Irene Li, Founder of Prepshift
Irene Li wants to transform the restaurant world into an industry in which workers’ needs and potential are taken seriously. Irene believes professionalizing and improving restaurant employment has the potential to uplift millions of workers and small business owners.
Irene is the co-founder of Mei Mei, a restaurant-turned-dumpling-company based in Boston, Massachusetts. As a self-taught cook, she’s spent the last decade drawing on her Chinese-American heritage and her love of New England ingredients to create unusual and playful food. She is a six-time James Beard Award Rising Star Chef nominee. Inspired by her peers, team members, and experiences in the industry, she is now driving change in restaurants by creating tools and resources to support businesses of all sizes to thrive sustainably and equitably.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I’m from Boston originally and grew up in a Chinese American family. We ate all kinds of food growing up, including Chinese food, and I basically became obsessed with food all throughout childhood. In college, I realized that I could eat whatever I wanted if I cooked it myself, so I fell in love with cooking and I would Google recipes and watch food shows. This led me to open a food truck with my brother and sister in Boston called Mei Mei, which means a ‘little sister’ in Mandarin Chinese. We subsequently opened a restaurant and then, during COVID, made a bunch of pivots and turned the business into a dumpling company. This transition gave me the freedom to start pursuing other things. I’ve always been interested in social and economic justice, especially when they pertain to how food is grown, prepared, and served. At Mei Mei, we tried different ways of raising the standard of employment. One of the things we did was adopt open book management so that everyone on the team had access to the financials. We paid them to basically learn about the restaurant business and we looked at all the financials together each month. We were really excited about this and how much it helped our employees understand the context of their day-to-day work. But then COVID happened, and we pivoted while thinking about how to impact the industry more broadly. Of course, COVID has been an insane time for the restaurant industry and there’s lots of room for growth. When Mei Mei was on its way to becoming a dumpling company, I wasn’t sure if I want to be that involved in it. I worked on our business for eight years and so I started to think about what else I wanted to do. This led my business partner, Dylan, and I to apply to Visible Hands and want to tackle this big problem around employment in restaurants, which has a lot to do with wages, culture, and standardized employment practices.
Could you tell us what you’re building at Visible Hands?
We are working on building a tool that will help restaurant owners onboard, orient, and train their staff in a way that builds positive culture and improves retention. Unfortunately, a lot of restaurants have this negative feedback loop where a restaurant owner hires someone and they think, ‘the last person I hired left after two weeks so I’m not going to invest in this person until they prove themselves or until they stay for a certain amount of time.’ The employee shows up and they’re like, ‘Oh, no one here gives a shit about me, so it doesn’t matter if I don’t do my job very well.’ Or sometimes they do the best they can but they don’t have the tools to perform well and to feel like they belong, so the employee leaves. This is the horrible feedback loop that Dylan and I as restaurant consultants see all the time, even with really well-meaning values-oriented operators. They’re just being pulled in so many different directions that really investing in the staff that they hire can’t be a priority for them. So, we’re basically applying a lot of the best practices for orientation and acculturation to the restaurant industry.
What has your experience been like in the VH Fellowship program so far?
It’s been really exciting and also really confusing. I feel very much like a fish out of water coming from a food and small business background. I know that that’s how I’m supposed to feel given the situation, but it still is a little scary. We did a team workshop and I had to ask the people in my group to explain blockchain to me like I was a five-year-old. After being the leader of a business for so long, going back to a beginner’s mindset has been really interesting for me and I’m a little out of practice. But I think the key thing that I’ve really tried to keep in mind is that I am not supposed to know anything I don’t know. It’s okay to ask for help and it’s okay to ask someone to explain something to me like a child. We also changed our focus a couple weeks ago which is scary but we’re reminding ourselves that the time we spent wasn’t a waste and that we had to go through that in order to get to where we’re going. Plus, we’ll probably do that several more times.
What would you say is your favorite aspect of the program so far?
My favorite part of the program is just getting to see all of the work that’s happening and what the other fellows are doing. It’s such a new way to think about the world’s problems and being able to see all of the ideas that are getting generated and acted upon is super interesting. When you work in a specific industry, you think about innovation as it pertains to that industry and you think about culture as it pertains to that industry. So just having more exposure to the innovations that are happening in, for example, family planning and elder care or the metaverse has been really cool. It’s like having access to a digest of cool shit that cool people are thinking about.
What are you looking forward to the most by the end of the fellowship?
I’m looking forward to seeing how and what people do after this. I really think of this fellowship as the very first step in building relationships and building networks. I know that one day 10 years down the line, I’ll be like, ‘remember when I met you?’ It feels like I’m putting down roots in a new ecosystem and I’m excited to see what it grows into. I also think I’m excited to finish the fellowship. I know there’s not a formal graduation or a stopping point at all, but I think that during the fellowship, I’ve been very conscious of what we can accomplish in 14 weeks. So I think there’s part of me that’s excited to turn the page and feel that sense of accomplishment, especially in a situation where goals and milestones are just changing all the time. It’ll be nice to say, ‘okay, we did that.’
Entrepreneurship is not easy. What is your motivation for doing this day in and day out?
I think a large part of my work around restaurants is primarily selfish, but I basically just want cool restaurants. I don’t want chains for the rest of my life. I also think about my grandparents who owned restaurants and when it was a practical pathway towards the American dream-adjacent goals and lifestyles. I think right now, the industry is getting less and less practical as a way to take care of your family and make something for yourself, or your family, in this country. So I would like to change that. I want restaurants to be a great industry that people want to work in because right now it kind of chews people up and spits them out. And that’s really sad because there are a lot of great people out there.
Where do you see yourself in 5–10 years?
I see myself, hopefully, getting to work with lots of other small businesses and supporting their growth, whether that’s food businesses or other kinds of startups. I want to try providing the resources that I’ve been privileged enough to have and really pay that forward by supporting other people’s hopes and dreams. I can also see myself taking advantage of all the connections I’ve made at Visible Hands, and hopefully, I’m eating at really cool mom-and-pop immigrant-owned under-the-radar restaurants all the time.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I think something that I think about a lot is how we as entrepreneurs feel insecure or unsure a lot of the time. I think that making space for the emotional journey of entrepreneurship is something that Visible Hands has done a really good job with, and I think it’s something that doesn’t get talked about as much. Particularly in food, that side of being a business owner is very seldom referenced, if at all. So I think something I appreciate is that there’s a space for acknowledging that this is really scary, it feels crazy at times, and you feel like you have no idea what you’re doing. That’s something this community has really helped me be more in tune with.