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Women in Foodservice
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Diversified Restaurant Group's inaugural Women in Leadership Initiative cohort.

Why this Taco Bell franchisee created a Women in Leadership initiative

Diversified Restaurant Group, which counts over 300 Taco Bell and Arby’s restaurants, launched the Women in Leadership Initiative earlier this year ‘to change the leadership table.’

By now, we know some of the statistics – women make up nearly 70% of the restaurant industry’s frontline workforce, but just 38% of executive roles. To close this gap, more companies have added leadership and development programs and employee resource groups in recent years, and those ERGs have proven to be effective. According to a 2019 survey, 70% of respondents said the women’s ERG at their company has helped drive policy changes.

For the most part, however, these types of groups and programs have been facilitated at the corporate level and for corporate employees, which can inadvertently create a gap in a heavily-franchised industry like ours. One franchise company is trying to bring these efforts closer to home. Diversified Restaurant Group, a Taco Bell and Arby’s franchise company with over 300 locations, created a Women in Leadership Initiative earlier this year to “change the perception of women’s roles throughout the company.” The idea for such a group was planted in 2021, when Sierra Burk joined the company as its communications and media manager.

“At conferences and meetings and business trips, I was always the only woman there and it was intimidating. It was a little uncomfortable, especially being new,” she said during a recent interview. “I shared my feelings with executives and SG (Ellison, CEO of DRG) tapped me to lead the program, alongside Katrina Davis (HR Business Partner, DRG). SG wanted to see more diversity at our table, so we started vetting a lot of women in leadership programs to set the foundation.”

One of those programs was the Women’s Foodservice Forum, an organization that provides research, insights and best practice solutions to enable food companies to create gender-diverse workforces. Burk said tapping into WFF made sense because Taco Bell parent company Yum Brands is a longstanding member, and because the organization provides plenty of resources, like Lunch and Learn events, exchange networks and more. From there, DRG identified 20 women in its company – area coach and coordinator-level and above – that “are key talent that we wanted to accelerate,” Burk said. The initiative kicked off in April with a summit and pinning ceremony for inaugural cohort members.

Though very new, Burk said the early interest has provided a baseline for what the group wants to do – beyond connecting and cultivating relationships, though those things are certainly important.

“Sometimes just having another woman around creates a different environment. I know I feel more comfortable asking them what they’re wearing to a certain event or asking them how they think I spoke at an event. It’s just different. It’s great to get to know one another and provide relevant feedback,” Burk said. “But the bigger goal is to grow these ladies and make sure they feel more empowered to go after their goals and, ultimately, to change the leadership table. Some of these women don’t realize the potential they have in front of them and we’re promoting conversations and learning from each other so we can remove those boundaries.”

As the franchise company’s Women in Leadership Initiative continues to gain speed, it will add more opportunities for such empowerment and development. Currently, the commitment is about four hours a month, including a monthly event with the WFF, other curated events, and in-person lunches. The women also participate in community service activities, such as partnerships with Junior Achievement.

“We are taking every opportunity to connect with our communities to help others and to meet with some people who can inspire us,” Burk said.

Burk adds that she hopes more franchise companies consider such programs, noting that DRG has a “great relationship with Taco Bell,” for example, but no formula on how to leverage the QSR giant’s leadership programs from afar.

“It’s a unique challenge because it’s not a copy and paste template. Huge organizations have more clearly defined paths to growth. We don’t have that here, but we’re working on it,” Burk said.

A spokesperson for WFF said working directly with franchise companies is “an area of growth” and the organization is aiming to reach women working in field positions, as well as in smaller metro areas and cities where headquarters may not be located.

“WFF is thrilled to partner with companies of all sizes, in all areas of foodservice. By partnering with WFF, franchise groups benefit by extending to their female talent a valuable membership to WFF. Memberships grant complementary development events and networking to meet leaders wherever they are in their career journeys and help them grow. We are thrilled that Diversified Restaurant Group is a partner of WFF. We actively engage new partners throughout the year and are excited to extend our reach in the future," said Dana Milton, partner engagement and business development, WFF. 

The benefits of extending that reach are coming into focus more as the restaurant industry continues to grapple with recruitment and retention challenges. Employee retention rates are 34% higher among jobs that offer professional development opportunities, for instance, while 93% of employees said they would stay at a company longer if their careers were invested in.

“We really hope this work has a trickle-down effect and people share what they learn with their team members, and it reaches all levels of the company and sets the stage for more people to want to work with us,” Burk said. “It’s proven that more diversity on leadership teams helps companies outperform others and inspires more ideas and innovation. We want to double in size by 2028, but we know we can’t excel without a focus on diversity.”  

Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]

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