Elizabeth Blau has been in the restaurant industry her entire illustrious career. The James Beard Award nominee has served various positions for various restaurant companies before taking the reins and forming her own venture along with husband, Chef Kim Canteenwalla, in 2012. Their portfolio includes Buddy V’s Ristorante, Crown Block, Honey Salt and more, with additional openings on the horizon.
Despite this robust resume, it still surprised her to learn that less than 7% of women ever advance to an executive chef or restaurant owner role, even though women make up over 50% of enrollees at hospitality and culinary schools.
This disconnect was depicted in Joanna James’ documentary, “A Fine Line.” A few years ago, James sent a copy of the film to Blau, who called the disparity, “a kick in the gut.”
“As I was growing on my path, I was fortunate to have so many mentors be a part of my journey, but as a woman who has broken through these statistics, I felt it wasn’t OK for me to help by just doing these little things here and there. It made me really want to do something bigger,” Blau said during a recent interview.
So, she collaborated with other women she knew in the industry – including Mary Choi Kelly from MCK Leadership and Jolene Mannina from Secret Burger – and they came up with the idea to form the Women’s Hospitality Initiative. The “passion project,” as Blau calls it, has been going – and growing – for three years now, despite challenges presented by the pandemic.
Its mission is simple: To accelerate the development and advancement of women leaders in the restaurant industry.
“The idea for us starting WHI was that [progress] was not happening fast enough for these pay gaps and certainly leadership gaps. I don’t think that’s an anomaly for our industry, but we wanted to focus on hospitality,” she said.
The group reached out to various organizations that help women in the industry, including the Women’s Foodservice Forum, to make sure what they were creating was aggregative to the industry and went from there.
“We all have to work together to lift these girls up to be the women leaders we want them to be. There can’t be any egos with this work,” Blau said.
As the organization was starting to manifest, a few of Blau’s peers “sent her down a rabbit hole” of a report from Sheryl Sandberg and McKinsey Research about the “broken rung,” and that became a clear starting point.
“Everybody knows about the glass ceiling. We’re always focused on the glass ceiling. This report identified the broken rung, as in a rung on a ladder,” Blau said. “Women and men enter the workforce at equal numbers, but women don’t advance at the same pace or struggle to keep up because of motherhood or whatever else they’re faced with.”
Indeed, more rungs broke during the pandemic, when millions of women left the workforce to care for their children as schools and daycares closed. But this trend existed well before the pandemic; McKinsey and Co. report that 25% of women with children considered leaving the workforce prior to 2020 because of familial obligations. The restaurant industry has typically presented even more challenges when it comes to parental flexibility, given off-hour and weekend shifts. All of this inspired the WHI to focus heavily on education.
“Our industry is so specific. There are some unusual parameters in our world,” Blau said. “Most women in the U.S. enter the workforce from high school or college, but there aren’t a lot of programs that focus on leadership for women in hospitality.”
The WHI found its niche, creating programs, networking opportunities and sponsorships to address gaps in leadership development. The curriculum was picked up at Florida International University and San Diego State University. Recently, it was also added to the National Restaurant Association’s ProStart program, which is targeted to high school students interested in the hospitality industry.
Getting younger students involved is a critical step in closing the industry’s gender gaps, Blau said, adding that some of those gaps simply exist because girls tend to be less persistent and confident – a trend that has been backed by several studies.
“We have to teach girls that they have to say they really want a job if they really want a job. To be persistent. When we do that, you can see their eyes widening,” Blau said. “It’s the confidence, guidance, leadership, mentorship that you can do this.”
Blau admits she “cracked the code” here, making it in a male-dominated industry, and that is what is motivating her to continue this work with her peers at WHI.
“When you’re mountain climbing and you’re on the ropes, you don’t leave anyone behind. You lend a hand,” she said.
She said she’s proud to have kept the educational platform moving and growing, despite the pandemic, and has recruited “every female chef in [the organization’s hometown] Las Vegas,” to be a part of this. But she is ready to take it further.
“The past three years has been incredibly devastating for our business and watching so many colleagues leave or lose their business,” she said. “We think there is a need and are ready now for the next phase, which is to morph more into mentoring. Mentoring is so crucial in this industry – I know it was in my journey – and it will help us focus on achieving measurable change.”
Blau started in the industry when she was 16. She’s now 55. She said there has been “tremendous progress” within that time – from human resources to the kitchen – but adds “there are still gaps in many areas.” That said, the WHI experience has given her optimism. She points to an example of a presentation she gave to students in Cornell University’s hospitality program, which included a slide of her son dressed in a chef’s uniform.
“These women – these college students – would come up to me and ask how I balanced motherhood with my career,” Blau said. “That was the last thing I was thinking about in college. It was impressive they were thinking about this. I think women’s leadership, and understanding that balance, is now on more people’s radars. I’m super excited to see where we’re going.”
Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]