Women’s History Month is a celebration of the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. In honor of Women’s History Month, GHJ Partner and Food and Beverage Practice Leader Donald Snyder sat down with the “Queen of Vegan Cheese”
Chef Miyoko Schinner, Founder and CEO of Miyoko’s Creamery, to discuss her journey to become a highly successful entrepreneur and trailblazer in the vegan food industry.
A SECRET HOPE FOR SUCCESS
You started your business in 2014, selling vegan versions of European-style cheese wheels, cream cheese and butter made with organic ingredients, such as nuts and legumes with no fillers, additives or artificial ingredients. Did you expect it to grow into the huge success that it is now?
I secretly hoped that it would be a success, but I did not believe that it would. I think that is a conundrum that many women face. We tend to underestimate our abilities, and we often present our own obstacles to success. I have been a serial entrepreneur for 35 years and have had several businesses — many of them have not done well. I think it is very common for women to not declare their hopes to the world because they are afraid it will not go well or that they will be laughed at. In my heart, I wanted the company to grow to be a big success. In my mind, I told myself I wanted to stay small purposefully because I did not want to fail.
Over time, I allowed myself to dream bigger and gain confidence. There is a lot of self-doubt and doubt from the outside world, and I believe women frequently succumb to this. My recommendation to women is to start believing in yourself. Do not be afraid to have a little bravado — chances are you know a lot more than you give yourself credit for.
THE CHEESE PLATTER THAT CHANGED IT ALL
DS: You are extremely influential in the food industry and admired by many people. How did you originally come up with your business concept?
MS: I had been a vegan for 35 years, and — like many other vegans — giving up cheese was the hardest thing to do. I was a “cheating vegan” and would occasionally allow myself to have pizza or share a lovely cheese platter. I always had it on my bucket list to come up with some fantastic vegan cheeses, and I threw myself into experimenting with plant-based cheeses. My husband and I hosted a party where we served both regular gourmet cheese and some vegan cheeses I made. I wanted to see how people would react to them, and they loved it. So I decided to write a cookbook to empower people to make their own vegan cheese. It became a cult classic. Someone eventually approached me to be their executive chef and make cheese. I decided to start my own company — so I did.
REDEFINING THE PROTOTYPE OF SUCCESS
DS: Your story resonates with me because I know other women who got started in a similar way. What do you think is the biggest barrier to entry right now for a woman in the food industry?
MS: I honestly believe there is gender bias coming from the woman herself as well as from the outside world. We have an unconscious bias that when we picture an expert in the field; somehow in our minds there is an older, white guy who has an MBA. We have to make an effort to even imagine a powerful woman. I think we are still in the midst of transitioning to fully believing in ourselves.
I even experience unconscious bias in my own company. There have been several occasions where an associate will be asking a male employee questions in a meeting rather than talking to me directly. You hear about this all the time in Silicon Valley, but I never imagined it would exist in the world of natural foods. It does — it is everywhere. The only way to overcome it is to first recognize it and overcome it in yourself. From there, you have to work very hard to show compassion toward people that have bias toward you while remaining very clear about who you are and what you are trying to achieve.
DS: You definitely do hear about this all the time. I would like to think things have improved, but I know it still goes on.
MS: It still goes on. It is not as blatant, and I think often the perpetrators are not even aware, and it is unintentional. Often when people are made aware of it, they are apologetic. You cannot get angry about it or riled up. You have to have compassion for people. That is how we win.
DS: It is something we will need to work on by calling attention to the issue. I hope that by creating a discussion around it, we will be able to change behaviors over time.
LIFTING UP OTHER WOMAN ENTREPRENEURS
DS: Your experiences as a serial entrepreneur, you must have lots of advice and best practices to share from your own personal experience. How do you support other women in the industry?
MS: I have mentored a number of women over the years as a member of Organic Sustainable Community, which has recently been rebranded as One Step Closer. We go through six-month periods where we mentor business owners who are not quite as far along as we are. As a woman, I have a certain place in my heart for female entrepreneurs. There is usually someone that I am mentoring to the best of my ability because there is a lot that I still have to learn as well.
DS: I think we all can feel that way at times. Do you have a mentor?
MS: I do not have an official mentor, though there have been many people over the years who have mentored me. I do have a female CEO coach. As a person growing with a very fast-paced company, there are all sorts of issues that arise. I need someone to talk to in order to help me think through issues like fundraising, company culture or personnel. When I realized I had my own growing to do, I got a CEO coach.
DS: I imagine the issues you were dealing with in 2014 are quite a bit different than what you are seeing now — and quite a bit different than what we have all seen in the past year. Were some of your initial business plans for 2020 sidetracked because of the pandemic?
MS: We definitely had to pivot like everybody else. None of us knew what was going to happen or even if the pandemic was going to blow over after a few months. Our primary concern was keeping our employees safe. We took a 25-percent hit to our efficiency last year in order to separate shifts and manufacturing lines. I am proud to say we did not have a single COVID-19 transmission here at work.
At the same time, we also launched new products with co-packers. We expanded our cheeses out of the premium market in April, right when people stopped shopping and going to stores. We had to innovate to adapt to the new realities of not being able to leverage promotions or marketing like we originally planned, which included leasing a food truck to travel and promote our new cheeses. Instead, we rerouted the truck to first responders, homeless and community shelters and underserved communities. We started giving out grilled cheese sandwiches everyday just to feed people who were hungry.
We also pivoted our social media from a sales perspective to a focus on how we could bring comfort into our customers’ homes during lockdown. This included launching a cooking show called, “Miyoko’s Home Comforts.” We ran segments teaching people how to cook, discussing pantry staples or how to make simple and healthy meals.
When Black Lives Matter happened, we showcased Black chefs on the show. We decided to make the company more personable and discuss more than just cooking — social issues, animal rights, sanctuary and more. People started feeling more connected and a part of the brand.
Lastly, we had originally planned to do a big Series-C fundraising effort. After the pandemic hit, we no longer felt the timing was appropriate, so instead we cut programs and stopped spending money. The company was able to stretch cash out to get through the rest of the year — and despite all of these challenges, we still grew 70 percent last year.
DS: That is incredible. That is amazing growth. I am going to ask you one last question: In the spirit of the 2021 International Women’s Day theme, how do you #ChooseToChallenge and call out gender bias or inequity?
MS: I think pointing out the inequity of gender is something that everybody does, but I would like to promote a more positive message: for women to believe in themselves. Any time you turn something around externally or blame gender bias, you also take the focus off yourself. Inequities exist — they are true. The way we are going to rise above them is to believe in ourselves.
Believe in yourself, build yourself and proudly announce yourself to the world. Giving yourself the strength and conviction to speak with compassion, with caring and with love is much more powerful than focusing on the inequalities.
Chef Miyoko Schinner is Founder and CEO of Miyoko’s Creamery and is widely known for inventing the artisan vegan cheese category and her groundbreaking cookbook, Artisan Vegan Cheese. Growing up as a vegetarian, she was largely influenced by the rich and flavorful French cuisine and gourmet cheeses that were a huge trend in the 1980s in her home city of Tokyo. Miyoko is passionate about touching people through food and touching animals through activism and care. Whether in the kitchen or on her co-founded animal sanctuary, Rancho Compasión, she pioneers the animal-free transformation of the dairy industry. Miyoko is also recognized by the United Nations as a “Vegan Revolutionary” in its “The Future of Women” global initiative.