By Aryenish Birdie | July 27, 2017

The “Role Model Effect” shows that when people of color, women, or other under-supported groups are in leadership positions, it inspires others who look similar or who have had similar experiences to aspire to that same level. One of my personal role models is Miyoko Schinner, a strong and powerful woman of color who is the founder and CEO of one of my favorite vegan companies, Miyoko’s Kitchen.

I asked her about the role of mentorship (a program Encompass plans to create for advocates of color) and what the intersection of gender and race has looked like in her life.

AB: Why did you decide to start Miyoko’s Creamery Products?

MS: There was a need for a company to grow to a substantial degree that would also have a breadth of options, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to be that company. I’d been an entrepreneur most of my life owning restaurants and other food businesses but some of my past companies fared better than others.

I had been successfully writing books and giving talks but as I went around talking to people I kept hearing “I love your book but it’s a hassle to make cheese. Can you make it so I can buy it?”

I hesitated for a while, but one day I was talking to Seth Tibbott, founder of Tofurky (and later on, Billy Bramblett of Wildwood Organic) and things changed. Even though I had previously had a company that was a competitor of Tofurky, Seth encouraged me to start a cheese company and told me he’d invest in it if I did.

I didn’t have the confidence and wasn’t sure I could make this company succeed. I didn’t think I could do it again and I didn’t want to risk losing people’s money. But what gave me confidence to start the company was very simple—it was Seth saying, “You can do this and if you do it I’ll be there to help.”

AB: It sounds like getting a vote of confidence and access to a mentor was really important to you as you founded Miyoko’s Kitchen. Have you been able to offer this to other entrepreneurs?

MS: Yes, I try to encourage people at every opportunity I can. People call me all the time and ask for help with marketing, distribution, and just general advice. I want to help small companies thrive because we need to grow this category and get more players in the field.

As a board member of the Plant-Based Foods Association, I’m currently mentoring a small company and it’s been fruitful for both of us. There was a situation that arose where they thought they were making a certain product but we discovered they were, in fact, making a product line. It was inspiring to help them grow.

I do believe in the power of mentorship and have had the good fortune to have mentors over the years. People need to remember we’re collaborating in order to grow the plant-based category together. We shouldn’t be competing against each other. Of course there’s proprietary information, but there’s a lot of room for cross promotion and cross pollination. Miyoko’s Creamery promotes other cheese brands on social media and I try to do so in my talks too. I’m all for the power of the community, even in a competitive industry.

AB: How has being a woman of color helped empower your brand? How has it been difficult?

MS: I’ve been on a bunch of panels recently where I’m the sole woman on the panel surrounded by white males. It’s always an interesting dynamic but I’m not scared of it—I just speak louder.

When I go to trade shows I’ve noticed that people naturally gravitate to the one older white male in the group. They’ll assume that that’s the person they should talk to. Eventually someone will say, “You should talk to her.”

At a recent trade show, a man came up to me and said, “I saw you yesterday but I thought you were one of the workers. I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you then.” Those were his words. He made it clear he wasn’t trying to insult me, but I’m sure he thought that because I’m a woman of color. The way I look can impact perceptions and it’s not necessarily for the better.

On the other hand, being a woman of color makes me more accessible. It’s created an interest in the company because people connect to me to in a way they may not to a white male CEO. People have told me I seem like someone you can just talk to. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a woman of color, or if it’s because we’re doing more on social media, but I’ve had people approach me and tell me, “You seem like a real person.”

AB: Forbes reported on a study conducted by the Center for Women Policy Studies and found that more than one-third of women of color believe that they must “play down” their race or ethnicity to succeed. What advice would you give to women of color who feel this way?

MS: I’ve always underestimated and undervalued what I can do. I always go in thinking I don’t have all the answers so I need to hire someone who does. It is important to surround yourself with the best people you possibly can, but I’ve realized over time that I know more than I think I do going into the situation.

I am still gaining confidence but as women we to tend to underestimate our own abilities. You don’t need to be perfect, you just need to be yourself. Don’t play down your gender and race or anything. The more you play these down, the more you hurt yourself. You can’t act like someone else. Just be yourself.

Because I came to this county (from Japan) when I was seven and it was the 1960s after World War II, I faced some racial discrimination. I was in elementary school with kids who had parents who had a lot of anti-Japanese sentiment. I grew up being called a “Jap” and was told, “You bombed Pearl Harbor.” I felt ashamed of being Japanese at the time but I grew out of it and all of those experiences gave me thicker skin.

AB: Why are you excited to see Encompass launch?

MS: It’s great any time there’s a new platform that helps women and people grow into being valued human beings not just for themselves but for the world. It’s wonderful, and we need more of this. We need to encourage all women to value themselves because it’s only in valuing themselves that they will they be valued by the world.