Are You Leadership Material? – The Korean Vegan

“The stronger the leader, the more ardent the passions are going to run on both sides of the equation.” – Miyoko Schinner.

Last week, we talked with Miyoko Schinner, the former CEO of a quarter-billion dollar company. As an undisputed pioneer in the vegan industry, an Asian American female entrepreneur, and a vocal advocate for animals, I wanted to hear her thoughts on leadership. In particular, what leadership looks like.

Here is what she had to say (starting at 1:21:00 of the podcast):

  • A leader listens to people
  • A leader empowers people
  • A leader is willing to make hard and sometimes unpopular decisions

Naturally, Miyoko’s reflection on leadership made me wonder whether I have what it takes to be an effective leader. As we’ve talked about before in this newsletter, there are lots of different styles of leadership and context matters: what works in some settings may not work in others. For example, Miyoko notes that being a corporate leader isn’t quite the same as being a community leader. However, I think there are certain qualities that are universally desirable in leaders, regardless of whether they are the captain of a Fortune 500 company or an actual ship.

When I was a 5th year associate and being considered for senior counsel, the pivotal rung between associate and partner, I received the first slightly “negative” evaluation from a partner I’d been working with since I started at the Firm. Jim had only ever praised my work ethic, sharp writing, and thorough research skills until that year. We’d been working on a big arbitration and he’d put me in charge of damages and expert testimony. And when I say “put me in charge,” I mean he literally threw the ball at me and expected me to run with it. He wasn’t like other partners I’d worked with–who checked in every couple days, asked for my work product weeks before it was needed, sat on it until the last minute, and then proceeded to redo all of it because there wasn’t enough time to provide me with any meaningful feedback before I redid my own work.

Instead, when Jim said “I’m putting you in charge of damages,” he expected you to figure out what documents you’d need; he expected you to organize them in a way that made it easy to prepare exhibits and deposition outlines; he expected you to identify the witnesses; he expected you to subpoena and schedule the depositions of said witnesses; he expected you to get everything to your experts; and he expected you to work with co-defense counsel, experts, and fact witnesses to help craft the damages reports and otherwise get ready for trial.

I did not know this about Jim when he said, “Joanne, I’m putting you in charge of damages.”

Jim didn’t tell me what to do. So…I didn’t do much, at first. Eventually, he figured I needed a little more instruction and subsequently resumed his role in our working relationship: the boss. Because that’s what I thought a good boss did–he or she would tell me what to do and I would do it. However, Jim didn’t quite see it that way and he made that clear during my mid-year evaluation:

“Joanne needs to start taking more initiative and ownership over her projects.”

For about 5 minutes, I sat at my desk reading these words over and over again. Jim’s assessment stung. It wasn’t difficult to read between the lines: “Joanne’s not leadership material and as such, she’s not ready to be minted senior counsel, much less partner.” I was halfway through the year before what I hoped would be a promotion and it wasn’t looking good.

I had about 20 minutes before I was scheduled to meet with my department head, Mike, along with my mentor, to discuss my consensus review. It was tempting to rest my head on the worn mahogany of the desk I’d been working at for 5.5 years while coming up with all the bad names I could call Jim in the privacy of my own brain. It was also tempting to get up and walk over to Dan’s office, next door, where I knew my bitter complaints about the unfairness of Jim’s assessment would be received with open arms by the associate who started at the Firm with me back when we were interns together. Because, make no mistake–I was angry. I based my entire job on “taking ownership”–I took pride in my work, owned up to my mistakes, and even took the heat when those who were lower on the totem pole (paralegals, project assistants, etc.) bungled a project. My job was to give my client, the partner and, in this particular case, Jim, a flawless product and, in my view, I’d delivered. If he was displeased with it, that was his own doing–he should have been clearer with his specifications.

But the word “initiative” needled me. However indignant I felt about this evaluation, I was unwilling to let go of the truth in that part of it. Jim was right. I didn’t take initiative. To be fair, I didn’t know he wanted me to–after years of being trained to perform, excellently, at the task assigned to me, I hadn’t realized that it was now my job to also figure out those tasks. Thus, instead of storming into my department head’s office, ready to duke it out with Jim (as if I’d ever…lol), I smiled as Mike read The Sentence out loud and replied, “I get where Jim’s coming from. And believe me. I’ll be working on it.”

