Editor's note: In honor of International Women's Day and Women's History Month, FastCasual interviewed several female leaders in the restaurant industry to learn about their success and how they feel about leading in a male-dominated industry. To read the entire series, click here.
Heather Neary, president of Auntie Anne's, started working at a sandwich shop when she was 15. She stayed in the industry throughout high school and college, primarily waiting tables and bartending.
"It was a really fun time for me," she said. "I definitely lived by the mantra of work hard, play hard! Hard work, good friends, great money. Many of the friends I made then are still my closest friends today."
Neary eventually joined Auntie Anne’s in 2005, holding various roles in the company, including VP of global marketing, until she took over as president in 2015.
The exec said she is happy to serve as a role model for other females striving to become business leaders.
"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 leader(s) 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-makers 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 over-dressed than under-dressed. 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."
/ 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.