Born and raised on a sheep, cattle and sugar beet farm in eastern Montana, Elaine Koyama of Hopkins went on to spend 20 years working at the Minnesota-based agriculture giant Cargill.
Koyama is sharing her experience as one of the first female minority managers hired by Cargill in her new book, “Let Me In: a Japanese American Woman Crashes the Corporate Club 1976-1996.”
Hired into Cargill’s management training program in 1976, Koyama writes about climbing the corporate ladder from selling hog feed in Iowa, to sales management, merchandising, product and marketing management until hitting the glass ceiling, when the term glass ceiling was created.
She “retired” from Cargill in 1996 after achieving “solid middle management.” She then started an IT consulting firm, Interlinx, which she sold in 2016.
“Throughout my consulting career, there was never a time I was not engaged at Cargill as a management consultant,” she said.
In 2017, she began writing full time and is currently promoting her book while conducting Retreat2Write workshops focused on goal-setting and marketing for writers. Also, she recently booked her first speaking engagement for diversity and inclusion at a large management consulting firm.
“I’ll retire again someday, just not sure when. I figure I have about 20 years left in me,” she said.
What inspired you to write “Let Me In”?
I was a 22-year-old Japanese American living in Belmond, Iowa, calling on farmers door-to-door. The first section of the book was written in the 1970s to help me remember the strange and wonderful experiences I was having in deepest, darkest, Iowa. I didn’t want to forget, and I remember thinking I wanted my grandkids to know what I had done “back in the olden days.”
The book morphed into a hero’s journey from those early vignettes into the book it is today. It has everything—successes, failures, serious illness, relationships, marriage, balancing family/kids and work in a non-traditional field. Back in those days, every field was non-traditional.
I tried writing while working full-time at Cargill and later running the consulting business, but couldn’t carve out the think time it takes. The opportunity returned after we sold Interlinx, and I vowed I would pursue a writing career.
What barriers did you overcome as a woman in management?
The surprise when the women in the office mutinied and went to my manager because I was asking them to type documents for me—just as the men were asking. The client who thought I had been brought along as “entertainment.” The meeting(s) in strip clubs. The co-worker who asked me if I wanted to go to his room after dinner—because that’s just what he used to do after dinner. The wives who met with the division president because women managers were going to be attending a sales meeting and the wives were concerned about what might happen. The manager who looked at my chest when I spoke, and not at my face. Many of the same barriers exist today, we just recognize them for what they are.
But there were wonderful experiences! The racquetball game when I was being offered two different promotions. The support from the division president when I became the first woman and minority sales manager in the company. The support from the manager when the office staff revolted. The tradeshow when four or five of us men and women worked together for the success of the new product line. Realizing that the salesperson, the warehouse manager and sales manager for the St. Louis region were all women! There were many great successes!
What do you hope readers garner from your book?
We often read about fabulously successful men and women, and we learn a lot from them. But the vast majority of us were plowing the ground during the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s so that the men and women following us could succeed and move past the glass ceiling. I wanted my story to be a document of what it was like when women first were given the opportunities that the women’s and minority’s movement provided. My story echoes the stories of thousands of women and people of color who grew their careers at a time when it wasn’t a given to be considered for management. There is a glass ceiling for everyone—men and women and people of color—my hope is that the ceiling now is higher because of the backs of the pioneers we can stand upon.
Any other books in your future?
There is a prequel to “Let Me In” that is a memoir about growing up in Montana. There is the sequel about going from corporate America to running an IT consulting firm. There is the prequel to the prequel that I am writing right now about my Nisei parents growing up in America and being interned. And then there is the sequel to the sequel about building a writing career as a 60-plus-year-old.
I am going to have to live a long time to get it all done!
Endorsement for the book
Ruth Bokelman Conn, who worked in agriculture sales from 1976 to 2019, including Cargill Seed, had this to say about Koyama: “In 1976 as the women’s movement started to gain traction, Elaine Koyama, a recent Stanford graduate from a Montana farm, entered the work world in what we called a “non-traditional” position. She was an ag (feed) salesperson on the fast track into management.
‘Let Me In’ follows Elaine through the funny, absurd and confusing times for women who were vanguards on this path. With hard work and help from family and friends she succeeded (maybe I should say endured) where many men and women failed.
This a must-read for those of us that lived it as well as those that want to understand what really happened when you were one of the first women in a Fortune 500 company to blaze a path for those that followed.”
“Let Me In” is now available in bookstores and online. Follow the author at elainekoyama.com.
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