- Plant-based cheese company founder Miyoko Schinner struck back at her namesake company with a counterclaim in federal court. In her lawsuit, Schinner accuses the company she started of gender discrimination, failure to prevent discrimination, retaliation, wrongful termination and misusing her name and likeness.
- Schinner’s lawsuit claims that René Weber, the chief operating officer at Miyoko’s Creamery, “singled out and openly denigrated women, especially Miyoko.” In response to her complaints about Weber, the lawsuit claims, the company “swiftly retaliated” against Schinner by demoting and then terminating her.
- Schinner started her namesake business in 2014. According to the original lawsuit, which accuses Schinner of stealing the company’s proprietary recipes and plant-based culture configurations, the company’s board unanimously voted to terminate her as CEO in June 2022. The company didn’t announce it had parted ways with Schinner until late last month.
Many people see Schinner as an icon of the plant-based cheese business. She’s taught vegan cooking classes, opened and sold a vegan restaurant and written vegan cookbooks — including 2012’s “Artisan Vegan Cheese.” The book, and the experience behind it, led to the creation of a company that, according to Schinner’s lawsuit, currently is worth $260 million. Throughout the lawsuit, the company is referred to as MP.
Miyoko’s Creamery said in an email that it is reviewing the claims in Schinner’s lawsuit.
“While the company cannot comment on specific allegations given the pending lawsuit, as the company’s former CEO, Miyoko Schinner was responsible for managing all of the organization’s employees, functions, strategies and operations and, more importantly, providing information necessary to allow the company’s board to fulfill its oversight obligations,” Jennifer Rubin, company counsel with Mintz, said in the email.
In the counter lawsuit, Schinner describes what she saw as sexist behavior toward her and other women at the company from Weber, who was hired in 2021. According to the lawsuit, Weber mistreated women at the company by excluding them from meetings, denying them information, berating them and openly denigrating them.
Emails from Schinner quoted in the lawsuit indicate the company lost two women due to Weber’s mistreatment, and at least eight women had complained about him.
“On several occasions, he mansplained to Miyoko that she did not understand her own products or MP, the company she founded,” the lawsuit says. “In a markedly gendered tone, he described her ideas and ambition as unrealistic, driven by emotion and whim.”
Schinner complained to several investors in the company, including Obvious Ventures’ James Joaquin, Cult Capital’s John Kenney and Stray Dog Capital’s Lisa Feria, according to the lawsuit. She also complained to the company’s HR department.
Schinner says in the lawsuit she believes the HR department never investigated her complaint. Instead, she was instructed to give Weber a promotion.
The lawsuit says Kenney acknowledged Schinner’s complaints, but the company “could not afford to lose” Weber. According to the lawsuit, Joaquin had earlier characterized Schinner’s attempts to hold Weber accountable as “irrational.”
The lawsuit says Feria confided to Schinner that she felt ineffective and ignored by male board members during meetings.
Weber, Obvious Ventures, Joaquin, Cult Capital, Kenney, Stray Dog Capital and Feria did not respond to Food Dive’s requests for comment before press time.
After making the formal complaints, Schinner was terminated on July 28, 2022, the lawsuit says.
“It bothered MP executives that Miyoko stood up for her rights and the rights of other women in the company, demanding respectful treatment and refusing to conform to the stereotype of a docile, complacent, obedient Asian-American woman,” the lawsuit says. “Miyoko was not acceptable to them as a person with decision-making power and authority in the company. It was only the image of her celebrity status and prominence in the vegan and food worlds which MP continues to use in branding and marketing that MP desired to retain.”
The company’s emailed statement from Rubin says that the brand is committed to “creating a more humane, just and sustainable food system, within a safe, welcoming and productive environment for all employees.”
Schinner’s name and pictures are still a major part of the company’s branding. The day after Schinner’s lawsuit was filed, the company’s homepage featured a video and a large photograph of Schinner.
The lawsuit says that through legal counsel, Schinner first demanded that the company cease and desist using her name and photos last August. When they did not comply, she made a second request. The company still has not stopped, the lawsuit says.
There have not been many accusations of gender discrimination in the food industry that are this high profile. However, there are not very many women in the position that Schinner once held. According to McKinsey & Company’s Women in the Workplace 2022 report, 21% of C-suite employees in food and beverage manufacturing are women.
The initial complaint filed by the company focuses on a purported attempt by Schinner to steal the company's intellectual property, which she denies in court filings.