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Rohini Dey - Vermilion Restaurateur And Founder Of Let's Talk Womxn

Finding success in a single career path is hard, but today's guest managed to do the improbable four times and counting. Rohini Dey moved from academia to the World Bank, McKinsey and now the restaurant business. She is the founder and owner of Vermilion, an Indian-Latin fusion restaurant in Chicago. She is also the founder of Let's Talk Womxn, which connects and empowers women restaurateurs to support each other's businesses and collaboratively battle the pandemic. Rohini joins J.R Lowry to share her journey. The two discuss the glass ceiling in the different industries and share ways we, as a society, can make moves toward progress. Tune in to their discussion to learn all about it.


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Rohini Dey - Vermilion Restaurateur And Founder Of Let's Talk Womxn

In this episode, I have the pleasure of welcoming Rohini Dey, whom I met when we both worked at McKinsey years ago. Rohini is the Founder and Owner of Vermilion, an Indian-Latin fusion restaurant in Chicago, and the past owner of Vermilion New York. She's also the Founder of Let's Talk Womxn, an organization now connecting over 600 women restaurateurs across 13 cities to support each other's businesses and collaboratively battle the pandemic. She is also a former World Bank economist.

She was on the board of the James Beard Foundation for a decade, where she cofounded and has chaired the James Beard Foundation Women's Leadership Program since 2011. She has been lauded as one of the top 50 leaders in the restaurant industry and named among Time Out's Women of the Year for founding Let's Talk. She writes op-eds and speaks on policy, business, and women's parity. She's been featured in a number of publications, many of which you would know.

She's a frequent judge on the Food Network, and her restaurants have mentored and launched chefs on Chopped, Iron Chef, and Top Chef who have gone on to own their own businesses. Rohini earned her undergraduate and Master's degrees in Delhi and her PhD from the University of Texas. In sum, she straddles the worlds of business and philanthropy across the US and India. She is a fierce proponent of women.

She has earned a number of awards and accolades over the years. She is also a mother of two, a marathoner, and a triathlete, and she and her husband successfully climbed Mount Kilimanjaro for her 40th birthday.

Rohini, you put everybody to shame. I abbreviated that version relative to your many accomplishments.

Let's dive in. The story goes that when you were a child, around the age of twelve, you set your sights on working at McKinsey and the World Bank. Is that true, or is that the media?

I don't know where you got McKinsey into it, but the World Bank is for sure. My school was in Delhi. This was in eighth grade. Opposite our school were the swank buildings of the UN and the World Bank. These were whole different universes, all cordoned off. I vividly remember going there as a thirteen-year-old in my uniform and stepping into the air-conditioned, dustless aura of their reception. I'm asking the receptionist, "I want to get a job here. How do I get a job with you guys?" They laughed at me and said, "Go get a PhD and come back." That's exactly what I did. That part of it is true.

You got your undergraduate and Master's degrees in Economics, and then you went to the University of Texas. How did you come to choose the University of Texas to do your doctoral work?

This was before the internet days. I had very little research to go on. There was this ancient outpost of the US called USIS. They had old decrepit catalogs of universities lying there. It was like throwing a dartboard. I remember going and getting my applications typewritten. I sent them out, and whoever gave me a full ride and full scholarship for a PhD was the one I would go with. This was it.

Money does matter when you're considering those things. I was going to ask you how long it took you to get your PhD done.

It was a total of 7 years, but with the 2-year leave of absence to work and publish at the World Bank in between, so 5 years.

When you left the University of Texas and had your PhD, did you go back to the World Bank, or was that when you went to McKinsey?

That was a segue to McKinsey.

Going back to the World Bank for a minute, what was it like there? Since you were thirteen years old, you'd wanted to work at the World Bank. Did it live up to the hype?

I was based in DC, and I was very fortunate to work on missions that I cared about. This was the era of Glasnost and Perestroika, and state-owned enterprises were being unbundled and privatized. I was working in infrastructure, privatization, and on missions to South America. I lived in the glamorous world of water, sewage, posts, and telecom. I learned a heck of a lot. The pace of work and the learning curve didn't live up to what I was aspiring for. With that being said, a lot of good work is done there. I realized that I needed to hone my learning skills elsewhere.

Even so, are there things that you took away that have stayed with you since then?

I'm very passionate about development policy, politics, and economics. That is my first love. I read about it passionately. Who knows? Maybe a fifth career is in store for me.

