Elaine Koyama, a Japanese-American woman from Hardin, continually defied racial stereotypes and gender bias throughout her professional career in corporate America.
Now an author, she shares her experience as a minority woman rising up the corporate ladder in her new book “LET ME IN: A Japanese American woman crashes the American corporate club 1976 – 1996” due for release on September 13 later this year.
She experienced this just as the term “glass ceiling” was being coined.
Referring to the invisible boundaries that historically marginalized groups face in their careers, the glass ceiling was clearly seen by Koyama. This didn’t stop her, however, from achieving her goals.
“I hope that this book connects with people who grew up in small towns like Hardin,” Koyama said. “When I was growing up, there were no role models for me.”
As a Japanese-American woman raised on a farm, she explained how there were few people beyond her family to teach her about what she could be when she grew up. Growing up in the 1960s, she remembered the options for women being incredibly limited for work.
“I remember my sister telling my dad that she wanted to be a doctor and he said she couldn’t do that because she was a woman,’” she recalls. “And I remember thinking that didn’t sound right, but I wasn’t going to argue with my dad.”
The youngest of eight children, her four older sisters went on to work as a secretary, a schoolteacher and beauticians. By the time she graduated high school in 1972, however, things were beginning to change.
After graduating from Stanford University in 1976, her opportunities for paying off her student debt led her to landing a job with the prominent food, agricultural and financial corporation Cargill later that year.
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“The women’s movement in the 70’s really opened up a lot of doors for us,” Koyama said of her and other women seeking careers. “That’s where the title of the book originated from: us telling the workforce to let us in.”
It was during this time that she felt her experiences making sales to farmers were something that she would want to share with her grandchildren someday.
“So many strange and wonderful things happened just by going door-to-door in Iowa to sell animal feed,” she said. “I didn’t want to ever forget it, so I started writing it down and it just sort of sat there for 40 years.”
During the next twenty years, Koyama would advance in the company starting as a management trainee before becoming a territory manager, sales manager, product manager and finally securing a high-level position in marketing.
During this time, she would also endure years racial prejudice as a young Japanese woman among mostly male business associates. Recalling a business meeting in a New York City bar, her leg was unexpectedly grabbed by a complete stranger.
“Most of them probably assumed that I was the entertainment or something,” she said. “At that time, their only idea of Japanese women was probably Tokyo Rose or massage parlors.”
Unlike many women during this time, Koyama can say that she never felt threatened during these years due to the support she had built with her company and co-workers. Despite the progress she made through the company these years, she still felt that it was time to move on in 1996.
“I didn’t get as much as I wanted to in management (at Cargill),” she said. “but my success opened the door for others.”
From the walls she helped break down to the problems she sees today, she has always maintained the same mentality she developed from her family’s Hardin farm.
“Sometimes you just have to keep you head down and keep working,” she said of her obstacles. “Plus, success is the best revenge.”
Koyama and her partner owned and operated Interlinx Associates, a sales and marketing IT counseling firm, for 20 years before selling the company. She now focuses on her writing exclusively with her blog “Musings” and annual weekend retreat for writers known as Retreat2Write. Her previous book “Ski Sojourn” was released earlier this month through Amazon.