| REAL LIFE: ROHINI DEY |

A Life Uplifting Women

FIRST PRINTED IN THE SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2021 ISSUE

Growing up in New Delhi, India, something big sparked in Rohini Dey and by the time she was 12, she had set her sights on working on development policy, focused on empowering women and girls globally, with the World Bank. “This was something I just knew,” she says.

That passion took her from India to the U.S. where she has done just that in a variety of pretty amazing ways despite the glass ceiling so many women face. These days you can find her juggling her role as mom of two daughters and wife, with her gorgeous Chicago restaurant, Vermilion, as well as her new initiative that reignites her passion to make a difference for all women.

Dey founded Let’s Talk Womxn, an effort in 14 U.S. cities to uplift women restaurateurs hurt by the pandemic and the slide of the glass ceiling back in place over the past four to five years. She says women-owned restaurants continue to be underfunded and under supported, a role made even harder now as they emerge from the pandemic with lower staffing, higher costs and customers who have lost their compassion. It brings together competitors, experienced and newbies, big restaurants and small, to share resources and success in their cohorts.

“It’s magical,” she says about the organization she describes as intentionally shunning bureaucracy, making decisions at a breakneck speed and with no BS. “We are constantly reaching out to each other, supporting each other.” 

It’s a model of collaboration without bounds, she says.

All this as she raises her girls, Sehar and Mehak, to be strong advocates for themselves and others with her high school sweetheart husband. It isn’t always easy.

“Being a parent is such an important role because it really shapes the next generation and the future. It’s not just your family unit; it shapes society as a whole. I do think it’s a huge responsibility for women in particular to teach their daughters to be fearless and confident.”

She wishes she could shout it from a megaphone for all of us moms to teach our girls to compete, to be confident and outspoken, to not take a backseat to anyone. “It’s not OK to teach girls to be nice and to teach boys to take the risks,” she says.

As a mom she’s struggled with the notion that in the U.S., “being intelligent is worn as a badge of shame,” to not be in the cool crowd. “To say you want to be strong in STEM or to say that you want to be an activist, any of those wonderful bright things, is not considered hip or cool. That tussle and convincing my kids to be confident enough to just ignore the social herd, is getting increasingly and increasingly harder with social media,” she says.

FAST TALK

FAVORITE DISH TO MAKE YOUR GIRLS:

Mutton Biryani. Or for a quicker meal, chicken stir fry.

ONE THING YOU DO JUST FOR YOU:

“Running. That’s my indulgence, my renewal, it’s just for me and I must have it.” (She typically runs 7 miles a day.)

THE SPOT IN YOUR HOUSE YOU WANT NO ONE TO SEE:

The base of the staircase, a place the family calls the stage, where everything gets dumped. “That’s the sore spot.”

YOUR SECRET WEAPON FOR DOING IT ALL:

“Never getting to a resting state. I’m never comfortable with where I am, I’m always thinking about what more can I do.”

YOUR FAVORITE QUALITY ABOUT YOURSELF:

“My confidence.”

What do you hope your girls think about you?

“First and foremost, I want them to consider me as a huge ally. That doesn’t mean they have to tell me everything, not at all. I want to be their crutch and shelter and rock and safety whenever they want. I want us to be a source of happiness in each other’s lives, whether it’s cuddling on the couch and watching Netflix or whether it’s traveling together or enjoying good food together or going for runs together or whatever.”

Your biggest parenting reality check

“That’s a tough question. You think as a parent that it ends at some point, getting them to college. But it really doesn’t. For me the balance is between letting my daughters be their own people versus constantly trying to mold them into what I want them to be. For strong parents, for us to give them the latitude to make their own mistakes and discover themselves is always a tussle for us.”

People assume all women are made to be moms, but she says it took her time to find her joy. She had her girls late, particularly by Indian standards, but says she wouldn’t change that. “I really had the time to find myself and gain my own confidence. I think those are very important underpinnings as a parent, but nothing quite braces you for the journey,” she says.

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