You did go to McKinsey. Why did you choose McKinsey?

CSCL 5 | Restaurant Business

Restaurant Business: In the restaurant Business, women always pick the softer side of the profession. Either they pick it or are relegated to it and never really get the chance to lead the entire kitchen and learn the inside of costing, sourcing, HR training, and all the things you need to know.


The easy answer is because my husband was there, or at that point, my fiancé. A longer answer was even when I was at the World Bank, whenever there was a challenging issue, analytical or deep problem solving was involved, it was outsourced to consultants. That was my first exposure to consulting. That drew me. In fact that whole aura around how impossible it is to get into and its elusiveness was a challenge. I thought, "Let me throw my hat in the ring." I always had backup options. Academia was my backup option. I did not want to go there. That was always a place I could go and wanted to try the least.

Did you pursue certain types of projects that carried on that development theme you had at the World Bank, or did you do completely different things when you were at McKinsey?

I completely mismanaged my career at McKinsey. I took a shotgun approach. Every project I did was a new team, industry, and client. Every project was an incredibly uphill learning curve with no relationships to build upon. It's a very hard way to go. The flip side of it is I learned so much from everything, including about chemicals, dog food, virtual insurance, banking, and asset management.

I did a broad variety of things when I was there, too, even to a degree after I became a partner, which is a little bit uncommon. I suffered from being too much of a jack-of-all-trades in the end.

You left McKinsey and made what could only be viewed as a pretty significant career change, diving into the restaurant world. What led you into the restaurant world from the World Bank and McKinsey?

This was the era when Food Network was booming. It had just gotten started.

It's still booming.

Not only that but it's proliferated across every other channel as well. From CNN to Bravo, everybody's doing shows around the world of food or the business of food, even CNBC. My background in India was across twelve different cities. My father was in the Air Force. I've eaten my way through the country, and I'm overtly biased about Indian cuisine. This was the time when Nobu had transformed the perception of the Japanese food in the US.

I'd seen Indian booming in parts of the world that are much more exposed to the Indian culture for obvious reasons, whether it's Southeast Asia, Singapore, Hong Kong, or London with its ties. It's done well. Here, it was failing. It was primarily the whole India Garden and Jaipur Palace genre. That's where in my modesty I set about to change that.

You've talked in the past about having these glamorous visions of hanging out at the bar and entertaining celebrities, but you said the reality couldn't have been more different. In those early days, what was it about the restaurant business that most surprised you?

I approached it as a classical McKinsey consultant would. I met with 30 to 40 different managers. I did all my due diligence and got all my information outside in, but it's a notoriously secretive industry. What you see is not what is delivered. I even went and lived with a restaurateur for a week and shadowed him inside out to figure out the financial viability of it. I was throwing away a lucrative career to jump into entrepreneurship, which I never had, and to jump into an industry which I knew nothing about other than dining out and expensing.

Once I was convinced, that took me a good two months of due diligence, then I spent a year getting it off the ground. Here too, I made myself work plans and deliverables and got help where I needed, like hiring the team, setting up the kitchen, sourcing the permits, marketing, the whole launch, and the menu testing. I had hiccups along the way, but I learned a lot about it. Every step was learning.

It sounds like you put your business background to good use.

I did, but I missed the backup support of the corporate world. There's no HR, legal, and IT. It was me doing everything. No back stops. There's no intellectual capital that you can count on per se.

In any entrepreneurial venture, you end up taking on a lot of those roles yourself until the company at least gets to be a certain size where you can start to afford to hire people to do HR, IT, and other things.

You had some big-name backers, including the author, Salman Rushdie. How important was that to your success, and in particular, how did they help you get started and going other than financially?

Raising the money was not easy for a good reason, because restaurants are a 90% failure industry within five years and a notoriously fickle market. For the funds for Chicago, I had to approach close to 80 investors to get them to agree. Interestingly, the bulk of those landed up being McKinsey, not people I'd worked with, though. There was some internal amount of faith and having the success of Chicago financially, where we paid off investors and debt within the first two years and got a ton of press and accolades.

That was entirely on our own merit based on the cuisine and the whole Indian-Latin concept. That was the right time, and we did it well. That proved to be enormously helpful.

I'm a groupie about books and authors, so I wanted to involve the leading Indian community when I went to New York. Having the success of Chicago was very helpful, and that led to Rushdie. Not only him but a bunch of other people, including the Founder of Hotmail, Sabeer Bhatia, and others.

