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Rohini Dey champions women through the action-led movement, ‘Let’s Talk Womxn’

Cover Image for Rohini Dey champions women through the action-led movement, ‘Let’s Talk Womxn’
By Sophie Brochu
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Rohini Dey/Vermilion Chicago.

In February of 2020, Rohini Dey had big plans for her Chicago restaurant, Vermilion: a redesign, a new menu, a fresh marketing plan. The space was covered in sheets and ladders. Buckets of paint were strewn across the floor. And then, the pandemic hit, and it all froze. “That was very dispiriting because I’ve been working all of my life,” says Dey. “And then we were just adrift in isolation.” 

Take one look at Dey’s mind-boggling resume and you’ll see that she is not one to sit still. With a master’s in economics and a doctorate in management science, Dey has worked in foreign investment at the World Bank, co-authored a book on infrastructure privatization, and taught in academia. She’s an entrepreneur, a mother, and an accomplished triathlete. In 2004, Dey opened Vermilion in River North with a mission to break free of common stereotypes associated with Indian cuisine.

Last March, when the world shut down, Dey didn’t have a back-up plan. Vermilion didn’t offer takeout, as Dey didn’t want to encourage staff to take public transportation. For four months, she waited. “That whole period of just being isolated in a drift and unsure about the future was very demotivating.” 

When July hit, Dey thought of her connections at the James Beard Foundation Women’s Program she founded back in 2011 and decided to make a few phone calls. “It was instant alchemy,” she recalls. “Our conversation was brutally honest and candid, and that still remains one of the pillars of our forum. It was cathartic. In fact, some of the women even broke down because it was so honest and it was incredibly helpful the way we rallied around each other.”

 

“We are all equal. We don’t have a board or approval. We move at breakneck speed. That’s our big cube formula.”

Fiona Lewis of The District Fishwife in Washington, DC.

This is how Let’s Talk Womxn was born. First, it was a small network of Chicago women checking in on one another. It quickly grew into a larger network of women entrepreneurs, chefs, and restaurateurs working together to offer curated takeout tasting menus. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a Michelin-starred chef, or a celebrity, or a hole-in-the-wall taco joint, there’s no bureaucracy.” 

Thinking back to the status quo before the pandemic, Dey says she is appalled that this community effort wasn’t already in place. “We would walk into a room or a reception and there was really no common ground other than being the same gender.”

As Let’s Talk gained traction, it went from takeout to what Dey calls an action-led movement. She realized early on the power in numbers. In Chicago, the women met with the governor, wrote an op-ed in the Tribune, and negotiated delivery fees with the city council. “That kind of thing would not have happened if it was just one of us.”

Sarah Pierre of Atlanta’s 3 Parks Wine Shop.

“The beauty is by virtue of combining our voices. And that’s something we intend to sustain and leverage.”

As far as the future goes, Dey admits she has no roadmap, and perhaps that’s for the best. It leaves room for the kind of unexpected momentum that keeps Dey on her toes. Let’s Talk will continue to evolve and Dey will continue to champion the cause. “This isn’t a one-woman show—it’s an entire group of women using all of our strengths for the betterment of all of us, that that’s really the motivation driving all of us.”

Romney Steele of The Cook and Her Farmer in Oakland, CA.

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Celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th with collaborative takeout menus and moderated Zoom discussions available in Chicago, DC, Phoenix, Cincinnati, the Bay Area, Atlanta, Boston, and Philadelphia.

Orders should be placed by March 4th.

 

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