Because there was no freaking way that Jim was going to take away my promotion.

I had a meeting scheduled with Jim that afternoon. I marched into his office with grim determination. Before he started rattling off the things I needed to do, I interrupted him. I’d come prepared with my own list and breezed through it like it was what I’d always done at these sessions. I will never forget the look on his face, how his initial “deer in headlights” dissolved into something like bemusement. I was ok with that. In fact, I relished the opportunity to prove just how much initiative I could take, and that doing so didn’t begin and end with reading through the bullets on my legal pad.

In six months, Jim submitted the following evaluation:

“Joanne has really started to take initiative and shown leadership on our matters.”

And I made Senior Counsel.

A few years after that, I made Partner.

You might think, at this point, that this story is about my own leadership skills. But, actually, I shared this story to highlight Jim’s leadership. He could have very easily said, “Ya know, I want to work with someone who takes more initiative. I’m gonna kick Joanne to the curb and find someone else.” This is what happens most often in the cutthroat “free market” world of Big Law. OR, he could’ve just said nothing at all in my review, continued to ply me with empty praise that would have, yes, made it a lot easier to secure my spot as Senior Counsel, but would have likely guaranteed that I wasn’t the kind of lawyer I wanted to be when I took on that coveted title.

And worse yet?

I might not have ever known just how good a leader I actually was.


Wow. First of all, I want to thank you so much for being so vulnerable to me and the TKV Community. What you said, I feel like an utter failure, hit me like a rock in the face. I know every single person reading this right now has felt this EXACT way, and I am certainly no exception to that rule.

Let me start with some advice before I answer your questions at the end.

First of all, you have to stop comparing yourself to everyone else. You say you want to be a data scientist. Then you must know that the output is only as good as the input. As an Ivy student, you must ALSO know that social media, LinkedIn, and whatever else you are using as your “source data” are about as reliable as your mom’s gossip about Aunty’s work friend’s daughter’s boyfriend. Posting is an overtly performative action–I know this, because I am a professional poster! As such, most people post things with the objective of making themselves look and feel good. You are working off of incomplete, biased, and possibly even tampered data. Would you accept this source data when you do get that full time offer? No, of course you wouldn’t. So why do so now?

I say this as someone who chronically compares myself to others, especially other Asian American women. I also say this as someone who readily falls into the trap I’m trying to protect you against–elevating social media to the completely undeserved status as a source of credible information. Scarcity mentality–the not entirely unfounded notion that there aren’t enough spaces for all of us, especially if we don’t look like our white, male counterparts–can trigger exactly the reaction you are experiencing: crippling anxiety, self-sabotage, and ultimately, depression. Peering at your, well, peers and seeing them take up a quickly diminishing number of “spots” can understandably cause severe anxiety and undermine your self-worth–because at some point, somewhere, someone or something made you feel like your value was best measured by “success.”

A few weeks ago, I did a podcast on Habit Formation and in it, I mentioned the phrase “Plateau of Latent Potential,” coined by the NYT Bestselling author of Atomic Habits, James Clear. In a nutshell, the PoLP refers to that time period during which a person is attempting to achieve something (like developing a good fitness habit) and believes that progress should be as straight as an arrow. When it isn’t–i.e., when it dips below the expected trajectory, and it stays there for an extended period of time, there’s a delta between our expectation and reality. He calls this the “Valley of Disappointment.” At some point, though, reality “snaps back” and crosses the line of expectation and even outperforms that line.

What does this actually mean, though? It means that it may look like all the work you’ve been doing isn’t actually doing anything, but, in actuality, all that work is what will ultimately allow your expectation and reality to finally cross paths. I hope this provides you with some encouragement to keep trying, even if it feels like you’re making no progress.

That said, you yourself describe the data science market as “really dire.” Therefore, I’m assuming you already know this, but I’ll share this just in case you don’t: despite a rather overly-optimistic projection by the US Bureau of Labor, there was actually a 26% drop in data science job postings, year over year, from 2021 to 2022. The overall data science job market experienced a 15% contraction during that same period. And data scientists are actually receiving substantial demotions and concomitant downgrades in their pay (e.g., from $200,000 annual salary to $120,000 salary). I’m no expert, but I imagine that this unexpected shrinking in the data science industry goes hand in glove with the world’s halting and unsteady recovery from a global pandemic, as well as our sudden awakening to the “utility” of AI.