Restaurants are a 90% failure industry within five years and a notoriously fickle market. Click To Tweet

I've seen the list mentioned in articles about your restaurants, and it's a pretty impressive list. You haven't ever acted as a chef in your restaurants, but you're known to take a pretty hands-on approach across the board. Where do you feel you're able to have the most impact? Are there particular areas of the business that you found yourself to be particularly adept at?

I wouldn't say adept, but I'd rather be dead than be in the kitchen cooking on a day-to-day basis. Outside, that's perceived as glamorous, and that's where the creativity is. Everybody thinks there are eureka moments and pristine chefs throwing together ingredients with joy and glee, but the inside couldn't be further from that. It is as close to incarceration as you can get in any profession. You're standing on your feet for 12 to 14 hours a day. It's grime, heat, and complete replication day after day other than the moments of innovation.

I love creating new dishes, whether it's with the team, or bringing back ideas from travels, or replicating cuisine from my childhood. Not only that, but the cocktails. I love the innovation, interior design, menu, space, ambiance, music, marketing, press, and PR. There's also a lot of grunt work behind it, whether it's permits or payroll. Some of that is outsourced, but given that now, it's one entity, a lot of it I do myself.

It's one of those businesses where there's the mystique and the glamour, but behind the scenes, there's an awful lot of grunt work required to get it up and running and keep it running every day.

With that being said, you have to stand out in any field. It's a challenge. That would be my forte if I were to name one. That is to help us stand above the pack, get the accolades we did, keep us fresh in the news through whichever angles, whether it is the cuisine, cocktails, working with the city, bringing the James Beard Foundation Awards to Chicago, boosting women, or writing. Staying top of mind is important.

You've got so many things that you're up to at once. If you're lacking mental stimulation in the day-to-day part of running a restaurant, you've certainly got plenty of other things that you keep yourself busy with.

Restaurants are a male-dominated industry. What was it like for you as an Indian woman breaking into that industry? Did you find it more challenging than the average person might find it? The restaurant business is tough in general.

I don't think I encountered any overt sexism or racism at all. I'm also very fortunate because of my background. I'm trained financially. I don't lack confidence. I know my numbers and I can talk to lessors, funders, financiers, and owners. In my industry, what I've coined as the gastro ceiling is fundamentally lower than the glass ceiling in corporations. I saw that with clients I worked with at McKinsey and at the World Bank. Making my dent in that has ended up being a passion, but I don't believe that I confronted any significant barriers myself.

You have been passionate about helping other women in the industry. You started the Women's Leadership Program when you got involved with the James Beard Foundation. Talk a little bit about what sparked that for you and how you got it started.

There were two things that I confronted in my industry. One is women always pick the softer side of the profession. Either they picked it or were relegated to it. In restaurants, that would be pastry and cold stations. They never got a chance to lead the entire kitchen and learn the inside out of costing, sourcing, HR training, and all the things you would need to know to be an executive chef. Even a lesser fraction were entrepreneurs or raising funds externally.

While you might get the numbers that 40% of restaurants are owned by women, very few crack the million-dollar mark, all because of financing. In my mind, breaking those barriers of external funding/financial literacy and changing aspirations and confidence are the two parallel prompts that I set out to address. With the James Beard Foundation, I met the president through the Women's Forum of New York. We were both members. I was very familiar with the foundation being in the industry.

I sat down with her and said, "Let's test a model of where we place a woman for one year with me. I'll apprentice her and see if we can get her to the executive chef level in a year. If we do that, then let's replicate it with 30 leading restaurateurs around the country." That's what we did for seven years. We started doing a mini MBA for women called the Women's Entrepreneurship Program. I launched something called Owning It, which was to introduce women to finances and figure out how to raise funds. We scaled that across cities. I led that for ten years, but a large part of that froze during the pandemic. That's when I switched skills.

Up until that point, you had to have helped hundreds of women advance their careers. That's amazing.

It's not just me solo. It's with the big James Beard Foundation. I was the one who started, shared and drove it. It was incredibly gratifying. It does take your eye away from the core. You have to be very careful about where you spread your passion and zeal because it's quite easy to drop one ball when you're juggling others.

