Meet Irene Li, 2019 AWA Sylvia Ferrell-Jones Awardee
On June 4th, 2019 we will join together and celebrate the achievements of five unstoppable women who demonstrate YW Boston’s mission of eliminating racism and empowering women at our 24th Academy of Women Achievers Luncheon.
Since 1995, as part of our mission to promote and celebrate the achievements of women, YW Boston has held the Academy of Women Achievers luncheon. Through this event we recognize and honor some of Boston’s brightest, boldest, bravest and most influential women. Leading up to the event, we are sitting down with each of the 2019 awardees for interviews and releasing one each month.
YW Boston is thrilled to be inducting Irene Li, Founder of Mei Mei Street Kitchen & Mei Mei Restaurant, into the Academy of Women Achievers. Irene is YW Boston’s second annual AWA Sylvia Ferrell-Jones Awardee. Created in honor of YW Boston’s former President & CEO Sylvia Ferrell-Jones, the award honors an up-and-coming young professional woman of color who is a leader in her field. Learn more about Irene by reading our interview with her below:
You have been a member of the YW community for many years, having participated in the InIt program (formerly AnyTown), YW Boston’s social justice leadership program for high school students. Can you speak about the impact of that program and the ways it has influenced your path?
InIt was one stop along my personal pathway to developing an awareness of privilege and inequality. It provided a safe space for me, an adolescent, to go through that process and experience all the feelings that are part of it, which for me ranged from guilt and grief to pride and hope. It also connected me with youth from outside my social sphere of school and home—two communities with high levels of privilege—and opened my eyes to the diversity of people and experiences that Boston truly holds.
You are the founder of the incredibly successful business Mei Mei Street Kitchen & Mei Mei Restaurant, but your mission goes well beyond the food you create. You are very focused on sustainability. Can you speak about how integral this practice is and the importance of it in your industry?
For us, sustainability has three important dimensions. The first is environmental sustainability, which we work towards by composting our food waste, monitoring our use of resources like water and electricity, and utilizing recycled/recyclable and compostable products. The second is local economic sustainability, which we support by buying our ingredients from small businesses and farms, donating to and supporting our local non-profit organizations, and engaging with other small businesses as customers, partners, mentors, and so on. The third is, in short, human sustainability—we work to create jobs that are sustainable for our employees, both in regards to their compensation and the impact on their health and wellness. Our industry tends to fall short in all three of these areas, but that means we have a lot of opportunities to do better.
You are currently leading your staff in a training called Rethink Restaurants. Can you tell us a bit more about that and your motivations to lead your business as an open-book manager?
We started working with Rethink Restaurants, a local consulting firm, to implement open-book management at Mei Mei in mid-2017. Open-book is common in some industries, but rare in food. The idea behind it is this: if you can educate a team to understand the inner workings of the business, then you can empower them to make changes to improve the business, which in turn creates an opportunity to reward the team through the businesses’ increased success and/or profit margin. The whole team at Mei Mei knows how to read a profit & loss statement, which is great for a variety of reasons. It means they understand the economic realities of our business, which puts their work tasks into a greater context. For example, if they see how much money we spend on kitchen towels, it can influence them to use our towels more sparingly. It also means that they understand basic finance, which is an important but often overlooked area of education for younger workers, and for anyone who wants to run their own business one day. Ultimately, if our business is able to perform to a certain standard, we end up with a pool of profit that gets shared among the staff. It’s a win-win in that the business and the team are working together towards a common goal.
I have been increasingly motivated by my desire to do better by my employees, and in 2017 I felt we had to start paying people more. However, we couldn’t just give out raises without ensuring increased success for the business. Open-book was a strategy that tied all of our interests together. Our team is more motivated and more knowledgeable than ever before!
It’s wonderful to see you doing this work. However, inequities around race and gender remain present in the industry. What are some of the most pressing issues you wish to see addressed by other stakeholders in the restaurant business?
I would like to see more restaurants taking an active stance in addressing inequality in the workplace. This might mean training around how hospitality relates to different social issues, like gender-neutral pronouns or bias in tipping, or it could be direct education like talking-groups on race and racism. Too often we think of inequality as overt acts of hatred committed by obviously immoral people. We need to own up to the fact that racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination are part of the world that has socialized us, in the air we breathe, and if we’re not taking an active role in naming and addressing these issues, we’re not helping anyone.
'We need to own up to the fact that racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination are part of the world that has socialized us, and if we're not taking an active role in naming and addressing these issues, we're not helping anyone.' Click To Tweet
This month you and your siblings are releasing your first cookbook. Congratulations! What inspired you to put together this collection of recipes?
Our book, Double Awesome Chinese Food is really about our approach to food both as a business and as a family. Our cuisine is a little hard to describe, it’s kind of Chinese, but draws from a variety of cultures and utilizes a lot of wholly American and New England ingredients. I hate to call it fusion because that makes it sound like it was made in a laboratory. The reality is much more natural and organic than that—it’s just a version of what three Chinese kids, growing up in a diverse Boston, learned to love to eat and cook. We also wanted to provide an approachable, easy-to-use guide that is empowering rather than intimidating. We taught ourselves to cook, mostly from books and the internet, and we want everyone to be able to learn on their own if they choose to.
Do you have a favorite recipe you shared in the book?
The book is named after our signature dish, the Double Awesome. It’s a scallion pancake sandwich with two oozy eggs, sharp cheddar cheese, and a green pesto. One of the things I like about it is that you can make it as simple or as complicated and fancy as you want. You can buy scallion pancakes from the store or your local takeout joint, or you can make them from scratch. You can use fancy farmstead cheese or slices of Kraft. It also hearkens back to the kinds of snacks we would make when we were kids, scrounging in the fridge or the freezer after school. In fact, when my sister developed the first version of the Double Awesome, she wasn’t trying to conceptualize an exciting dish; on the contrary, she was just making herself something to eat with what she could find on the food truck! That’s a great example of how our dishes come into being.
You are being recognized as an Unstoppable Woman Changing Boston. Who is an unstoppable woman who has influenced your life?
These days, I think a lot about my high school English teacher Susie Rinehart. She taught me a lot about how to read, think, and communicate, and listened to 16-year-old-Irene with immense amounts of love and patience. I remember admiring how joyfully she seemed to live life, even as an imperfect person. She seemed like someone who didn’t get embarrassed or intimidated, even in the most threatening situations. In retrospect I know that while she may have felt insecure or unsure, she didn’t let it stop her from diving in to new challenges and conversations. More recently, Susie underwent a series of surgeries to remove a rapidly growing tumor from her brainstem, and while it was not clear if she would survive, she took it as a challenge to live fully and without fear. Now healthy, her motto is ‘brave over perfect.’ I keep this in my mind on the toughest days when I know I can’t guarantee perfection, but can promise to be brave.
Catch Irene Li at our Academy of Women Achievers Luncheon on Tuesday, June 4, 2019.