Back in the day, most people did NOT graduate college with a job in hand. I didn’t. I realize that “times have changed,” but maybe not for the better? And by that, I mean not for the better of you. It’s time to take a step back from endless external work (i.e., resume workshops and coffee chats), and do a little internal work. What are the things that make you happy? Things that have NOTHING to do with achievement? I’ll use myself as an example: French fries, watching a good Korean drama, hanging out with my brother. Do you have your list in mind? You’re a doer; go ahead and do them.

As you may know, I’m a long distance runner. When people hear that I’m training for a marathon, they assume I run every single day. Not so. If I were to run every single day? I wouldn’t be running any marathons. My body would not be able to handle much more than a few miles a day. Your career, Vihba? It’s a fucking marathon. The longest one you may ever run. And there will be a lot of pitfalls and detours along that path. If you don’t take this time to rest–and beating yourself up and comparing yourself to others is not “resting”–you will never be the Vihba you know you could be when you cross that finish line.

Finally, in answer to your questions–yes. I have felt like such a failure I couldn’t get out of bed. And yes, I have definitely felt unworthy of success–whether it was hard won or “easy.” Right before I finally decided to invest in The Korean Vegan full time, my phone was ringing off the hook with potential new clients. The single largest “Bitcoin” case had just filed for chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code, and given my unique background (as both a bankruptcy and crypto lawyer), I was on a very short list of those being considered as lead counsel for the biggest creditor constituency in the case (the creditors’ committee). I was also the only woman. Like you, I am also driven and when I put my mind to something, I usually get what I want.

But… long story short, I didn’t get it. I literally locked myself in my closet and cried. It was like all the insidious voices that told me “You’re a fake,” “You’re not a real lawyer,” “You can never succeed at this,” and “One day, the world will discover that you’re a sham,” had been released from a box I’d worked for 17 years to keep locked up and buried. I could barely bring myself to work the next five days. My partners had all tried to warn me: “You very rarely win a committee case on your first try,” or “Even though you knocked it out of the park, it’s still a long shot.” But I thought they were all wrong and that of course I would win the case–because I knew I deserved it. And you know what the twist of the dagger was? I had a brief chat with the guy who won the engagement and he said, “Yeah…I’m not sure why got this case…”

Almost a full year later, my book would come out as an instant New York Times bestseller. I would withdraw from partnership at my Firm and start a podcast and newsletter, one that landed me in your inbox.

So, yes, Vihba. I have not only felt like a failure, I have FAILED. With a capital F.

And thank God I did.

The Korean Vegan Ramen Seasoning and Fishy Salt!!

I am SO excited to be giving you this EXCLUSIVE sneak peek at my very first food product!! I’ve partnered with Josu Salt Company, a Korean owned salt farm, to bring you two original flavors to add to your kitchen arsenal: Spicy Ramen Salt and Fishy Salt.

I came up with Spicy Ramen Salt because I found myself poaching the broth packet in my favorite instant ramen for all sorts of things–soondooboo chigae, budae chigae, tteokbokki, and even my chicken fried mushrooms! I figured it was high time I simply come up with my own seasoning blend–one that had recognizable ingredients, but with just as much flavor. The Spicy Ramen Salt does exactly that!

The Fishy Salt is truly invented out of need. After giving up all fish, I knew there had to be a way to distill the flavor of seafood in a more sustainable way. This Fishy Salt, composed of sustainably farmed salt, seaweed, and mushrooms, packs exactly the kind of punch you need to make your favorite vegan crab-cake, a velvety plant-based bouillabaisse, and, my personal favorite, kimchi!!

These are in limited supply and will launch on June 9. Keep your eyes peeled on your inbox and Instagram to make sure you snag these before they’re sold out!

Vlog: We Visit Miyoko’s Animal Sanctuary!!

At Miyoko’s Schinner’s Animal Sanctuary. Watch on YouTube.

Before recording last week’s podcast episode, Anthony and I got the royal treatment at Miyoko’s animal sanctuary in Northern California. First, Miyoko introduced us to her big happy family, and then she prepared the most delicious lunch for us in the most magical of settings! It was an incredible day that we’ll not soon forget. Check out the vlog here and visit the Rancho Compasión website if you’d like to learn more or plan a visit.