This whole idea of a portfolio career that seems to be getting a lot of press these days is enticing in some ways. A lot of people, particularly on the back of this Great Resignation that's going on, are thinking about not having a traditional career path. Those things can be mutually reinforcing or completely distractive to each other. That's the hard part, to your point. It's a lot of balls to be juggling at once. Along the way, you were raising two girls, regularly speaking, running marathons, triathlons, and climbing mountains. How did you fit it all in?

I shafted everything! I married well, and my husband is as involved as I am in the house and with the girls. That's our holy covenant to each other. Nothing is in perfection. You learn to release guilt and amp up to where it's needed at the right time. We are both very involved parents. I can't believe one [of our girls] is already out of the house, and one is almost on her way out.

It's a big transition as a parent when that last child goes off to college.

We're going a little bit off the tangent now. You climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. How was that experience for you? My daughter and I did it in 2018. For us, it was fantastic.

CSCL 5 | Restaurant Business

Restaurant Business: It’s been a very interesting two years in the restaurant business during the pandemic. Everyone in the industry has done all the pivots possible, but it’s been rough.


That's always been a dream, doing it with my daughters. How old was she when she did it?

She was 23.

I had read a book by Michael Crichton when I was in India. It was essays on travel, and there was one chapter on Kilimanjaro. Ever since then, I have wanted to go. I thought to myself, "By the time I'm 40, I must do this." It was in the nick of time. Two weeks before my 40th birthday, Sajal and I went. He's my husband. That was his treat to me. No cocktail party or any of those shenanigans. It was one of the best things we have done. That last night when you hike up the mountain and then descend 10,000 feet is pushing yourself beyond endurance.

That's a very long day. We didn't do it that way. We did a little bit of an alternate trek that was a little bit more expensive. We went up during the day, that last 5,000 feet, and slept in the crater that night, and then hiked the 10,000 feet down the next day, which in a way, was much more civilized. The downside is we barely made it up there by sunset. It was a long day for us despite getting a start pretty early in the morning.

I don't think that was an option when I did it. Mine was in 2008, and I did Machame, the Whiskey route. There was a certain base point you could go up to at night and nothing above that. The crater was not an option. That's fascinating.

It was breathtaking up there. It was very cold. There was snow the year we went. We were sleeping, and it was like being in full-on winter conditions. The temperature got down to about 5 degrees Fahrenheit that night in the middle of Africa in the middle of August. It was a very weird thing leaving summer in the US for that.

We were trekking all night. We couldn't see one foot in front of the other with headlamps. We couldn't touch or feel anything all night. It was excruciating.

I woke up that morning and saw all the headlamps going up the mountain and thought, "That's a tough way to do it." Maybe another time, I'll try that approach.

Let's go back to the career. We were heading into the pandemic. You were at the tail end of remodeling Vermilion at that time and ended up shut for a period of time. What did you do to get through? How were you able to make it to take care of your employees and keep the business in a position where you could revive it when things got better?

Every time I tried to do something with Vermilion, I've caused either a global crisis or a global pandemic! It's like I'm the root cause. I opened Vermilion in New York in 2008. It was 14,000 square feet. It was the day that Lehman went bankrupt. The warnings were all out there. I was relaunching Vermilion [in Chicago] at the beginning of February 2020. It was pretty obvious [what we needed to do]. We closed our doors before the mandate. For the first 4 or 5 months, it was sheer agony and uncertainty because there was no relief, PPP, or grants. I was trying my best to sustain the core employees and support the rest to whatever extent I could because I had no idea how quickly I would have to bring them back.

Summer was my hope for relief in outdoor dining. There were no vaccines at that point, not even a glimmer of anything. Even testing was out of the question. We did it, and we reopened again in July 2020. It was a long 4 or 5 months of closure. Over the last few years, I've spent a good 1/5 of my time scrounging for finances, whether it is grants, negotiating contracts, talking to my lessors, and all sorts of avenues to keep things going because it has not come back to normal, even remotely.

Sometimes it feels very at the edge of the precipice. Sometimes I even question, "Why continue?" It's not obvious to me that there is an end in sight, given global inequity in vaccines. It's been very interesting years, be it everything that everyone in the industry has done. All the pivots possible: data, products, experiences, collaborations, the gamut, and more with Let's Talk Womxn. It's been rough.

You came up with that idea. Talk about how that got started.

