The Women’s Foodservice Forum started in 1989 as a conversation about whether sufficient opportunities existed for women in the food industry. Now it is a 501c3 nonprofit organization with board representation from some of the most prominent women in the industry.
Judging by the enthusiastic crowd and comprehensive programming at this week's Women’s Foodservice Forum event in Dallas, we’ve indeed come a long way, baby. An estimated 2,600 attendees of women and male allies from every facet of the foodservice industry descended upon Dallas’ Omni Hotel for the event, which featured keynotes from Sunny Hostin, Carla Harris and Mel Robbins.
In an interview on the show floor, WFF CEO and president Therese Gearhart said this year’s event felt different, more energetic than it has in the past two years riddled with pandemic anxieties.
“Three years ago, we did allow people to come, but it was a smaller crowd. Technically this is our second year back in person and there is no question that actual real contact and connection is back this year. It really strikes me how this automatically becomes a safe place to have conversations and community and feel like they’re really connecting again,” she said.
So, what has changed in these past three years? For starters, WFF has ramped up its resources and conversations around mental wellness, including how to manage burnout and how to lift your voice even if you’re working in a remote environment. Such a focus became critical during the pandemic as the industry experienced a significant erosion of its workforce, an erosion that disproportionately impacted women who left because of caregiving obligations or general burnout.
“Having the tools and skills around mental wellness became even more important to us. We’re engaging with women all year long and they’re telling us they need these tools,” Gearthart said. “We’ve put more focus on the caregiver element. Everyone has more people in their lives they’re taking care of, it seems. There is no such thing as balance, and we need to pay more attention to that.”
WFF has also shifted its model to ensure that everyone who comes to the annual March conference automatically becomes a member upon registration. The event itself provides networking and leadership development opportunities, but membership provides access to engagements and content all year-round, all career-long. This shift was made simply based on demand for more resources and access, Gearhart said.
“The demand has probably always been there, but oddly enough, I can say it was a Covid gift to learn we could connect virtually. It opened up things completely. The fact that we can willingly dial in on a call and still have those conversations on challenges and topics in real time is game changing,” she said.
Of course, challenges still exist. Gearhart said the biggest challenge comes from trying to keep this idea, this topic of equality, consistently top-of-mind.
“There’s always competing elements for business and we’re really moving into a point where this shouldn’t be something you have to think about. It shouldn’t feel like it’s work. It should be naturally occurring,” she said. “But the fact is you still have to have constant conversations.”
WFF is continuing to beef up its programming, content and events to lead that conversation. It’s also adding new elements, such as the launch of a new DEI Council focused on understanding and implementing best practices for women of color. Gearthart also promises continuous improvement of the WFF Connect platform, where women often facilitate their own conversations and share best practices and bring them back to their respective organizations.
“That’s the beautiful thing about this organization and our partners and this industry – everyone is doing some things that will automatically help us accelerate and lift,” Gearhart said. “This year’s event has reminded me of just the absolute power of women and my amazement of how awesome we are. Just, we’re awesome – what we do, how we engage, how we learn, our passion for what we’re doing. And these women want to change the world and we’re unleashing that by being together. That excites me.”
Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]