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What I am Reading Now Department: Let Me In by Elaine Koyama
There were few women in professional roles in major corporations when Elaine Koyama started her career in in 1976. One of her few role models in her early career was the TV character, Mary Richards, from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, whose career was centered in Minneapolis, just as Elaine’s would be. “I figured if Mary Richards could do it, so could I.”
In her book Let Me In: A Japanese American Woman Crashes the Corporate Club, Elaine Koyama tells the story of becoming one of the first women and one of the first minorities to work in the largest privately held corporation in the United States, Cargill. This is an interesting story in itself, but for us locally it is notable that Elaine grew up a farm girl in Hardin, Montana.
One of the advantages she had from growing up in Montana is that she was raised in a milieu in which there were not enough people to go around. Everyone had to step-up and pitch in or important things would not happen. As a result of growing up as she did near Hardin, she developed an expectation that she would never be just “another brick in the wall.” In the beginning, it was partially her naive self-confidence that allowed her to forge ahead on a world-class career path.
As an attractive, single woman working to advance in her career she faced a innumerable prejudices, both from some of the men she worked with, and also from other women. Often customers did not know how to respond to her, a young, single woman with a Japanese face, selling hog supplement on farms in rural Iowa. One colleague from a different division of the company met her at a dinner of managers and grabbed her leg under the table. Evidently he thought she might have been along as the “entertainment.” One customer, in an attempt to make small talk, looked at her and asked “How’s the weather in Japan?” The wives of many colleagues treated her with suspicion, and at times women who made up the secretarial staff would not cooperate with her, even though she was the ranking manager in the office, on the grounds that they did not think she could have any more authority than they did. Fortunately, Cargill provided her with the broadest possible training, and for the most part the men who supervised her career helped her, guided her, and ran interference for her when she needed it.
Elaine is remarkably open about her struggles. Like many young professionals in their twenties, she was terribly lonely. Fortunately she was able to avoid major mistakes at this time in her life. Over a period of two decades, Elaine paid her dues, not only for herself, but for every woman who came after her. Her success made it possible for women to be taken seriously in significant management positions, not only at Cargill, but at other major corporations around the country. She was able to rise to a position of considerable influence in the company, shaping important product lines and marketing approaches. She writes an engaging story of what it took and in this she is good about sharing the credit. In truth, Cargill gave her some terrific opportunities. When things went badly and even when she was treated unfairly, she is good about identifying her own mistakes and assessing what she would have done differently.