That was an offspring of the pandemic. In July of 2020, when I was reopening, I reached out to women restaurateurs to try and figure out how they were thinking about opening. It was not the logistics but also the ethical and moral dilemma of, "Do we even want to do this, putting employees at risk to sell, and running retail?" The industry was not overtly helpful to us. We were getting a deluge of webinars on everything, and manuals, but they were pretty much not helpful. Our group of 10 to 15 women proved to be magically helpful to each other in very practical ways beyond anything I've ever confronted in my career to date.

I recollect going to so many conferences or industry forums where I would meet them. We would check each other out and move on. We couldn't get out of there fast enough, but this has changed the dynamic. Now in Chicago, it's a little over 50 of us, all women owners of businesses, restaurants, or entrepreneurs, and a total of maybe 90 restaurants amongst the group.

It's 13 cities, and 1 or 2 dropped out or fizzled out. We've launched another 3, and it's 600 women restaurateurs and entrepreneurs. I replicated and scaled that around the country. I have a couple of co-hosts that drive the economic collaborations and initiatives on the ground in each city. We've also done national events. We're very systematic about transferring learnings across from each other. It's beyond anything I expected it would be.

On top of what you were doing with the Women's Leadership Program, it provided another great way to help women in the industry. You talked about the gastro ceiling earlier in our discussion, and you've put a ton of time into helping women in the industry. Do you feel like the industry is opening up more to women than it did when you started out many years ago?

If there’s one thing we, as parents, should instill in our daughters, it is confidence and the skill set to speak up at all points Click To Tweet

I do. It's because of the #MeToo Movement that the press and journalism have sat up and started giving a little more of their view. I still think it's dominated by those who either have scale, which tends to be male restaurateur groups, or those who have PR dollars. It's a little bit of a catch-22. They tend to be on all the industry boards and dominate the conversations and the press. I do think it is getting better. It has a long way to go if you were to look at the economics and stats around this.

Most industries have a gender pay gap. A lot of industries are tougher for women than they are for men. I'm not surprised to hear what you're saying in the restaurant industry, particularly given that it tends to be such a male-dominated industry that the big chains are all typically led by men. Looking back over this whole time from the age of thirteen to now, you've had a bunch of different careers and done a number of things in parallel. Was there a point in time where you felt like, "I get myself. I know what I want to do. I know how I want to spend my professional time." Did you hit that point at any a-ha moment?

I don't think so because then I wouldn't have had these career changes. I started off in academia, the World Bank segue, McKinsey, and now entrepreneurship. I still quite often question, "What's my next chapter?" I can't discern if it's because of the desire for renewal, challenge, and aiming and aspiring for more, or whether it is a sign of waning interest or being fickle and not sticking with it enough. I can't decide which one it is. Am I committed to being an entrepreneur forever? I don't know. I have not grown enough yet. Let's put it that way.

Some people feel like they never grow up and never know what they want to do. They're always thinking, "I'll have another career." To me, that's great. Thinking that way keeps you young. It's a way of looking forward that isn't about, "I'm going to do this until I retire, and then I'm going to go do a traditional retirement." It's fantastic.

I could be convinced either way. I've seen people stick with the one with one thing, do it brilliantly, and reach places that you couldn't dream of. I've also seen people go and learn a lot and change careers. I've seen people who change careers a lot, flail and drop off their trajectory. That can happen even within one job. This is a longer discussion...

There's no one right answer. It's funny because I work with this group of career coaches and we have a bit of a debate about this option B thing. Too many of the people they coach feel like the grass is going to be greener somewhere else. They leave a good thing, move on, and are not as happy where they go and should have stayed where they were.

I've always looked at it from the perspective of, "You should at least have a backup plan." A lot of things are going on in the world that you can't control, like pandemics and layoffs. I'm sure there's some truth to the fact that people jump when they shouldn't have jumped.

You've had four different things, and you've done pretty well at all of them. There's something to be said for that. Are there strengths that you feel like you've drawn on again and again over the course of your different careers?

I do think that I'm incredibly perseverant. I will not take a no. I will find ways to solve around it until and unless I hit an absolutely overt impasse. I'm very solution-oriented. I am an optimist. Even at the worst of times, I will figure out ways to do things to make myself feel better, get to the next step, and drive through things. That and problem solving are my strengths.

What have you focused on developing along the way? How did you go about that?

I micromanage too much. I need to invest more in coaching people and delegating rather than taking over. I need to be much more strategic about my time. I need to set much better goals in terms of timelines and scales, stick to that and not divert myself with the next best thing I find interesting.

