After more than 34 years in the United States, Filipino-born Veny Gapud still has a strong accent, and although she has at times encountered gender or race discrimination, she has not let that erase her uniqueness or deter her from advancing in the restaurant industry.
“There are always issues like that, but I don’t let that stop me,” says Gapud, who is director of quality assurance and food safety for Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen , the more than 1,900-unit quick-service chain based in Atlanta.
But while Gapud is secure in her identity, many minorities can feel isolated as they move up the corporate ladder toward a terrain that has long been dominated by white males. As more companies ramp up efforts to put minorities in leadership roles, they also must tackle the challenge of helping those individuals develop into leaders without losing the differences that make diversity desirable.
“If we fundamentally believe the work experience of people from diverse backgrounds is different, then their development needs to be different,” says Robert Rodriguez, assistant dean of the graduate school of management at Kaplan University in Chicago and author of “Latino Talent,” a book on recruiting, retaining and leadership development strategies for companies looking to increase their ranks of Hispanic managers and executives.
According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2008 Industry Workforce Overview, slightly more than half of all foodservice workers are female and close to 40 percent are minorities, but those percentages decline the farther up the corporate ladder one goes. White males are still the majority in senior-level management, say industry observers.
For that reason, minorities often struggle with retaining their own sense of identity as they try to align with a corporate identity that is usually reflective of white-male corporate culture, Rodriguez says.
“If you are a Latino professional, do you let people know you’re proud of your heritage, or do you downplay it?” Rodriguez says. “We find that sense of identity is a challenge folks have to address.”
As minorities move from the more diverse ranks of entry- and middle-level managers to more senior levels, they may experience isolation if they are the only person of color in a department or on a floor, or they may worry they are being treated as a token, Rodriguez says.
“All individuals get to certain level of success because we work hard and are pretty smart,” Rodriguez says. “But when we get to that certain level, everyone there works hard and is pretty smart. How then do you promote yourself more? You have to learn how to enhance your personal brand, how you bring value to an organization.”
To discourage that sense of isolation, several companies, such as Sodexo Inc. and McDonald’s Corp. , have created affinity groups that allow blacks, Asians, Latinos, women, gays and lesbians to meet on a regular basis to discuss issues and encourage each other’s growth. These groups can turn into personal networks that can help people in their career development for years.
Roz Mallet says a network she has developed in more than 20 years in the industry is helping her as she launches a new career as a multiconcept franchisee. Mallet, the former interim chief executive of Caribou Coffee Co.  and chief operating officer of La Madeleine de Corps Inc. , started out in human resources at Applebee’s International and then Carlson Cos. , where she created leadership development training and programs for employees.
“It is much more about individuals than companies,” she said. “I am truly the beneficiary of mentoring and networking. That has really shown up in the last four months. People are taking meetings with me. Bankers to CEOs are willing to give me advice.”
Mallet says she has been fortunate to work for people like Marilyn Carlson Nelson, chairwoman and chief executive of Carlson Cos., and industry veteran Wally Doolin, who have encouraged her and supported corporate efforts to develop women and minorities. They understood the positive impact diversity has in a business, she says.
“Research has demonstrated that companies that have a diverse officer base at the top, do over time have better financial results,” Mallet says. “Part of it is when you put a diversity perspective at the board table, then you have the ability to talk about and implement programs that will attract a more diverse customer base. You get better decision making.
“It’s not just about color or gender, but diverse backgrounds, people who can look at things differently and come up with better processes to serve the customer.”
Some companies do a better job of reaching out to minorities and women and helping them develop in their careers, industry observers say.
Mario Lee, a regional vice president of Old Country and Hometown Buffets restaurants  in California, for Eagan, Minn.-based parent Buffets Inc. , credits the grill-buffet chain’s human resources executive vice president Jane Binzak and chief executive Mike Andrews with creating a “people-first” environment in the company.
“They are always looking for the best person to do the job and [giving] them the opportunities to fulfill their careers as well as get the results mandated from the company,” Lee says. “I have worked with other companies in the past where you knew you were being blocked based [on race]. But in my 14 years at Buffets, I feel the company has been fair to minorities. Yes, you have to work hard at it. It’s not a given. It’s a results-oriented type of company with a pretty fair playing field.”
When looking at potential employers, minorities and women should consider what type of work environment and career path they provide, he adds.
“What are some of the programs they offer?” Lee asks. “Do they have diversity throughout the company? Look at their track record, which is easily defined by visiting their locations and looking around. What kind of people work for the company?”
As the recession threatens corporate leadership development and training programs, some minorities and women are advocating people take control of their own development, seek educational opportunities and build their own network of mentors and advisors.
“There are people who are kind of waiting to be promoted,” Lee says, “but in this fast-paced environment, you have to self-start, you have to take over your own career.”
The Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance, a nonprofit group that supports diversity in the industry, has shifted its focus to provide more leadership programs for minorities seeking career development. Rodriguez of Kaplan University is now conducting leadership development seminars for the MFHA, covering issues of isolation, tokenism and learning how to promote oneself effectively. The next seminar is scheduled for Aug. 18 in Atlanta.
“Some people have clearly cut diversity programs,” says Gerald “Gerry” Fernandez, founder and president of the 13-year-old MFHA, based in Cranston, R.I. “Some are in survival mode, cutting everything to keep the company alive. But some have just cut diversity. These companies never understood the business case and how having a diverse and inclusive workforce leads to profits long term.”
According to a survey of 486 industry employees conducted for the MFHA by human resources research firm Corvirtus in Colorado Springs, Colo., companies that support employees with training and development spark a greater level of employee engagement, leading to increased productivity and improved customer service.
The survey also found, however, that minorities tend to feel less involved in their jobs, less prepared for them and less pride in them. Also, while 56 percent of white employees said they would recommend their company to their friends as a great place to work, just 50 percent of minorities said they would make that recommendation.
Popeyes’ Gapud has taken it upon herself to seek out professional organizations, training and certifications that have helped her in her career. When she entered the industry, she had two master’s degrees: one in chemistry, the other in food science. She first worked for a food manufacturer and joined the former AFC Enterprises as a food scientist for Church’s Chicken. She was quickly promoted to quality assurance director for Popeyes. She has joined several professional organizations and sought additional training and certifications.
“In my job I deal a lot with men; they cannot bully me,” Gapud says. “I have to say this is how it should be done to protect our customers and Popeyes. They cannot intimidate me. I have the experience and I have to do things the way I think they should be done.”— [email protected]