In the restaurant industry, 60 percent of frontline managers are women. From the perspective of the Women’s Foodservice Forum (WFF), the figure signifies considerable progress since the organization was founded in 1989. Moving up the corporate ladder, only 15 percent of women hold leadership roles, meaning that the WFF still has their work cut out.

WFF’s annual conference kicks off Sunday, March 8 and will run through Wednesday, March 11 at the Orlando World Center Marriott in Orlando, Florida. The list of keynote speakers includes industry giants like Sally Smith, CEO of Buffalo Wild Wings; Don Thompson, former CEO of McDonald’s; and Muhtar Kent, CEO of Coca-Cola. The conference sold out last year, and the organizers expect a repeat.

After reaching the 25-year milestone in 2014, this year focuses on the next big issue: “Changing the Face of Leadership.”

“When we start talking about changing the face of leadership…we’re talking about: Moving that needle beyond 15 percent and having more women executives at the table,” says LaNella Hooper-Williams, a communications strategist for the WFF.

In the spirit of that goal, the organization is reintroducing the Networking with Leaders session, which had been an integral part of the conference in early years when attendance was under 500.

“With 3,000 [attendees] it's a bit more challenging, but we decided this year to take it on, to just really make that connection because that was the biggest demand from our audience,” says Hattie Hill, CEO and president of WFF. “It really gives them an opportunity to sit in a smaller session with a leader [who will] give aspirational stories…and serve as a role model to women and men who are looking to move up in their organization.”

With only eight people per table, Networking with Leaders is not designed as a vehicle for business card exchanges, but rather a more personal means of collaboration. The conference as a whole emphasizes a more hands-on approach to solving real-world obstacles.

“It's focused on specific solutions and takeaways so…you can ask the question up-close and personal, ‘How did you deal with some of these challenges?’ and then they can give you feedback,” Hill says.

The more concrete the strategies and solutions, the better. When attendees demonstrate the value in the WFF’s conference, as well as its mission, they become drivers of change.
“We are asking them to write down specific solutions that they can take back and implement at their organization right away so that the companies understand that that investment is helping them with their bottom line,” Hill adds. “In disruptive times in the industry, when there's so much change going on, businesses have to rethink and reimagine what they're doing for the future. You want to have that diversity at the table.”


By Nicole Duncan

News, Women's Foodservice Forum