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Women in Foodservice
sarah king.jpg Photo courtesy of the Women's Foodservice Forum
Sarah King, the senior vice president and chief people and diversity officer at Darden, is this year's WFF Chair.

Darden’s Sarah King outlines her priorities as the new Women’s Foodservice Forum chair

Generational diversity and a clear outline of the business case for diversity and inclusion work are two focus areas for WFF’s new chair.

Sarah King used to shy away from telling her professional story. The senior vice president and chief people and diversity officer at Darden never got her college degree, which is “a little unusual” in the world of corporate America, she admits.

Now, however, she is older, wiser, more experienced, and proud to talk about her nontraditional path.

“I wear it like a badge of honor, not because I don’t believe in education but because I don’t think there’s any other industry on the planet where you can be in the c-suite of a public company without a college degree. This industry creates opportunities for people who never thought they had a chance at building a successful career,” King said during a recent interview.

Her entire career has very much been defined by the hospitality industry, in fact, with 19 years of experience working at Wyndham and going into her seventh year with Darden. She started working in restaurants in her native New Zealand when she was 15. When college didn’t work out, she went back to working at a restaurant.

“Every time things didn’t go right, hospitality was always my savior, so my passion for this industry is because of my own personal experiences,” she said.

King moved to the U.S. in 2010 after working on “just about all the continents on the planet.” Because of those unique cultural experiences, diversity and inclusion became a north star for her work.

“But when I came here, it had different meanings and connotations. I never wanted to be the poster child for being the only woman in the room, I wanted to let my performance speak for itself,” she said.

A female colleague at Wyndham told her it wasn’t so simple, however. There were – and remain – few women in boardrooms and, because of that, the colleague told her she had a responsibility to show up and help pave the way for future generations of women.

“When she said that, it was literally like someone had slapped me,” King said. “I just felt this sense of responsibility to share what I had learned and help lift others up.”

Lifting others up was personally motivating because of what she had experienced rising up through the ranks in the 1990s and early 2000s. King said she could write a book about those experiences; the times she wasn’t taken seriously, wasn’t listened to, was talked over, or just told to fetch coffee.  

“There was a different expectational perception of women in senior positions,” she said. “I tried to ignore it, but then there was this convergence of conversations, me going through my own midlife evaluation of what’s important to me and asking how can I give back. As you get a little older and wiser, it starts becoming about how you give back.”

Once she started thinking more frequently about these things, the light above her head wasn’t ever going to turn off. She became heavily involved with the Florida Diversity Council and Wyndham’s employee resource groups. She joined Darden in 2017 with a “fresh perspective” on how diversity and inclusion should be a part of a company’s culture, not just a program.

“I started working on how to integrate inclusive leadership into our culture – to make sure it was something that wasn’t just a training program and that it was something that sticks no matter who is in the job,” she said. “When you create these inclusive workplaces, it attracts and retains diverse talent.”

King also took advantage of Darden’s longtime partnership with the Women’s Foodservice Forum, a nonprofit organization started 35 years ago to provide research, networking, resources, and best practice solutions to help women in the foodservice space thrive. She went to the WFF’s women’s executive summit in Colorado in 2018 and that light above her head became even brighter.

“I remember it so vividly. I was surrounded by all these incredible, talented, funny, interesting women. I just remember sitting there and knowing I had to be a part of this organization,” King said.

She returned from the forum and promptly joined the WFF, spending the first few years listening and learning, building connections with other HR leaders in the industry, and applying many of those lessons to Darden. King eventually wanted to contribute more, and in 2022 was offered the role of treasurer with the organization. Last year, she was named chair-elect and earlier this month, she was named chair. Now, armed with all of her experience and stories and objectives, it’s full speed ahead.

“Being in a room with these incredibly talented women and having the opportunity to engage on things that I don’t really engage on when I’m sitting in the boardroom, it’s such an opportunity that we’ve got,” she said. “There’s something about having that connectivity with other women – who, in every level of their careers, are going through similar issues. That just exacerbated to me how great it was to talk about shared issues women face in the workforce, especially after the pandemic.”

Among her priorities as chair are ensuring the WFF is generationally diverse to carry this work into the future, creating a better understanding about the value of being involved in WFF, and creating more awareness about the business case behind such diversity and inclusion efforts. Everything, she said, starts with getting buy-in and “authentic support” from leadership.

“You’ve got to have both the narrative and the data so leaders can understand where they are today and where they need to get to. Without the buy-in of where we need to get to, the programs don’t work,” King said.

Where WFF comes into this is work is by providing tools, resources, connections, and education.

“These efforts can’t be done through an HR team or a DEI team. They have to be through the whole organization,” King said. “That’s why the WFF is such a great partnership to help organizations build that awareness about why having an inclusive workplace culture is good for business – you attract better talent, you retain better talent, you have higher employee engagement, which has a massive impact on your customer experience. It's the right thing to do but there’s also a business case for it. Especially in this industry, the companies with the best talent win.”

King is excited to get started on this work – or, more accurately, continue what she started long ago – especially as the WFF marks its 35th anniversary milestone year this year.

“I think it's a time and a place in the history of women in the workforce, and in this industry, where we have an opportunity to move the needle. It’s an evolution, not a revolution,” she said. “We know it’s not going to happen overnight, but we’re setting ourselves up for now and for the future, attracting talented women and men to our board, and making sure we continue the legacy started 35 years ago by some incredible women. We take that legacy very seriously.”

Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]

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