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Female Disruptors: How Rohini Dey, Ph.D. is shaking up the culinary industry

…Hunkering down, doing good work and hoping the world will stop and notice doesn’t work. Women especially have to get out there, meet people, cultivate mentors, share our contribution, ensure we get credit, and ask for what we deserve. Developing the confidence and skill set to be your own best advocate goes a long way; it’s a virtuous cycle of being heard more, contributing more, and reaping more of the gratification. This obviously has to be backed by substance and done artfully.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Rohini Dey, Ph.D. Rohini is a speaker and writer on women’s leadership issues in the workplace and in the boardroom, as well as the founder/owner of Vermilion Restaurant. She has experienced four blue-blooded careers including teaching International Business; as an economist at the World Bank; and a management consultant with McKinsey & Co., before leaving for the world of restaurants to become an entrepreneur. She founded Vermilion in Chicago 15 years ago and Vermilion in New York City for a decade and is a Trustee of the James Beard Foundation. Her restaurants have been lauded for their unique Indian-Latin melding including by Travel + Leisure, Town & Country, Bon Appetit, USA Today, Esquire (Best Restaurant); and given raves by TIME, FT, The Wall Street Journal and a litany of others. Along the way, Rohini has become a passionate advocate for women and is determined to blast the “gastro-ceiling” in the culinary industry.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Being a restaurateur was never what I imagined for my future. My father was a fighter pilot for the Indian Air Force and I grew up across 12 different cities in India. At age 12, I knew I wanted to change the world — coming to the U.S. to get my Ph.D. and working at the World Bank and McKinsey was part of my script. That trajectory deviated radically in 2003: although food was booming (dining out, food TV, media), Indian fare was stuck in an appalling cheap curry-in-a-hurry rut. Going entrepreneurial to tackle that niche appealed tremendously to me and I jumped ship into the world of restaurants. I imagined entertaining (and slinging back drinks) with celebrities at my bars; when not guiding the whimsical genius creations in my kitchens. The reality couldn’t be more different.

What is it about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

After my past careers, I was no stranger to the paucity of women in the top rungs of any profession. Despite that, the dearth of women in leadership roles as executive chefs (7% according to Bloomberg) or as mega-restaurateurs stunned me. Women are confined to the lower rungs or the softer side (cold stations, pastry). Restaurants are an over $860 billion industry, over half of consumer spending on food is in restaurants and is growing exponentially. This industry is staffed overwhelmingly by women, but not at the top. The magnitude of the scale of opportunity with the depth of the gastro-ceiling problem blew me away, so I set out to disrupt this.

I teamed up with the James Beard Foundation (best known for their annual ‘Oscars of the Food Industry’ awards) in 2012 to create our leadership program for women to leapfrog their careers. Over the years we involved over 30 of the top restaurant groups spanning the country (including Jose Andres in D.C., Douglas Group in Seattle, 21c Hotels and Bacchanalia in the South, LEYE and Boka Group in the Midwest) as mentors to fund and formally train our female mentees. I’ve always been a strong proponent of women getting out of the softer “pink cage” of any business and into the core, to cook less and own more. We broadened the focus at the JBF to entrepreneurship for women with our successive Women’s Leadership Programs, including the recent “Owning It” forum that I helped launch and our business webinars.

Beyond the culinary industry, I’ve spoken on supporting women for the U.S. Department of State (Global Entrepreneurship Summit); was invited to the White House during the Obama administration (to meet with the Center for Women and Girls).; and my TEDxUChicago is on “Beyond MeToo.” I have also been featured by CNBC as a female restaurateur and spoken on political forums for parity. I also write actively (for Crain’s Chicago Business, HuffPo, Chicago Sun Times, McKinsey, Nation’s Restaurant News). Essentially, I use all means possible to inspire women to vanquish the aspiration, confidence and financing gaps.

It’s a long journey ahead, but I do believe the time is right for us to act now. We have to think beyond the low bar of MeToo or eradicating harassment. Each and every one of us can make a difference. My activism around women is using my small business as a platform to create a large footprint. My goal is for women to own half our sky.

We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors? Can you share how they made an impact?

I’ve been fortunate to have amazing mentors every step of the way. Over time, I developed my own networks of women mentors within The Chicago Network, the International Women’s Forum, and The Women’s Forum of NY. I used to cringe about networking early in my career and then realized the value — these women have been my friends, investors, contacts for favors, helped me with my business. Then there are the far-off women that I admire tremendously with my policy wonk hat — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Janet Yellen, Christine Lagarde. For support, positivity, as a sounding-board, a life partner and tag-team partner at home and with our two daughters — — it’s definitely my husband. Climbing Kilimanjaro together was a testament to our scaling heights jointly.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

“Be your own best self-advocate.”

Hunkering down, doing good work and hoping the world will stop and notice doesn’t work. Women especially have to get out there, meet people, cultivate mentors, share our contribution, ensure we get credit, and ask for what we deserve. Developing the confidence and skill set to be your own best advocate goes a long way; it’s a virtuous cycle of being heard more, contributing more, and reaping more of the gratification. This obviously has to be backed by substance and done artfully.

How are you going to shake things up next?

My goal is to bring “Seven Deadly Wins” for women’s parity to the front and center of our Presidential platforms and policy actions. That the U.S. ranks 51st for women’s equality (WEF) and this is trending down is a disgrace for the world’s most powerful country. Women in the U.S. can’t keep marching and MeToo-ing for centuries more, we need a jolt to our system. There’s much we can learn from the rest of the world in this sphere. I’ve written on this and I’m determined to speak on this — LOUDLY!

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

No story, but I’m an NPR, BBC World News and New York Times addict. I am an avid reader and carry two books with me all the time. I’ve always found “favorites” is a tricky question, it constantly morphs for me.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“When you’re knocked down, get right back up and never listen to anyone who says you can’t or shouldn’t go on.” — Hillary Clinton

We always meet naysayers in every walk of life, personal and professional. I feel very fortunate with the education, career and opportunities I have had, and with what I’ve made of it. I want to continue leveraging my platforms for the biggest impact possible. I will continue to fall and get right back up.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Rohini is on Twitter at @rohinivermilion, Instagram @deyrohini, and LinkedIn at LinkedIn.com/in/rohini-dey-ph-d.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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