Updates & Random Things.

  • What I’m Reading. I never would have believed that one day I would be be featured in Food & Wine magazine, but life is beautiful in that way – unpredictable and riotously joyful. And joyful is how I would describe myself upon learning that I have been named one of Food & Wine’s 2023 Game Changers. All of the 2023 Game Changers will be featured in Food & Wine’s special July Icons and Innovators issue, which will hit newsstands on June 16, but if you can’t wait, you can read the article here: Why 5 Million Home Cooks Love the ‘Korean Vegan.’
  • What I’m Watching. We finished Succession, we finished The Diplomat, and we’ve finished Blacklist (as of now). We therefore spent a couple nights in Chicago watching a few limited docuseries’. The first was excellent: American Manhunt: The Boston Marathon Bombing. We’ve watched documentaries and films (Patriot Day) on the Boston Marathon bombing, so we were both surprised to learn a lot more about this terrorist attack than we previously understood. I highly recommend it. The second was meh: MH370: The Plane That Disappeared. This series was less successful–it featured a couple of pretty flimsy conspiracy theories that, in my opinion, did not provide adequate gravitas to really anchor the story. I’d pass. Next up, at the recommendation of some good friends, we’re going to tackle The Americans.
  • What I’m Listening To. In case you missed it, check out the podcast I did with The Keep On Cookin’ Podcast with Dustin HarderWe talk all about my cookbook and the process for writing it!
  • Beware of Scams. Speaking of my cookbook, as some of you’ve may have seen, Amazon, in all its wisdom, has seen fit to list a number of self-published books that look a lot like The Korean Vegan Cookbook. One of them looked so much like mine, my publisher insisted that Amazon remove it (and I consulted my colleagues at the Firm). Luckily, Amazon agreed and the most egregious offender was removed. Unfortunately, they keep springing up like weeds and I’d be very wary of them–many of them do not appear to be entirely vegan or Korean.

Parting Thoughts.

I’ve been in Chicago the past few days for work. I woke up the other morning and looked out the hotel windows to see the El slithering through the city and it reminded me of this thing that I wrote many years ago, which still resonates with me today, even if the characters in my life have changed…

I thought of you today. While I was stowing my Celine in the locker room at the gym. I clipped the key over the same spot I alway do—over my left hip. And even as I did, I thought that I think too much of you, particularly in these idle moments. I thought of you on Thursday too. While I was driving home. It was past 6:30, and the evening was beginning to settle in, even as the sunset was thundering and crashing all around like an unhappy child at bedtime. I was driving towards the tracks (West on Hubbard Street) and the El gleamed like some sort of perverse knight. It was picturesque and it made me think of you. I’m not exactly sure why; perhaps, I merely wondered whether you’d ever see an elevated train trapped inside a bursting yolk, how it dripped onto traffic, rendered pale and fragile by twilight’s bokeh. There was a young woman, with a long neck, her dark hair tied up in a loose bun. She wore sunglasses and a sleeveless A-line dress, with a tote slung loosely over her right shoulder. I couldn’t see the freckles from where I was, but I knew she had them, because she was precisely the type of girl who would have freckles that you would like to kiss, and I was saddened, a little, because I don’t have freckles on my shoulder. Not at all. I wanted to shout through the window, “You could have been beautiful!” but I knew that it would get lost and trampled by the train, so I thought of you instead, thought of how you would have surely thought her beautiful, even as I did not. I thought of you, again, later that night. Right before I went to sleep. I have removed the pillowcases from my pillows and my hand slipped between the cotton, chilled from the window I’d left open all day. I thought of how you’d smell, how the oils from your skin would reside in cotton sheets, days after you’d lain there, how black and white photographs would capture that stubble on your chin but not the scent of your sorrow. I fell asleep with lavender coaxing me into dreams of dark hands. Maybe yours. Maybe another’s. I’m not sure. I thought of you again at work the other day. I thought of deserts and tall buildings made of aged stone, sand inside the cracks, a sea that was more green than blue, and men whose laughter bare broken teeth and lovers’ tears. A green ribbon. Pulling my heart into something endless and terrible and worthwhile.

– Joanne

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