I am not a people person. I never was. I can fake it for professional purposes, but that's not a plus when you're in the hospitality industry. The one place you won't find me is on the floor having drinks or mingling with guests. I did that for a couple of years. It grew old fast. I outsource that, and that's fine. If it's not my strength and I can outsource it, why not? There's a lot that I do outsource because I'm not good at it.

You don't have to be good at everything. You need to understand your strengths and things that you're not so good at and find other people who can complement you and bring those skills to bear that in a way that you can't. You have to have built this network up over the years, with the involvement with the James Beard Foundation, all the things you've done in Chicago, Let's Talk Womxn, and the network you've built there. How do you use the network now to help you do what you're trying to do?

I haven't gotten to that point yet. I'm trying to figure that out. I'm very energized with Let's Talk Womxn. We have a whole pipeline of initiatives that we want to work on that go beyond collaborations and food and speak to a lot of larger entrepreneurial undertakings. I'm enthused about that. I'm tapping into my network of corporations, sponsors, and women to try and make things come together. There could be some interesting folks ahead. Scaling Vermilion would be the easy thing to do. I don't even know at this point if I want to do it because it is extremely time-consuming unless I go to a "fast casual" format. It's doing the fine dining over and over again.

I'm very enthused about the entrepreneurial directions that we're going in with Let's Talk Womxn. Let's see what happens, including our International Women's Day plans. McKinsey is helping us with a pro bono study to craft the Let's Talk Womxn Summit on March 1st, 2022. We are reaching out to incredible speakers, crafting content for women to revolutionize change, and doing a panel with male allies. Jose Andres has said yes, and so many others. That's going to be exciting. We're running celebratory dinners with the official city tourism partners in all thirteen of our cities. We will own the day. It will amp up our visibility and give us a more broad platform to work on.

Are there personal values that have shaped how you've made your career choices, how you lead in your restaurant, and the other things you do?

I don't know how to answer that. Give me an example of what you would say for yourself.

CSCL 5 | Restaurant Business

Restaurant Business: In one generation, we could change the map of where women are and all progress if all parents were to change their approach to parenting [to instill more confidence in their daughters].

Let me playback to what you've talked about, the importance that you put on development in different parts of the world. Does that shape the way that you think about how you've spent your time? Right on that topic, you've written a number of op-ed pieces over the years. Are there other things like that that shaped who you are and how you wake up and go about things during the day?

A lot of me comes from the fact that I grew up in India. I almost consider myself an ambassador of my culture here. I also consider myself a very privileged ambassador of my gender. Those are two things I cannot put aside as I operate on a normal day-to-day basis, which is the reason that I'm doing Indian cuisine. If I was asked to do rustic Italian tomorrow and promised five times the revenue, I would not do it. I would rather do something else. For me, global equity and global policy are important, but that doesn't enter my day-to-day work life. It's a passion. What about you?

I've always come into doing what I'm doing with the view that I'm trying to make a place better than what I came into, whether the people or the systems. Over time, it has become more important to leave people in a better place than what I inherited. At the end of the day, we're all people trying to do our jobs every day, no matter what our station is in life. That's something that has become more important to me over the years as I've lived life's experiences and had ups and downs like everybody else.

Even listening to what you were saying about being an ambassador of your culture and your gender, you do bring that. That's what your restaurant is about in Indian cuisine. Think about all the things you're doing to help women. You say your day-to-day isn't so much about global equity, but at the same time, you're talking about Let's Talk Womxn going international. I would disagree with you. It's more in your day-to-day than you're giving yourself credit for.

Maybe so.

You have said that you have to be your own best self-advocate. Talk more about what you mean and whether you think that applies more so to women and people of color.

I won't speak for people of color, but definitely women. The ability to be seen, be heard, ask, make sure you get credit for your ideas, ask for funding, promotions, allies, and leverage help, is all about self-advocacy. If there's one thing as parents we should instill in our daughters, it is that. Give them confidence and the skillset to speak up at all points.

This whole disparity, I'm hoping it will change, but I don't see it. I see my daughters in private school and their peers. It's still much of the same. Girls are still taught to be attractive and cool but not be strong, fierce leaders. I would love a way to fundamentally transform that. In one generation, we could change the map of where women are and all progress if all parents were to change their approach to parenting.

