COMMENTARY

17 female execs offer advice about rising to the top of a male-dominated field

March 9, 2017 | by Cherryh Cansler
17 female execs offer advice about rising to the top of a male-dominated field

"The Femi-Nazi" was the nickname my high school boyfriend's dad "jokingly" gave me at the dinner table one night after I said his sons and daughters deserved equal treatment.

He chuckled, thinking he was hilarious. I rolled my eyes.

Although he was legitimately a nice man, a loving father and I knew he was only teasing me, I saw the amusement in his eyes. He thought my "idealism" was cute. It infuriated me. His nickname didn't offend me, but even at 17, his condescending attitude did. It was the late 1990s, not the 1920s, and I guess I expected more from him.

It wasn't the last time I was called a Femi-Nazi or heard the word "feminist" used as an insult. I'm not special; I know most career-oriented and independent women have had similar experiences. Although things are obviously much better than in the past — hey, we had our first legitimate female candidate for president — we still have a long way to go before we are equally sharing control with men.

The restaurant industry is no exception. Women still only make up only 27.3 percent of the industry's CEOs and 21.4 percent of chefs or head cooks.

The good news, however, is that the number of female-owned restaurants has increased by 40 percent in the last decade. Half of all U.S. restaurants are either owned or co-owned by women, NRA President Dawn Sweeney wrote in a recent blog. We are making headway. 

In honor of International Women's Day (March 8) I wanted to highlight some of the women who are already leading the way. I'm humbled to cover their accomplishments, whether it's as CEO, the founder of a new concept or taking a leap of faith by opening a franchise. I can't wait to see what they do next.

Janelle Brown
VP of operations and training
Uncle Maddio's

"Including diversity in its many forms creates a powerful source of new ideas and the ability to approach business needs from a unique points of  view. Diversity in thought is a key component to any high-performing organization."

How she got her start in the biz
New restaurant openings at Outback Steakhouse were the gateway to Brown's career, but that progressed into managing human capital and the health of operations.

Why women make great leaders
"There is a sense of self-awareness and a level of confidence that comes with knowing you are often one of the only women in the board room. When you actively seek to understand, make thoughtful decisions and consistently think what could be the implications of my decisions, you find less unintended consequences."

Advice to women looking to lead
"Go get it done, and always lead from the front. Being a woman in business is never a burden or added responsibility but a platform to inspire and motivate the people you are lucky enough to impact. Take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves and never get complacent. Welcome adversity because I only believe in failing forward."

 

Maira Morales
Corporate Executive Chef
Schlotzsky's Deli


"Forget about your gender as this doesn't define anything. The brain and heart are genderless. We can do it all and we have proven it over and over again. "

Got her start in the biz
Morales was born and raised in Puerto Rico, and at age 19 she attended the Johnson and Wales University, where she received an A.S. in Food and Beverage Management and fell in love with the restaurant industry,

Why women make great leaders 
"Women and men are equally intelligent and capable of being in leaderships roles. Tradition has put men as the leaders, but females are now earning higher degrees, working full time, raising a family — and in some cases — doing it by themselves. We prove every day that we are the biggest multi-taskers on Earth. There aren't any reasons we shouldn't take on leadership roles."

Advice to women looking to lead
"Educate yourself as much as possible and never stop learning. There is never enough education one can have. Learn about everything related to your industry and stay up to date on the latest trends by getting higher degrees, attending continuing education courses, reading industry blogs and magazines and attending trade shows."

Travel as far as you can. It provides you with a different perspective of life, as you learn from other cultures, cuisines and lifestyle. Your world will be different as you'll see it from someone else's eyes.

Surround yourself with the most intelligent people you know in your field. Learn all about them and emulate what you can. Find a mentor to look up to.

Be very passionate about what you do and be the ultimate best you can be at it. Know that you are not perfect, but reach for perfection every day.

Break the molds and be unique; there are too many mediocre and average people in the World, don't be one of them if you want to make a difference.

