Dr. Joslin Mar-Dai Pickens didn’t grow up wanting to be a college professor.
“I wanted to be a fashion designer,” she said. “I always had a creative mind and have been against the grain. Even now, people say, ‘You don’t act like a doctor.’ Well, I have no idea what they are supposed to act like. I’ve always been a little different.”
Pickens got her bachelor’s degree in mass communications. And, because she “wasn’t ready to be an adult yet,” she continued her education and received a master’s degree in cross-cultural communications from Grambling University. Her particular interests were political campaigning and public relations.
She returned to Shreveport and got a job in marketing in the television and radio industry. But she soon discovered she did not enjoy the sales component of that career. “I was at a crossroads,” she said. “I was driving down the street, and I said, ‘I wonder if they are hiring.’ I stopped in at Southern (University Shreveport) and asked. They said, ‘No, but here’s a number.’ I gave them my resume and everything.”
That’s when a little patience paid off for Pickens. At the end of that semester, an opening came up to teach mass communications. She was 24 when she started at Southern, almost the same age as her students. But she has enjoyed the journey. “It’s something that I love,” Pickens said. “I am passionate about education and educating others.”
She is now in her 20th year teaching at Southern. Recently, her desire to learn led her to launch another journey — this time as a vegan chef. One of the things Pickens presents in her classroom is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s a theory of motivation that states humans are driven by five categories of needs. Ranked from the bottom up, they are physiological (food and clothing), safety, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualization.
“When you ascend to that top level, self-actualization, and take a moment to figure out who you are, you don’t do that one time at 17 or 18 years old,” she said. “I have done that several times. That’s where this transition came from as well.”
In 2011, Pickens was having some medical issues. So, she turned to her lifelong love of learning, or “being nosy,” as her grandmother called it, to find an alternative to the medications the doctor was prescribing. That research led her to make the transition to veganism “cold turkey.”
“Taking meat and dairy out of my personal diet was something I was interested in doing,” she said. “I had no clue what I would eat. I lost about 65 pounds. I lost a lot of muscle mass. I was very sick. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
She started her vegan journey by herself, but that didn’t last long. She was open about her experience on social media, and soon her family members and friends were joining her. “My mother got off her high blood pressure medicine when she decided to transition to veganism about five years ago,” Pickens said. “There were little wins along the way with the family joining in and my friends coming over seeing different foods.”
The journey took another turn when Pickens became hungry for more — literally. “I posted, ‘Man, I wish someone sold vegan food in Shreveport, because I am starving,’” she said. “I posted that one day in 2017, and people said, ‘You should do it.’
“I thought, ‘Maybe I should do it. But that’s silly. I didn’t go to culinary school.’”
She didn’t let that stop her, though. She took her creativity, her love of learning and the support from her family and friends and went to work. Her journey took her first to Dr. Sebi, a Honduran herbalist known for developing alkaline vegan recipes. She calls that a “traditional” vegan diet — one that “is not fun or good or tasty to eat.” She said it wasn’t until others, especially her daughter, Jalynn, joined her on her journey that “the fun happened.”
“When it was just me, I was just being sad and eating the boring stuff,” she said. “When they came into the picture, they wanted things we were accustomed to eating. My daughter was a teenager at the time. She didn’t want quinoa. She wanted burgers and pizza.”
Pickens sat with her daughter, her mother, Linda, and her sister, Kimberly, and discussed how to make vegan food better. They found their biggest inspiration in her late grandmother, Mary Southall.
“She has woven herself into the legacy of our business,” Pickens said. “A lot of the things we learned just by being in her kitchen, all the little tips we remembered, we use those in our food. It’s become something we love to eat at home.”
Pickens started out selling prepared meals out of her mother’s house. It became popular quickly, she said, and she knew it was time to turn it into a business. But she didn’t know any more about launching a business than she did teaching college or vegan cooking when she started those ventures. So, she once again turned to her lifelong love of learning.
“I know that my connections and people I have met through Southern University over the past 20 years have put me in a place with certain people that I can ask questions of,” she said. “So, I started asking.”
What she found was the Milam Street Kitchen Incubator and Community Kitchen, which provides food entrepreneurs with commercial kitchen space and the business education to grow their operations. “I was almost salivating when I saw that kitchen equipment,” she said. “We could really legitimize our business by coming this way.”
Pickens opened Vegans on the Run in June of 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. She said that unique situation gave her the chance to “learn along the way.” Linda, Kimberly, and Jalynn all work with Joslin sharing responsibilities for the day-to-day operations.
Vegans on the Run continues to operate out of MS KICK at 1210 Milam St. It offers curbside pickup from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and Sunday, as well as meal prep pickup from noon to 1 p.m. on Sunday. The menu and online ordering are available at thevegansontherun.com.
In November of last year, Pickens received the ATHENA International Leadership Award from the Greater Shreveport Chamber of Commerce.
“That had to be the most surreal moment of my life,” she said. “I get emotional even thinking about it. Being nominated for something so prestigious, and then actually receiving it, has been the biggest highlight of my last decade, and one of the highlights of my life.”
The recognition helped her to see how far the once-aspiring fashion designer has come.
“When you’re in the journey, you don’t think of all the things you do,” Pickens said. “I just live. I just work. I just do. I don’t think of it as being exceptional. Being acknowledged for doing exceptional things when you’re just being yourself is really cool. It brought it back to me, like, ‘Oh wow, you really have made an impact.’”
The recognition is another part of a legacy that remains important to Pickens, for her own sake and her daughter’s. It’s a legacy of life, liberty, and learning.
“I feel like I am such a novice at so many things, and people laugh at that. They say, ‘You’re the expert.’ I want to know so much. I think that thirst for knowledge is what catapulted everything that I do and made me push toward excellence.”