You hear these stories about how men will go into an interview and BS their way through all of it. Women will come up with all the reasons why they don't think they're qualified. They won't even apply for the job, even if they happen to have relevant skills. It's things like that that we've got to completely reset in the way people think about things to have the impact that you're describing.

There are a lot of psychology and other studies to back this.

There is no easy fix. A lot of it is so deeply ingrained in the way that our social structures work.

You can say, "I will do three asks. I don't care what they are." Small or big, do it. Get out there, pick up the phone, and over time, you bring yourself to be much better at it and confident in yourself. What's the worst that can happen? A no? If you don't ask, you get nothing.

Looking back on what you've done to date, if you had to do something differently, would you have done something differently along the way, or are you happy with the ride as it's been?

I would have done everything differently. I would have been a much more impactful person in global policy. That still is my first love. I would have loved to be truly deeply effective in politics or leading an international institution, some multilateral thing, diplomacy, or foreign policy. That is my calling. I've not ruled anything out. I would have done things very differently. Why not imagine different paths for yourself? I would love to meet the one person who says, "I got it all down to perfection."

Anybody who thinks that is deluding themselves. That's not possible.

When you think about the people who transformed this planet, it would be interesting to know how they would have done things differently.

Investing in yourself upfront is very important. Click To Tweet

The people who transformed this planet still have their ups and downs. They have things they say and do that they regret later. It's part of what makes us all human.

Are there other career lessons that you would want our readers to take away?

Investing in yourself upfront is very important. I know that with the gig economy and all, there's a whole group of people who think, "Let me jump into being an entrepreneur. I'm carving my own way." In my case, having the background of McKinsey and my educational credentials proved to be immensely invaluable. I ended up going into restaurants, but I could have taken on anything else because of that training and the brand. Having that is very key.

Michael Alter from the Chicago office of McKinsey was one of my other guests so far. He describes the HBS background he had working at McKinsey as a grade-A union card that gets you in anywhere. There's certainly truth to that.

Michael is a good friend. His wife, Sarah, is too. I worked with her quite a bit.

Any final thoughts to share?

Not really. I'm intrigued to see where your show goes. I wish you all the success. If there's anything that I can do to help you spread it or share the word or anything, just say it.

When your episode is ready, I will look to you to spread it with your network. We'll help bring some light to some of the things that you're doing as well. For me, that's what this is about. I'm drawing a story out of people, but ultimately want to let them have the stage and tell their story.

Thank you. That wraps up this episode. I'd like to thank my guest, Rohini Dey, for joining me and sharing her amazing career story and learnings.


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About Rohini Dey

CSCL 5 | Restaurant BusinessRohini Dey is the founder and owner of Vermilion, an Indian-Latin fusion restaurant in Chicago and the past owner of Vermilion New York. She is also the founder of Let’s Talk Womxn, an organization that connects over 600 women business owners across 13 cities to support each other's businesses and collaboratively battle the pandemic. She has prior experience at McKinsey and as a former World Bank economist. Rohini was on the Board of the James Beard Foundation for a decade, where she co-founded and has chaired the JBF Women's Leadership Program since 2011. She has been lauded as one of the top 50 leaders in the restaurant industry and named among Time Out's Women of the Year for founding Let’s Talk.

Rohini writes OpEds and speaks on policy, business, and women's parity, including having written over 30 opinion pieces for CNN, Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, the Huffington Post, Crain's Business, The Sun-Times, McKinsey, Thrive Global, and Nation’s Restaurant News. She donates her writing proceeds to charity. She has been a speaker on forums hosted by the US Department of State Global Entrepreneurship Summit, City of Chicago NATO summit, TEDx, Politico, Crain's, McKinsey, the James Beard Foundation, and more. She is on the advisory council of the Illinois Restaurant Association, and her entrepreneurial story has been featured on the CNBC docuseries "Consumed." She is a frequent judge on The Food Network, and her restaurants have mentored and launched chefs on Chopped, Iron Chef, and Top Chef who have gone on to open their own businesses.

Rohini earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees in Delhi and her PhD from the University of Texas. In sum, she straddles the worlds of business and philanthropy across the U.S. and India, and she is a fierce proponent for women. She has earned a number of awards and accolades over the years. She is also a mother of two, a marathoner and a triathlete, and she successfully climbed Mount Kilimanjaro for her 40th birthday.



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