Make a list of your accomplishments. If anyone ever tries to put you down, read this list and be proud of how amazing you are."

Heather Neary
President
Auntie Anne's

"Be yourself. I don't necessarily define myself as 'Heather Neary, female president of Auntie Anne's,; but I do understand that in this role, I'm seen as a role model for other women who are aspiring to one day be a leader themselves."

Got her start in the biz
At age 15, Neary worked in a sandwich shop, making subs and waiting on customers.

Why women make great leaders
"Diversity in leadership positions is critical. Women can offer a different perspective that has been traditionally lacking in the restaurant industry.In many cases, women are the primary decision-makerss in their families, especially when it comes to food, so assuming a similar role in the boardroom is a natural fit. The more impact women can make in leadership roles, the more young women will aspire to get there themselves. It can be a cascading effect that transforms our industry."

Advice to women looking to lead
"Figure out what you want to do and go after it. Don't be afraid to play different roles — I'm more than happy to jump behind the counter at the stores and roll pretzels if necessary. I'm also never going to say, 'That's not my job.' Join groups that support women leaders — the Women's Foodservice Forum is an absolutely invaluable resource to me and many others. I've met so many great friends, leaders, mentors through WFF, and I've learned so much about what it takes to be a leader in this business. Realize you will make mistakes. I make them literally every single day. Some small, some big. Learn from your mistakes and grow from them.

I feel like I learn every day. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Figure out what you want and go after it. I can't say that enough. Advocate for yourself. Speak up in meetings; don't just be the note-taker.

Identify not only your mentor, but also your sponsor and your advocate. Who is speaking for you when you're not in the room?

Dress for success; it's always better to be overdressed than underdressed. Treat everyone as you want to be treated. Have fun! This is a really fun business and you can't take yourself too seriously. After all, we're making pretzels. It's fun! Smile."

Arianne Bennett
Founder and CEO
Amsterdam Falafelshop

"Be free to be you. Don't let anyone define you. Be bold. Be creative. Be you."

Got her start in the biz
Bennett started in the restaurant industry as a server to make ends meet while going to college and later returned to the service industry when her husband asked her to help him open a little sandwich shop in the neighborhood. The rest is history.

On why women make great leaders
"Communication is the key to keeping good people in your company, and women are great communicators. Grooming a great team is the core of a solid company and your ability to move forward. If you have a solid base in your company, your growth potential increases, and the satisfaction that people have with their job increases. "

Advice to women looking to lead
"Leadership means working as a team and having a team that will follow you into battle. Don't forget that the human, connected approach will always win you a loyal team. Caring about how your employees live outside of work, what their worries are, the challenges they face, and helping them on that front will connect you in a very special way. You can be great assets to each other. It is not a one-way relationship. Always see the human side."

Sally Smith
CEO
Buffalo Wild Wings

"Leadership is about your passion, desire and motivation to be better and to make your team better. Women have a unique opportunity — they figure out a way to 'do it all.' If you have kids, if you are married, if you are a caregiver, if you have any sort of medical setbacks, and you have a job, you have to figure out how to accomplish it all. Having been in a male-dominated industry for most of my career, to me, I don't look at a person's gender. Instead, I look at the value that each individual brings — who is the right person for the job.  Being a good leader is about being clear about expectations and ensuring people understand them. A good leader also must remain open to feedback and continuously seek to learn to grow in their role and as a person. "

Got her start in the biz
Smith joined the restaurant industry in 1994, when Buffalo Wild Wings hired her to write a few financial statements. At the time, she was serving as CFO to another company but eventually left to work full-time for BWW. Shortly thereafter, she became CEO.

On why women make great leaders
"The restaurant industry provides tremendous opportunity. Having diversity in leadership is important, and I think women bring unique perspective to their leadership roles, just as all individuals do. I've always said having a diverse workplace with unique perspectives helps bring out the best in any industry. " 

Advice to women looking to lead
Network, work hard, own your own development and get a mentor. Ever heard of the saying, 'It's not what you know, it's who you know?' Taking the time to build your network is a benefit to you but you will also realize how much you can give back to your network too. 

