Chatting with three 2019 FAB conference speakers about women in the hospitality industry 

The Future (of F&B) is Female

There's something powerful about seeing a group of women get together to speak freely and candidly about their experiences — the good, the bad, and the ugly. And that's exactly the environment Randi Weinstein has built with FAB, a two-day workshop/conference for women in the hospitality industry. Since 2017, FAB has provided female professionals, from startup entrepreneurs to C-suite executives, the opportunity to network, collaborate, and share their personal successes and challenges.

This year's FAB will be held June 9-11 at the William Aiken House and the American Theater. Tickets, which are $600, go on sale next Mon. March 4. (Applications for scholarships to cover the ticket cost are available through March 30.)

The event will feature more than 40 speakers, ranging from chefs and restaurateurs to corporate executives and directors. The slate of 34 panels will cover topics including brand building, securing funding, growth strategies, and working while parenting.

In advance of conference tickets going on sale, as well as International Women's Day Fri. March 8, we spoke with three participants on FAB's "How to Identify & Prepare Future Leaders" panel — Deborah Harris, Lauren Bailey, and Allison Cooke — to get their thoughts on women's leadership across the hospitality industry.

click to enlarge Lauren Bailey - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Lauren Bailey

Lauren Bailey

CEO/co-founder, Upward Projects

When she first became committed to a career in hospitality, Lauren Bailey wasn't aware of the challenges that lay ahead. That turned out to be a good thing.

"I didn't know what I didn't know at the time, which was a real blessing," she says. "In my mind, I'm like, 'Look at these guys. If they can do it, I can do it.'"

Bailey met restaurateur Craig Demarco in 2009, and the two co-founded Upward Projects, a restaurant group based in Phoenix with five operations in three states.

Throughout her career, Bailey has embraced "courageous leadership," and a key part of that is building resiliency.

"The problems are never going to stop coming; I don't care what you do for work," she says. "I don't care what your business is. There are always going to be challenges."

For women who aspire to a leadership position, Bailey has some clear-cut words of wisdom: "Raise your hand. Speak up. Have an opinion. Take risks."

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"I tell people all the time, 'Quantify what the worst thing that can happen is. If you do XYZ, and if you can handle what that worst-case scenario is, then get after it,'" she says.

Allison Cooke

click to enlarge Allison Cooke - PROVIDED
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  • Allison Cooke

Principal & director of hospitality design, CORE

A restaurant's success doesn't just depend on the food it serves — ambiance and environment matter a great deal, too. And that's Allison Cooke's specialty. Cooke, an interior designer, directs the restaurant work for CORE, an architecture and design firm in Washington D.C.

Before joining CORE in 2007, Cooke, who will moderate the FAB panel, mainly focused on design for corporate office spaces. But she had other creative passions.

"I just always had that itch to get into retail and restaurants," she says. "I've always had a love for food, and I love to eat, and I love to cook, so that really kind of drew my focus in that way."

For Cooke, effective leadership depends on one's communication skills.

"That sounds really basic, but communication is so nuanced that I think it takes somebody that is really able to understand people's different communication styles, how they need to be motivated, and really using your words to motivate them and help through challenges," she says.

Cooke estimates that her client base, which ranges from international hotel companies to startup bartenders, is around 80 percent male. That gender gap is ultimately due to money, she says.

"It always comes down to funding — how they're able to get investors, investment, and how they're able to pitch themselves," Cooke says. "So I think that it's getting people educated on that level to be able to speak and compete and pitch yourself."

click to enlarge Dr. Deborah Harris - PROVIDED
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  • Dr. Deborah Harris

Dr. Deborah Harris

Associate Professor of Sociology, Texas State University

Deborah Harris brings an academic perspective to the food and bev industry's gender gap. Her book, Taking the Heat: Women Chefs and Gender Inequality in the Professional Kitchen, co-written in 2015 with Patti Giuffre, examines the obstacles women in restaurants face.

"By talking to a lot of women chefs with other programming, what I find the big barrier is in this particular career, especially if you're thinking restaurant work, it's so hectic and so busy that long-term planning and things like that can be really easy to fall to the wayside," says the Texas State University sociology professor.

Leadership is part of that long-term thinking, Harris says, and implementing clearer pathways to advancement would improve overall talent retention in an industry plagued by turnover.

"I've heard a lot of chefs say that there are a lot of cities in the United States where finding good work is really difficult," Harris says. "And so part of planning in leadership opportunities and leadership training, whether it be formal or informal, I think will help retain some really valuable employees."

Restaurants, however, still remain a workplace where "in our head we kind of code leader as men," Harris says.

And women often find themselves in a lose-lose situation, criticized for acting too feminine or too masculine and thus "inauthentic."

"I think it can be a struggle for women to find a good groove where they feel like they're authentic leaders that are sort of true to themselves but also help them meet all the tasks they have to do for their organization," Harris says.

To see the full schedule for this year's FAB conference and to purchase tickets, visit thisisfab.com.


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