When Cookie Mahon began working at American Kitchen Machinery and Repair more than 25 years ago, the company relegated women to secretarial positions. “There seemed to be an underlying assumption, whether conscious or not, that women had more responsibilities on the personal side of things than men,” Mahon says. “That led to women being passed over for management or leadership roles within the company.” Mahon’s conscious effort to change perceptions and allow for flexible work environments led to more women in other positions throughout the company.
The change happening at AKMR was a microcosm of what was going on in the industry as a whole, but the speed of change accelerated as the COVID-19 pandemic forced companies to allow working from home, creating a long-overdue cultural shift toward flexible work environments.
In our third annual spotlight on women in the foodservice equipment and supplies industry, flexible schedules and work-life balance were among top priorities for many members of the FER Women in Leadership 2022 Panel, as were creating opportunities, building relationships and making sure all voices are heard.
Get to know these leading women through our Q&A:
WHO INSPIRED YOU MOST IN YOUR CAREER AND WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM THEM THAT HELPED IN YOUR SUCCESS?
“My mom was a missionary and an ordained minister. She was only the second woman ordained in our denomination. I saw my mom have a family and a career and knew from a very young age I could do it too. I never thought I was inhibited by the fact that I was a woman.” —Carolyn Ruck, Ruck-Shockey Associates
“I was fortunate to have my parents as role models. They held themselves to a high standard regardless of what was required of them. They also supported and respected me as a person, my ideas and my choices. This created a confidence in me that if I believed in myself and worked hard, the possibilities were endless. I also have had the opportunity to work with amazing people and dynamic leaders through my career. My key takeaways from them have been, be an active listener, take responsibility for your actions and do things that challenge you.” —Michelle Perrone, Limelight Foodservice and Hospitality
“First, would be my father. But a close second was the peer group within the industry. I have always found it beneficial to be a part of associations and attend meetings, and for CFESA, having [Tina Reese] at the helm as president set an example for me.” —Cookie Mahon, American Kitchen Machinery and Repair
“I credit my business partner Harry Schildkraut for his belief, support and respect through the years. Together we have built an amazing company that we are both extremely proud of.” —Kristin Sedej, S2O Consultants
“Ann Dowell and Marlene Harrington, two women I worked with in human resources early in my career, are my biggest mentors. They not only encouraged me to find confidence in myself, but helped me learn to communicate through conflict, which has followed me throughout my career.” —Nadine Rodriguez, Noodles and Co.
HOW IS BEING A WOMAN IN THIS INDUSTRY TODAY DIFFERENT THAN IT WAS WHEN YOU BEGAN YOUR CAREER?
“In some ways, in my opinion, being a woman in this industry has not changed. We are seeing more women in leadership roles, but it is still very rare to see women in the C-suite. There continues to be a need to withhold our innate selves as we continue to navigate gender parity.” —Jennifer Linton, Choquette CKS
“I think people have become more accepting of women having leadership roles in our industry. When I first started, the majority of women worked in support roles or as dietitians, and today women have more opportunities.” —Gina Brinegar, Webb Foodservice Design
“When I first started in this industry, women were used as a resource. Leadership wanted our opinion, but we weren’t sitting at the table where the decisions were being made; over time that has evolved. I do have a seat at the table and my voice is heard at the same level as anyone else at that table, male or female.” —Jill Horst, University of California Santa Barbara
“More than anything, I have seen COVID change things these past couple of years. I learned that remote work is completely possible within this role, and it makes me a better worker, a better mom and a better person all around.” —Tiffany Vassos, Dave’s Hot Chicken
“Leadership wanted our opinion, but we weren’t sitting at the table where the decisions were being made; over time that has evolved.” —Jill Horst, University of California Santa Barbara
WHAT BENEFITS DO COMPANIES AND THE INDUSTRY GAIN BY HAVING WOMEN IN LEADERSHIP ROLES?
“As much as we don’t want to talk about it in today’s culture, women do bring a different perspective than men. Diversity in experiences helps round out a company and adds fullness to the organization, whether it’s bringing women into a male-dominated leadership team or adding men to a woman-owned business, as we recently did at Ruck-Shockey.” —Carolyn Ruck, Ruck-Shockey Associates
“At a very simple level, bringing women into leadership roles attracts a larger pool of talent, which brings with it more opportunities for empathy and various styles of management, motivation, mentorship and inspiration.” —Stephanie Perry, Permul Ltd.
“Embracing the soft skills that many women bring such as cooperation, collaboration and a supportive management style are essential in today’s labor market. Women are levers of change and unleashing their power is transformational.” —Jamie Arguello, Grady’s Foodservice Equipment and Supplies
“I’ve found that women tend to be more structured, organized and task oriented. In my job of design and construction, you need to be able to see the big picture but also zone in on smaller tasks to get them accomplished. I feel those skills carry over to other roles as well.” —Tiffany Vassos, Dave’s Hot Chicken
“I say let’s take this question and reverse it. What benefits do companies lose by having women in leadership roles? None. Period. Women add to organizations, are just as capable as their male counterparts, and in my experience, add a level of empathy, planning and communication to the mix that is desperately needed.” —Katie Green, Refrigerated Specialist
WHAT ARE SOME CONCRETE CHANGES WE CAN MAKE AS AN INDUSTRY OR AS A SOCIETY TO IMPROVE THE OPPORTUNITIES FOR MORE WOMEN TO REACH LEADERSHIP ROLES?