Good old fashioned hard work is noticed. It may not be immediately, but doing what you say you will do, going above and beyond, and volunteering for things outside of your 'day job' are things that will help you succeed. Owning your own development is a key piece to success. If you have something you want to go after, do it. You are your best advocate. 

Find a mentor, or multiple mentors. These individuals will become your personal board of directors, they are the people that will give you honest feedback and help guide you. Mentors have been known to be involved in my life for multiple years and through my entire career journey.

Another piece of advice is to not be afraid to make a lateral move because it will prepare you for other opportunities down the road.

Finally, I always tell people to remain curious and always keep learning.  

 

Kat Cole
Group President
Focus Brands

"Be sure to mentor and develop other young leaders. Giving young employees strong female role models re-frames what they believe is possible for themselves and builds experience with diverse leadership."

Got her start in the biz
Cole started as a restaurant hostess at the age of 17.

On why women make great leaders
"It's proven that diverse leadership drives better results (financially and culturally) — so more women means more success for our industry. In addition, women hold massive amounts of purchasing power, and it's important to have leadership that represents the communities it serves (and employs)."

Advice to women looking to lead
"No job is too small or too large — restaurants are intricate ecosystems, and the more you deeply understand every element, you will be positioned to be a stronger and more successful leader.

Focus on taking care of your team, your guests and your business. Restaurants are successful when those things are singing in harmony. It doesn't matter if you are male or female. Driving results in restaurants comes from a combination of strong operations, marketing and service capabilities paired with high touch, people and heart-centered leadership approach."

Dawn Sweeney
President

National Restaurant Association

"One of the reasons —  I think — that I found my way to the restaurant industry is that I have always prioritized diversity and inclusion in my life's choices. And there is no other industry in America as diverse and inclusive as the restaurant industry. "

Got her start in the biz
As a child growing up on a farm in rural Maine, Sweeney's family had a small roadside produce stand, where she worked as a small child picking berries, string beans, potatoes and corn. As she grew up,she eventually worked at the stand, serving customers and bringing fresh produce in from the field.

On why women make great leaders
"Thirty-three percent of restaurant businesses are majority-owned by women and another 15 percent of restaurant businesses are equally owned by women and men. Nearly 60 percent of all front-line supervisors in restaurants today are women. Consumer decision makers are often women in the family. Restaurants are flexible workplaces and offer an enormous range of career options — not just in kitchens or in the front of the house — but also in the 'business' of restaurants, from finance professionals to graphic designers to human resources leaders and food safety and nutrition experts. The industry is a full of employment opportunities that are vital to our economy." 

Advice to women looking to lead
"I have always been drawn to career and leadership opportunities that are team-based:  collaborative, trusting, open and filled with the spirit of hospitality. Elevating women leaders in our industry is one of the best ways to achieve that goal. It is the 'collective genius' of different points of view, different life experiences and different values and priorities that leads us to the best and highest outcomes.

To women looking to lead in this industry — pay attention to the experiences that shape you. Take note of those moments of inspiration, regret, breakthrough and heartbreak.  All of them are important and each is meaningful. My mantra is simple —  work hard and be kind. That has been my life's path. Yours will be different. Trust that things happen for a reason (always), that the challenges you confront will make you stronger, and that the purpose of life is to grow, to change, to evolve and to get 'better' —  however you define that for yourself. 

 

Tara Gilad
Founder
Vitality Bowls

"It can be difficult being female in a male-dominated world, and I've often found myself discounted by men when dealing with them in various aspects of the business. I hope that in the coming years, an increase in the number of women leaders will have a positive effect on the industry."

Got her start in the biz
After struggling to feed her daughter suffering from food allergies, in  2011, Gilad created Vitality Bowls, a casual superfood café where people could eat  nutritious superfoods from a kitchen that strived to avoid cross-contamination of common food allergy ingredients.

