Women in Business: Dawn Sweeney, President and Chief Executive Officer, National Restaurant Association

04/21/2015 05:36 am ET | Updated Jun 21, 2015

As president and chief executive officer of the National Restaurant Association, Dawn Sweeney has been instrumental in focusing the mission of the Association through a unique, multi-year strategic plan, highlighting key areas of opportunity within the restaurant industry.

The National Restaurant Association's members include quick service, fast casual, managed foodservice, casual and fine dining - along with manufacturers, suppliers and distributors. The American restaurant industry is composed of nearly one million restaurant and foodservice outlets and over 13 million employees. Since taking the helm at the end of 2007, Sweeney has led the Association in a wide-range of policy issues, while offering services and products that promote the industry and help individual operators and large multi-unit companies succeed.

Sweeney has realigned the Association's priorities and structure to strengthen its core operations, including consolidating its Foundation around a mission to develop a strong workforce and build the next generation of industry leaders. The National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation's major goal is to educate students on the restaurant business through the ProStart program - running in high schools nationwide - and to provide educational scholarships

Sweeney has led the Association to several major legislative victories, including achieving federal legislation on menu-labeling, and has launched the first-of-its-kind children's menu initiative - Kids LiveWell. Under her leadership, the Association's annual tradeshow - the largest restaurant and hospitality industry tradeshow in the U.S. - has seen growth both in revenue and impact.

Before joining the National Restaurant Association, Sweeney was president and CEO of AARP Services, the wholly owned taxable subsidiary of AARP. She grew annual revenues from $175 million to $785 million during her tenure - serving 11 million AARP members annually. Her 25+ years of marketing, advocacy and policy experience also include leadership positions at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, a membership organization of consumer-owned electric utilities, and the International Dairy Foods Association, the trade association for the nation's dairy foods industry, where she played a major role in the launch of the "milk moustache" advertising campaign.

Sweeney has been named one of the perennial top association CEOs in the country for the past several years. She serves on the boards the U.S. Travel Association and the Women's Foodservice Forum, and is an active member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Committee of 100, the International Women's Forum, and the Committee of 200, an international network of female executives. She is also a charter member of Child Obesity 180, an initiative of private, public, non-profit and academic leaders committed to helping prevent childhood obesity through evidence-based initiatives.

A native of Maine, she is a graduate of Colby College and earned her MBA at George Washington University. Sweeney lives in northern Virginia with her husband and teenage son.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
As a child growing up on a farm in rural Maine, my family had a small roadside produce stand. I worked there from the time I was four years old, diligently picking berries, string beans, potatoes and corn. When I got older, I worked at the stand, serving customers and bringing fresh produce in from the field. I learned a lot about the importance of a strong work ethic (rain or shine!), the importance of great customer service, and how to manage and navigate difficult and challenging situations. I learned that treating people with respect earns great dividends from both an emotional and financial perspective.

Later in my life, I have been offered countless opportunities to grow and stretch way outside my "comfort zone" and learn both from successes and failures. I am driven each day by trying to be a better version of myself than the way I was the day before.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at the National Restaurant Association?
Prior to joining the National Restaurant Association in 2007, I was president and CEO of AARP Services, the wholly owned taxable subsidiary of AARP. To focus on for-profit business, designed to serve a very large membership (over 30 million), while working within the framework of a non-profit gave me a sound foundation in balance. By focusing on the 50+ age group, I was able to grow annual revenues from $175 million to $785 million during my tenure. Business needs and serving the greater good can go hand-in-hand. Profit is not the opposite of service - I believe, in fact, that profit enables service.

I have also held leadership positions at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, a membership organization of consumer-owned electric utilities serving 30 million people in the U.S. and around the world. I have also served at the International Dairy Foods Association, the trade association for the nation's dairy foods industry, where I played an integral role in the launch of the "Got Milk?" advertising campaign.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at the National Restaurant Association?
As the economic engine behind the nation's labor market, the restaurant industry trains America's workforce and unites communities. The industry has opened its doors to a diverse workforce from all social-economic and ethnic backgrounds and offers job opportunities where more than 13 million Americans can build essential work skills that are relevant both within this industry specifically and beyond. The restaurant industry welcomes hardworking individuals with a strong work ethic and empowers today's waiters, bartenders and line cooks to become tomorrow's entrepreneurs and executives. The National Restaurant Association works to protect and advance the industry and the more than one million restaurants that comprise it.

Each year, we develop a culinary forecast, in conjunction with the American Culinary Federation (surveying nearly 1,300 professional chefs), to outline the top menu trends for the year ahead. For 2015, these trends include growing consumer interest in locally sourced meats, seafood, and produce and a focus on environmental sustainability, healthful kids meals and natural ingredients/minimally processed foods.

The National Restaurant Association has supported and advocated for menu labeling regulations -- to be implemented nationwide at the end of 2015 -- to help adults and children make choices that align with their dietary preferences.

