to be unemployed to pursue being a musician and I was writing a lot at the time and keeping a music blog, called Bellwether. I was obsessed with this idea of modernizing classical music. Instead, I did a startup. Together with Jonathan Pittman, Angelique Pittman, my boyfriend Dave Pittman, Taylor Raboin, Mackenzie Moore, and Joshua Sirchio, I helped launch a print magazine aimed at "new Nashville." We called it Native. I collected the pieces for the magazine and wrote most of them, assigned photo shoots and photographers, and pulled the first three issues together until we broke even. We moved into a warehouse to launch, and I helped paint and remodel the space to work as an office and coworking space. I had the idea to distribute by bicycle and found someone to do that for us, designing and implementing the distribution. At the time, I was living with the other three founders in a one bedroom apartment. The four of us shared the space with two dogs, two cats, and one bed. None of us were making any money. Life was really hard for a while, but it was also the most fun I've had in my life. We threw huge warehouse parties with free local beer from our friends, and became a voice for a younger generation shaping the creative identity of the city. It was really meaningful work for me.
When the magazine became stable, I moved over exclusively to sales. Over the next 18 months, I closed over $350,000 in advertising sales. But two years after starting the magazine, I started to question why I was doing it in the first place. The magic had died in me. I wondered why I wasn't a musician. I had stopped listening to music, and had stopped going to shows. I couldn't name things that I was interested in. I wondered if I had any interests. I decided to stope working day-to-day at Native and try to figure out who I had become.
I committed myself to an indefinite sabbatical. I needed to figure out what made me tick. As part of the healing process, I got into gardening as a therapeutic release. I joined a community garden called Farm in the City and, using a book called Eating on the Wild Side, ordered dozens of packets of heirloom seeds. That summer, I experimented with growing my own food, which got me really into farming and the local food system economy. I got a job with Hank Delvin of Delvin Farms, the largest certified organic farm in the Nashville area, and started to develop this idea to prove that it's possible to sell organic food cheaply to the masses. I wanted to start something to prove that organic food is a scalable solution to the broken agriculture, environment, and health systems. With lots of help, I Kickstarted Taco Bike and became the South's first certified organic restaurant.
Taco Bike was also vegetarian. I didn't cook or prepare any meat dishes, but we did sell eggs and cheese. The grind was brutal. On the side, I was also cooking with Actual Brunch at Pop (a shared kitchen) to make some side money and afford to do Taco Bike. I was getting up at 2/3 AM every morning and biking across the city to a shared kitchen to make breakfast tacos. Then, I would put them in a bike trailer and lug 200+ pounds back across the city uphill to sell them. It was exhausting, and when it got too cold to bike, I re-thought everything. In the slow season, I managed a chocolate shop that was started by a Cordon Bleu chef while I worked on a new idea I had started at the tail end of the Taco Bike high season - a website that helps vegans buy clothing. At the time, it was called Good Goods. I had started it from a spreadsheet I kept when I was trying to buy a pair of leather-free shoes. I thought, hey, if I had that hard of a time finding animal-free clothing, others must, too. I was starting to become a vegan, and I was taking Taco Bike's vegetarian mission to the next level. Read more about how I started Unicorn Goods on FoundersWire.
Dave got into grad school in Providence at RISD for Industrial Design, and I got hired at a nonprofit called Social Enterprise Greenhouse administering the Blackstone Charitable Foundation Innovation Grant, encouraging and mentoring young entrepreneurs. We sold Taco Bike to a social entrepreneur in Providence, and I continued to work on Good Goods. We changed the name to Unicorn Goods and re-did the brand. I had maxed out the backend I was using, and spent 6 months moving everything over. When we relaunched, I started taking it more and more seriously, and were applying for grants, awards, and support. When we found an intern who wanted to spend time on it (who is now the Editor) and when we got accepted to a prestigious program through U Penn to grow the idea, she and I started working on it full time.
I love my day-to-day life right now. I love waking up and feeling like I'm spending time on something worthwhile. Most of all, I love who I am and I've learned to love this crazy journey I'm on.
All of this made me who I am. Thanks for reading.
Have more questions? Shoot me an email and let's chat.
Special thanks to my parents, for having patience for me and wanting the best for me despite the hardships. To Iras Roback, my childhood piano teacher and my mentor growing up. To Mrs. Paris, my existentialism teacher at Exeter, who wrote me a note with my acceptance letter on my Siddhartha essay and who took an interest in me at the lowest point in my life up to that point. To Bob Barsky, Noam Chomsky's biographer and my advisor for my independent study major at Vanderbilt; your rebelliousness and boldness inspired me to not be ashamed of myself and to completely own who I am. To Cecilia Tichi, head of the English department at Vanderbilt at the time, who taught a class on social change in literature that reframed my perspective on change and the problems of the world, and who believed in my abilities to change the world with my talents. To Alice Randall, professor of English at Vanderbilt and speaker of my Phi Beta Kappa induction; you are my cheerleader. To my friends: thank you for having the patience to let me become who I am. And to Dave, my life partner; I wouldn't be here without you.