On why women make great leaders
"I think many women are concerned with work/life balance and trying to manage having a family with the demands of leadership roles and/or owning their own business. However, I find being in a leadership role gives me more flexibility than a regular job. It's a lot of late nights and coordination, but for the most part I'm able to schedule my work around my kids' needs. Plus, I'm a wonderful role model to my daughter. I definitely encourage more women to create businesses of their own and a huge benefit is gaining more control over their schedules. Vitality Bowls has several women franchisees that now own their own business and are experiencing success."

Advice to women looking to lead
Do it! Don't be afraid. The positivity and rewards that come from it far outweigh the hard work and long hours.

 



Laura Rea Dickey
CEO
Dickey's Barbecue

"The opportunity is there, just commit and deliver. Don't look around, look at your goal and you'll get there."

Got her start in the biz
More than 20 years ago, Dickey's first "real" job was as a hostess at Lonestar Steakhouse in high school. Her post-college career started in advertising and web design, where her first three clients were restaurants.

On why women make great leaders
"A range of perspectives enhances an outcome, so more woman taking leadership roles in the restaurant industry will continue to help evolve the business. Plus, woman are key decision makers for family dining choices, so it's a valuable perspective."

Advice to women looking to lead

"Restaurants require a relentless work ethic; so work hard, stay a little longer, do more than is required at every opportunity and you will move up."

Jennifer Wade
Franchisee
Moe's Southwest Grill Franchisee

"When making a decision think of it like this: the only bad decision is the one you don't make. Don't be paralyzed by the big decisions. I choose to think of every scenario, including the worst case, and if I can live with it, work within it, and grow with it, it's the right the decision.

Got her start in the biz
Wade, a single mother, who now owns three Moe's Southwest Grill, became a franchisee in 2002, but started as a hostess at age 17. 

"I was paying for school and needed more money, so I asked if I could be a shift manager.  My boss at the time said no — they had never had a female manager — and when I asked why he said that women don't work in the kitchen as the work was too hard. I remember having to beg him, saying I needed the money and promised I would work my butt off.  And that is exactly what I did. I became their first female manager, then the first female GM, the first female director of operations, and so on. Finally, in 2002, I became a minority owner. In 2003, we became Moe's franchisees, and in 2008 I bought him out."

On why women make great leaders
"I think women should take on more leadership roles in every industry, especially if they have a road map to owning their own business one day. I think women bring both similar and different skills set than men. Half of the consumers in restaurants are women and a female leader knows the unique ways to deliver what those customers want in service."  

Advice to women looking to lead
"First, do what you love. If you love the restaurant business, be in it. I also advise my employees to focus on two qualities — being a great listener and having a voice. Your voice, ideas and leadership are needed. Additionally, find a mentor — male or female —  it doesn't matter. Education is so important and a mentor can continue to educate and guide you. In my 20-year-career, I have had three mentors, two of which I still talk to today. Trust your gut! It took me a while to trust mine and looking back it was always right on."  

Deborah Masse
SVP
Cottage Inn

"I truly do not even see myself as a woman but just another person. I am no less and no more important than anyone else out there trying to make their way in this world."

Got her start in the biz
Masse began in a resort environment in 2007, and transferred to the pizza industry in 2012.

On why women make great leaders
"Most women that I have met since I have been in the industry are organized, efficient and great listeners. We find different characteristics with the men in the industry. Action is great, but in order to take the right action, you need to ask the right questions and make decisions based on the information.

"I find in the industry that making quick decisions is imperative but in some cases no decisions are needed. In the restaurant industry there is a certain level of drama that exists. You have to be able to identify a real problem from a sensationalized issue. Maybe being a mother does give you some intuitiveness to identify real problems from perceived problems. There are times when inaction is the best action."