Given the size and scope of the industry we represent, we certainly continue to see legislative and regulatory challenges to the industry on nearly every front. We've been working on needed adjustments to the Affordable Care Act, food safety regulations, immigration reform and dozens of other issues.

Just for one example, take tax reform, particularly the Work Opportunities Tax Credit (WOTC). Since its inception in 1996, WOTC has helped restaurants and other employers hire more than six million people from demographic groups that are historically difficult to employ, such as disabled veterans, those on certain types of public assistance and employees referred from vocational rehabilitation programs. WOTC expired on Dec. 31, 2013, along with more than 50 other tax provisions. We're committed to both renewing the WOTC and making it permanent. We want to keep employing those who really want and need jobs.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in the restaurant industry?
The restaurant industry is incredibly welcoming to women! In fact, nearly 60 percent of all front-line managers in restaurants today are women. Restaurants are flexible workplaces and offer an enormous range of career options - not just in kitchens or in the front of the house, though we see solid careers there too - but also in the "business" of restaurants, from finance professionals to graphic designers to human resources leaders and food safety and nutrition experts, the industry is a juggernaut of employment that is vital to our economy. Unique to our industry, I think, is the advent of the Women's Foodservice Forum (WFF), a membership organization devoted to advancing women leaders in the restaurant and foodservice industry. The WFF offers resources for individuals to build skills, expand knowledge and make meaningful strategic connections to reach their full potential and accelerate their career growth.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
Never stop learning. A closed mind often leads to missed opportunities. I draw lessons every day from my teenage son, current and past chairs of our board, co-workers and board members, academic leaders and TED talks! Learning and growing never stops - indeed, they are what keep us interesting and interested.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
That can be difficult. I strive for harmony more than balance. It requires conscious effort - as is true for so many of us, if I allowed it, my job could consume nearly all my waking hours! But I don't think that's productive for me or anyone else. I am truly dedicated to my job, and spending quality time with my family is a major priority as well. It definitely helps to have a collaborative partnership with my husband and to have great, supportive colleagues and board members. When I'm with my family, we like to spend time in the great outdoors hiking or biking, which helps me bring a fresh perspective in the workplace.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I believe that many of us undervalue our contributions and don't speak up enough about what we believe in or know to be right. This was particularly challenging for me early on in my career. I have been blessed to be surrounded by terrific role models and leaders, both men and women, to whom I have looked for guidance and support.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I don't know anyone who has achieved a leadership position without learning from others. My parents were my original and most impactful mentors. I'm the first in my family to go to college and I'm very proud of that. My parents taught me the value of hard work and gave me the confidence to pursue my dreams and take risks.

I've also had some really remarkable bosses - and have worked with some fantastic board officers - who have "walked the talk" throughout their careers. Behaving with personal integrity and honoring your word are two things that all of my mentors have done, and I continuously strive to do the same.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
In my service on the Board of Save the Children -- a global humanitarian organization devoted to improving the lives of children around the world -- I have had the opportunity to work under the leadership of our Board chair, Anne Mulcahy, who I have long admired as a businesswoman and a leader at Xerox. Now, seeing her talents turned toward advancing the mission of this remarkable organization, I am inspired by her all over again. She doesn't know she is a mentor of mine, but she is! Watching Anne lead an extremely diverse and deeply committed Board through the complex issues confronted by Save the Children is better than going back to school for an MBA all over again. I also deeply admire some of the leading CEO's in the restaurant industry: Sally Smith, CEO of Buffalo Wild Wings, Cheryl Bachelder, CEO of Popeye's Louisiana Kitchen, Liz Smith, CEO of Bloomin' Brands, Julia Stewart of Dine Equity and Lisa Ingram, President of White Castle, to name just a few.

What do you want the National Restaurant Association to accomplish in the next year?
We're consistent in our commitment to advancing and protecting the restaurant industry and in 2015, we will be working to build the industry's influence at all levels of government and prioritizing our efforts to address the issues that have the greatest impact. As a leading job creator, the restaurant industry is projected to add 1.3 million new jobs in the next decade. The growth in employment within restaurants and food service outlets currently hovers around 10 percent, outpacing national job growth for the past 14 years. In addition to jobs, the restaurant industry is very philanthropic, with the nation's nearly one million restaurants estimated to reach up to $3 billion in charitable contributions each year. The restaurant industry opens the door for anyone who is willing to work hard and achieve the American Dream. The nation needs us to keep doing that. We want to keep doing that. And we are good at it!

We also want to help develop the next generation of leaders through our Educational Foundation's ProStart program, devoted to training and advancing America's workforce with the skills necessary for employment success.

As our industry continues to grow and strengthen, the Association continues to do the same. We're committed to serving restaurants, suppliers, distributors - everyone involved with foodservice. We serve through our advocacy efforts, our services and our educational foundation in every way possible. It's endlessly rewarding.