The public dispute between Miyoko Schinner and the board of the plant-based dairy company she founded heated up this week, with Schinner filing a lawsuit alleging she was forced out of Miyoko’s last year after complaining to HR about male executives who “openly denigrated women.”
In an 18-page countersuit filed in response to a lawsuit* accusing her of “hatching a plot to steal company property and trade secrets” after being removed as CEO last summer, Schinner says things began to deteriorate when Miyoko’s hired René Weber as VP of operations in 2021.
According to Schinner, Weber “immediately began a campaign of mistreating women” at the company “by excluding them from meetings, denying them information they needed, berating them publicly and privately, and otherwise making it difficult to impossible to do their jobs.”
‘Mansplaining’ exec ‘openly denigrated women’
Schinner’s countersuit—filed on Thursday by law firm The Bloom Firm—further alleges that Weber made it “impossible for her to continue to effectively do her job.” According to the lawsuit, Weber “openly denigrated women, their expertise, and their contributions at Miyoko’s, calling some ‘stupid’ and ‘terrible,’” terms Schinner claims Weber did not apply to men.
On several occasions, alleges the suit, Weber “mansplained to Miyoko that she did not understand her own products or Miyoko’s, the company she founded. In a markedly gendered tone, he described her ideas and ambition as unrealistic, driven by emotion and whim.”
On behalf of herself and other women at Miyoko’s, adds the countersuit, Miyoko complained to HR about Weber and John Zabrodsky, an operations consultant she says was hired by Miyoko’s at the behest of investor PowerPlant Partners.
Miyoko’s then “swiftly retaliated against Miyoko by demoting her and then terminating her.”
Her counterclaims against Miyoko’s include gender discrimination, retaliation, and unlawful use of her likeness on the company website without her consent.
Miyoko’s: Schinner was ‘responsible for managing all of the organization’s employees, functions, strategies and operations’
Miyoko’s is being represented by San Diego law firm Mintz.
Company counsel Jennifer Rubin told AFN: “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.”
Mintz added: “The Miyoko’s brand remains driven by craft, compassion, conviviality and courage and is committed to bringing consumers the highest quality vegan and plant-milk dairy products and creating a more humane, just and sustainable food system, within a safe, welcoming and productive environment for all employees.”
Digital trail, video surveillance
While Schinner was removed from her post in June 2022, news that she was no longer CEO did not become public until February 2023, when the company issued a press release announcing an ‘executive transition.’
Explaining the decision to reporters, board member James Joaquin from investor Obvious Ventures said Schinner lacked the skillset to take the firm to the next level, and was seeking a new CEO with “proven P&L experience who has scaled a larger business.”
Miyoko’s immediately followed up with a lawsuit accusing Schinner of “hatching a plot to steal company property, trade secrets, and confidential information” after she was removed as CEO.
The court filing went on to paint a picture of Schinner as incapable of managing a rapidly expanding business, adding that the “senior leadership team brought multiple concerns about Schinner to the board and threatened to quit due to Schinner’s mismanagement.”
Schinner said she was “blindsided” by the lawsuit, telling AFN last month: “I don’t know what it is they’re trying to do, but I don’t think it’s helping the brand. Destroying me isn’t going to make the company more valuable for an acquisition if that’s what they [key investors] want.”
In a separate court filing responding directly to claims made in the lawsuit filed against her last month, Schinner acknowledged that the board had suggested she hire a CEO or president to manage day-to-day operations. While Shinner had “initially agreed,” she said she “later changed her mind.”
*The case is Miyoko’s, PBC v Miyoko Schinner 4:23-cv-00711, filed in the Northern District of California February 16. Schinner is accused of breaching a confidential information and invention assignment agreement she signed in July 2021; violating the Defend Trade Secrets Act; and violating the Uniform Trade Secrets Act.