Advice to women looking to lead
"Do not be afraid to go in and tear it apart and build it back up. Learn everything: operations, sales, customer service — start at the bottom if you have to and work your way up! Receiving input and feedback from all ranks of the organization can give you insights that cannot be achieved from behind a desk. Get out in the field and talk to employees at all levels and your customers. Don't do it if you are not sincere. You have to want to engage and learn from your conversations."

LindaVap
CEO
HuHot

"Don't think in terms of 40-hour weeks, don't ask someone to do something you would not be willing to do and don't give up on your goals and dreams. You can do it.

Got her start in the biz
In 1979 Vap became a Godfather's Pizza franchisee.

On why women make great leaders
"Why not? It takes confidence, but women make great leaders if you believe in yourself."

Advice to women looking to lead
"If given the opportunity, take a chance on it. Nothing ventured nothing gained, as they say. Be confident, be kind, be willing to suggest new ideas, be a creative thinker, learn ALL aspects of the business, delegate well and train others in what you know. Don't get walked on, don't fall into the trap of saying, ‘I'll  just do it myself because it's faster than training someone to do it.'"

Marla Topliff
President

Rosati'sPizza

"Don't let your gender become an issue. If your company is a boys club then join the club. Remember, to be an equal, first, you have to prove yourself as an equal, then you can go on to become club president."

Got her start in the biz
Topliff, who has been in the restaurant business for 20 years, began her career in marketing. Rosati's was her biggest client before she switched careers.

On why women make great leaders
"Most women tend to be empathic, which is a positive when relating to the performance of employees. It gives them an advantage for better understand what others are feeling. Also women, as a rule, are great communicators, who have the ability to look at problems differently and gain perspective. But mostly I think women make good leaders because they have great Vision, and the tenacity to follow through to make their visions become reality."

Advice to women looking to lead
"Believe in yourself, and don't take no for an answer. Keep an open mind, listen and learn as much as you can and never let your own ego get in your way. Dropping the us against them attitude is the first rung on that ladder to the top. A good woman leader knows that gender doesn't matter, only teamwork does."

Heather Ricks
Franchisee
McAlister's Deli

"Find your voice and use it to ensure that your brand is open and fair to all, that it's a brand you are proud to be a part of and lead. Being a strong and positive role model for our team, guests and children is as easy as getting out of bed each morning and going into the restaurant or office. It has to be a part of who you are."

Got her start in the biz
Ricks has been a McAlister's Deli franchisee since 2010, and owns two McAlister's units with the third opening this summer.

On why women make great leaders
"Everyone knows that women and men are different and therefore bring different points of view and experiences to the table. By having a diverse group of women in leadership roles (big and small) it adds new elements to discussions and broadens the vision that we all strive to achieve in the restaurant and catering industries."

Advice to women looking to lead
"
I don't really see it as climbing the ladder, I see it as building your own. Only you know how big to make it and what kind of materials are going to support the steps you need to take. Stay true to yourself and your career path. You have to be willing to stand side by side with men and demonstrate your abilities and vision through dedication and creativity. The restaurant and catering industry really opened up to female chefs, managers and entrepreneurs about 15 years ago. It was one of the first industries to do so and I am proud that it is a leader in the business market."  

Melanie Hoggard
Franchisee
Focus Brands 

"Do not allow the idea that women are not yet equal in the workplace to hold you back or slow you down. Never focus on the negative. There are certainly different challenges that we face, but everyone faces challenges each day. The way we choose to address them is what will determine our future and potential.  Focusing on the disparities that still exist will not advance your career. Never allow that to control or guide your thought process. Focus on the challenges of the position or industry and be a part of the solution, not the problem."

Got her start in the biz
Hoggard, who has her hands on Moe's Southwest Grill, Auntie Anne's Pretzels and Cinnabon, started in the restaurant industry in 2003 with Moe's. She and her husband own six Moe's franchises as well as Auntie Anne's Pretzels and Cinnabon units.

