GUEST COMMENTARY: Building the Next Generation of Women Leaders in Restaurants

Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association (NRA), shares this guest commentary to mark Women's History Month. Her organization will be hosting NRA Show 2017 – an International Foodservice Marketplace – in Chicago on May 20-23, 2017.

Dawn Sweeney, President and CEO, National Restaurant Association   Contributed photo

by Dawn Sweeney

Restaurants are proud to open doors for millions of women to succeed at any career path they choose to pursue – inside our industry or elsewhere. As we celebrate Women’s History Month, it’s important to remember that these achievements are made every month by women who are just starting their careers, taking the lead to open their own business, or ascending into an executive role.

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. In recent years, women-owned restaurant businesses grew at a rate more than three times faster than the overall restaurant industryMeanwhile, 58 percent of first-line supervisors or managers of food preparation and service workers are women. With more women in management and ownership positions than virtually any other industry, restaurants offer a career path with no glass ceiling. I know that from experience – when I took the helm of the Association in 2007, I became its first female President and CEO.

Restaurants provide opportunities to women of all ages and at all stages of their careers, from students to retirees and servers to owners. As a working mom myself, I know how valuable workplace flexibility is to maintaining some semblance of balance between your family and your career. Restaurant jobs offer the flexibility for women looking to rejoin the workforce after taking time off to raise a family. In fact, 61 percent of adult women have worked in a restaurant at some point in their life, and 37 percent got their first job in a restaurant.

In addition to flexibility, restaurants provide a path forward for everyone by fostering mentorship and on the job training, so that employees can achieve long-term career growth. I know I benefitted from strong mentoring throughout my career – and I’m so proud my industry reflects that commitment. That’s why we are working with other businesses and the government to expand these opportunities. For example, the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation and the American Hotel & Lodging Association just signed a $1.8 million contract with the U.S. Department of Labor to launch the national Hospitality Sector Registered Apprenticeship project. The program will groom more than 400 apprentice workers for management careers in restaurants and hotels. Studies have found 91 percent of apprentices remain employed in their companies after completing programs, with average annual starting wage of more than $50,000.

Creating a ladder of success for women and minorities is not a job for industry associations alone – policymakers, business leaders, managers and educators must all embrace the responsibility of promoting and empowering young women to pursue opportunities that will help them achieve their career goals.

It has been my life’s passion to be part of a team that is diverse and inclusive, and I am grateful the Association’s Executive Committee today reflects the diversity of our restaurant community. Out of the 12 members of our Executive team, nearly half are women and nearly half are people of color. 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. And I am thrilled to be part of an industry that truly values and promotes diversity and inclusion as a core business and social value each and every day.

So, this month as we honor and celebrate the achievements of women around the world, we in the restaurant industry are will continue our proud tradition of helping to train the next generation of incredible women. Many of them are getting their first jobs in cafes, coffee shops, and diners across the country right now. Restaurants are proud to be a part of their success stories.  

Dawn Sweeney is President and CEO of the National Restaurant Association.

The National Restaurant Association will be hosting NRA Show 2017 – an International Foodservice Marketplace – in Chicago on May 20-23, 2017.

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National Restaurant Association U.S. Department of Labor

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