Women in Foodservice | March 2013 | By Julie Knudson

Tap Into the Network

Women in foodservice—and the brands they work for—benefit from connections, experiences networking groups offer.

Susan Gambardella from Coca-Cola Refreshments speaks to WFF members.
Susan Gambardella, vice president of the Wendy’s global account team for Coca-Cola Refreshments, has been involved with the Women’s Foodservice Forum for 15 years. Women’s Foodservice Forum (wff)
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More women enter the foodservice industry every year, and they’re being met with a growing wealth of experience and support from which they can draw. A number of networking and leadership development groups have taken on the task of providing stronger gender diversity at all levels of the industry, and are ensuring that more growth opportunities exist for women.

One such organization is the Women’s Foodservice Forum (WFF). Susan P. Gambardella, vice president of the Wendy’s global account team for Coca-Cola Refreshments in Atlanta, has been involved with the group for close to 15 years. She says the WFF’s overall mission is to “advance women leaders and, as a result, drive personal growth for individuals, but also economic growth for organizations.”

The WFF focuses on developing a well-prepared talent pipeline, building competencies, establishing connections, and boldly advocating for women’s advancement in foodservice. Members are able to make connections and enhance their skill sets at conferences and meetings, while also leveraging tools such as virtual-educational programming and online competency assessments.

Because professionals often prefer to work with people they know and trust, women’s organizations offer members the opportunity to be that known, trusted person when a job or other opportunity arises. “We have to get women in front of decision makers,” says Lyn Devorkin, an active WFF member and president of burger brand Meatheads in Chicago. “And to do that, we need strategic connections, networking events, and the ability to meet people in positions that can help us look for positions, interview for positions, and get promotions.”

Through mentoring, coaching, and sponsorship initiatives within the WFF, members gain insight from and build relationships with leading women in the industry.

“[Networking is about] making those connections, and it’s finding women you can talk to about similar experiences,” says Kerry Olson, vice president and assistant general counsel at International Dairy Queen in Minneapolis and past chair of the Women’s Franchise Committee (wfc). The WFC is an initiative from the International Franchise Association that hosts leadership conferences and offers opportunities to connect with others in the franchising sector.

The events sponsored by many women’s groups—from local breakfast meetings to large multiday conferences—provide chances to get to know others in the industry in a setting that makes it easier to establish connections and share information. “It’s a comfortable place to meet those other women, to find role models, and to develop mentoring relationships,” Olson says. “Everybody is very open to helping new people who are just trying this out and seeing what it can do to benefit them.”

Many of the insights and connections women gain from these groups can also pay off for the brands that employ them. The broad network and resources members are able to draw upon help them tackle challenges at all levels of business, since informally contacting someone you already know is often preferred to reaching out to colleagues on a more formal level, Olson says. “I think there’s nothing better than having that personal connection, where you can call up and say, ‘This is something we’re dealing with. Has your company encountered something similar, and how have you approached it?’” she says. This strong network offers companies a base from which they can pull ideas, best practices, and even potential candidates.

The WFC annual convention boasts several days of networking, in addition to events that focus on providing attendees with leadership strategies and insight. Regional gatherings help members solidify their industry connections and reach out to other women who can offer advice on career challenges and development.

Once women join a group, Devorkin says, robust participation is important, especially in areas such as volunteering and working with committees inside the organization. She recalls her early years with the WFF, when she was given the opportunity to meet high-level industry veterans and attend events through her committee work. Without the connections she made as a volunteer, she says, she may never have received these experiences.

In addition, by making a commitment to participate, Devorkin says, members get the chance to try out new skills with less worry. “It helps you practice things in a safe environment that you might not normally have exposure to,” she says.

Gambardella says women should also be deliberate when choosing an organization. There are many ways to network and develop new skills, but evaluating what they want to gain—and what assets they already possess—will help women make the most out their participation. In addition, she stresses that it won’t be nearly as effective for women to sign up for an organization without putting a good deal of thought into what they want to achieve through their participation. “Be very purposeful about it,” she says.

Events that bring members together are a cornerstone of most women’s organizations. And when spending the time and money to attend a convention or other large meeting, the first step to getting the most out of the investment is to arrive early and take advantage of as many courses and functions as possible, Olson says. “Make the most out of the day, and meet everyone,” she says. For multiday events, she recommends taking the time to attend receptions and other networking gatherings. “It’s a nice way to regroup and see faces that you met a few days before but then got lost in the sea of thousands of people,” she says.