“Women can have it all, but sometimes not all at the same time. Running a household and a family is extremely challenging and requires so many of the soft skills that make good leaders—empathy, compassion, multitasking, the ability to put in long hours and dedication to getting the job done, compromise, and the ability to work with different personalities to achieve a common goal. To encourage, hire and support women we need to be open to women re-entering the workforce after taking time off to raise a family and have child care included as part of the job, even at the job if it’s practical.” —Kristin Sedej, S2O Consultants
“It’s all about changing the perceptions of a woman’s family responsibilities. Rather than seeing this as a limitation, realize that it’s a woman’s ‘why’ and supporting their needs with flexibility will unleash a motivation and commitment to the industry and their organization.” —Jamie Arguello, Grady’s Foodservice Equipment and Supplies
“One of the benefits that has come out of the pandemic is we have learned how to be more flexible with our employees and work in a nontraditional way. As leaders we can see who rises to the top in these difficult situations and it feels like gender gets taken out of the equation more than in the past.” —Gina Brinegar, Webb Foodservice Design
“As an employer, being open to the idea of nontraditional work schedules and time management is a great first step.” —Stephanie Perry, Permul Ltd.
“In the past I have had far fewer questions about my ability to run and grow my business than I have felt judged for being away from home. The flexibility that remote working has presented has really helped lessen that guilt, and I have made sure to offer this to my entire team to continue after lockdowns end. If we want things to be different, we must act differently. As an employer, being open to the idea of nontraditional work schedules and time management is a great first step.” —Stephanie Perry, Permul Ltd.
“We need to invest in women by creating opportunities and paths for women to grow into leadership roles and providing mentorship programs.” —Nadine Rodriguez, Noodles and Co.**
“Scheduling training, workshops, focus groups, committees, networking opportunities and career mapping can be key factors in women finding success. These are all ways to create opportunities to expand skill sets and reach personal career goals.” —Michelle Perrone, Limelight Foodservice and Hospitality
WHAT EXCITES YOU THE MOST ABOUT WHERE THE INDUSTRY IS HEADED?
“I’m really excited about all the innovation that is taking place. My philosophy is ‘work smarter, not harder,’ and I think the equipment industry is really looking at how to bring that to life, through robotics, multidimensional aspects of equipment and connected kitchens.” —Jill Horst, University of California Santa Barbara
“It’s always the people for me. I’m excited about the changes taking place in the growth, development and support of our people as we continuously embrace the challenges and innovations in our industry.” —Jennifer Linton, Choquette CKS
“The world has changed significantly over the last couple of years, and it opened up opportunities that didn’t exist before. Some good, some bad, but opportunities nonetheless. I’m excited to see what we make of those opportunities.” —Katie Green, Refrigerated Specialist
For women rising through the ranks in the industry, panel members suggest the following:
“Listen to the advice from others in the industry with extreme appreciation for their depths of knowledge.” —Jamie Arguello, Grady’s Foodservice Equipment and Supplies
“Be confident in who you are and what you have to offer. Sometimes your supervisors don’t hear you, but remember, communication is key, and stand your ground.” —Gina Brinegar, Webb Foodservice Design
“Don’t doubt your ability or worth in any industry, even if it is male dominated. Remember you are worthy and capable.” —Katie Green, Refrigerated Specialist
“Stop apologizing. Instead of, ‘sorry for a late response, sorry I didn’t get to that,’ find a new way to say it without apologizing first.” —Jill Horst, University of California Santa Barbara
“Always pay attention to the small details of the business, and remember to make true connections with other people.” —Jennifer Linton, Choquette CKS
“Take time to really listen to others, and feel what they’re feeling. It will help you find solutions when you truly communicate.” —Cookie Mahon, American Kitchen Machinery and Repair
“Find the force that drives you and then be willing to get out of your comfort zone. Be open to learning new things and always be thinking about your next step!” —Michelle Perrone, Limelight Foodservice and Hospitality
“Rather than sitting back and waiting for someone to recognize your contributions and offer a promotion, the reality is you need to ask. Show you’re ready, make some noise and be willing to stand out.” —Stephanie Perry, Permul Ltd.
“Establishing relationships with key players in your own company and in the industry, through networking and attending trade shows, is key to success.” —Nadine Rodriguez, Noodles and Co.
“We all make mistakes, but when you do, don’t give up. Learn from your decisions, good or bad, and don’t let it get you down.” —Carolyn Ruck, Ruck-Shockey Associates
“Set a goal and then take the responsibility for acquiring the skills and knowledge to get there. Don’t wait for it to come to you.” —Kristin Sedej, S2O Consultants
“Whether finding new ways to address challenges or stepping up for greater responsibilities, push hard to set yourself apart.” —Tiffany Vassos, Dave’s Hot Chicken
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