On why women make great leaders
"It's not that women's views are better, but they can be very different, and that different approach or view can be invaluable to any organization's leadership team. While women embrace competition, they tend to lead through collaboration, relationship and team building and mentoring others. Every business should strive for a more inclusive and balanced view and leadership model to include all segments of modern society.  Research shows that companies with women in leadership roles have better financial results."

Advice to women looking to lead
"
Follow your dreams. They are only yours and no one else can achieve them for you or take them away. Focus on education and while working hard in every position you can to gain experience, find a mentor and be open to learning and new ideas.  Allow someone to guide and help you along the way. There are very successful women in our industry, but successful male role models are also a great resource."

Betsy Craig
CEO 
MenuTrinfo, 
AllerTrainand Kitchens with Confidence.

"Asking for meetings, lunches and connections way 'above' where I was when I started opened doors, opportunities and paths I could only dream of. Today I am an amazing CEO to about 200 people. I prefer saying that than saying, 'I am a great female CEO.' One of my missions today is to #droptheadjectives."

How she got her start in the biz
Craig started as a salad bar girl when she was 16 working at Ponderosa in Syracuse New York. She stayed in the industry and worked as a bar back, grill cook, kitchen prep bartender, bouncer and a sales exec before creating MenuTrinfo, AllerTrain and Kitchens with Confidence.  

On why women make great leaders
It amazes me that most yell about how many women are in the industry, but look at the upper management, leadership roles, the C-suite or founder, and the number dwindles at an alarming rate. Women should be in a leadership role in my option just as much as men. A variety of leaders, a beautiful American melting pot of sex, culture, and background make for a beautiful industry.  

Advice to women looking to lead
"Be and remain unstoppable. I was told many many times in the beginning my company would not be needed and was going to have a long road, and you know what? It was a long road, but I have never regretted a single step. I show up for everything, stopped at nothing, treated all clients like friends, only take happy money from folks who are happy to give it to my company and run each and every decision since day one based on three main principles: Is it honest? Does it have integrity? Am I being of service?  Those are the three principles my companies are based on: honesty, service, and integrity. Find what drives you, do it, don't stop and when that still small voice says you can't…tell it to shut up and walk through the hard stuff with your head held high anyway.

"It has been imperative to have other amazing women leaders to walk alongside. Fellowship with gals that blazed the trail before me have been some of my most amazing teachers. On top of that, having a few 2 a.m. CEO friends who will answer my call in the middle of the night when I need to be talked off a business ledge — well there is no price for how valuable that is. These gals have become not just friends but people I would go to any length to help as well."

Jackie Albert
Franchisee
Schlotzsky's Deli
"Putting yourself in others' shoes to understand their point of view is vitally important. If we all agree, one of us is not needed. Listening and then formulating and executing a plan that meets the needs of the business, the customers and the employees should always be the goal. Building a team through a positive lens with collaboration and not domination is the key to being successful in this business. "

How she got her start in the biz
Albert, who has been a Schlotzsky's franchisee since she was 24, opened her first unit in1994, with her husband. The former registered nurse now has 32 units.

On why women make great leaders
I believe that women tend to excel at multitasking and the business industry always has many moving parts. Women also bring a level of compassion to the business that makes everyone feel like they are part of a team.

Advice to women looking to lead
Honest and integrity are the most important attributes of any leader. Anyone will follow you if you tell the truth, admit when you are wrong and change course if needed. Good old fashion hard work and dedication will lead you to the top. Focus on the goal and you will achieve it.

 


Topics: Operations Management



Cherryh Cansler
Before joining Networld Media Group as director of Editorial, where she oversees Networld Media Group's nine B2B publications, Cherryh Cansler served as Content Specialist at Barkley ad agency in Kansas City. Throughout her 17-year career as a journalist, she's written about a variety of topics, ranging from the restaurant industry and technology to health and fitness. Her byline has appeared in a number of newspapers, magazines and websites, including Forbes, The Kansas City Star and American Fitness magazine. She also serves as the managing editor for FastCasual.com. wwwView Cherryh Cansler's profile on LinkedIn

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