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Women in Business Q&A: Lesley Cohn, Cohn Restaurant Group

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Over the past 32 years, David and Lesley Cohn have brought dining to a new level as the premier hospitality collective in San Diego. Beginning with one small diner in 1982, Cohn Restaurant Group now owns and operates 19+ restaurants within the San Diego area and two locations in Maui.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I guess with age and experience brings patience and the willingness to help people succeed. Honestly, there is no greater joy than to see people that have walked through our doors as our team members and went on to become doctors, lawyers, and those who even have opened up their own restaurants because of what they've learned at Cohn Restaurant Group.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at the Cohn Restaurant Group?
Years ago, I was a high school English teacher and I think it prepared me for engaging with young people, much like the people that I have the pleasure of working with on a daily basis. Other than my stint as a teacher for five years, this is the only job I've ever had.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at the Cohn Restaurant Group?
We have received so many accolades throughout our more than thirty years of being in this business and have mentored so many; it's really hard to pinpoint the highlights. There has been much recognition about our charitable work as we do support more than 350 non-profits in the San Diego community. It's amazing how much need there is and how many underserved there are. But I will say the challenges are always about the ever-changing regulations that get imposed upon small businesses. Sometimes it feels as if we take one step forward and two back.

How is your Garfield High School Foundation culinary arts program making a real difference?
This is one of the more gratifying components of what I do. As a nation, we need to cultivate and interest those who are not necessarily college bound. There has been so much emphasis on college that an entire group of youngsters have been left out in the cold. Especially in our business, where there are many entry-level positions that can lead to much more responsibility and mobility. Garfield High School's curriculum is part of a nationwide, two-year program run by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF) called ProStart, which gives students a solid foundation for a career in the restaurant industry. We have an executive chef, Miguel Valdez, at one of our restaurants who was part of the culinary arts program and seeing that kind of potential being transformed into that kind of responsibility is really what it's all about. Last year, Miguel received the NRAEF's Faces of Diversity Award, which recognizes people in the industry who have achieved the American dream. The restaurant industry is full of opportunity and Miguel is a great example of what you can achieve.

This year, we were recognized by the NRAEF as a 2014 Restaurant Neighbor Award winner for the work we do through our foundation. We love doing what we do, so it was really an honor to be recognized at the national level for community service and philanthropy. The restaurant industry is one of the most charitable industries in the nation with nine out of ten restaurants doing charitable work and philanthropy just like us.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
In the early days when my husband and I worked day and night, when we had one, then two, then three restaurants, it was pretty much most of the day. Our children were in grammar school and after I dropped them off, I'd go to work and work the lunch, then pick them up after school. We'd take turns working nights. As we grew, we were able to afford the infrastructure that we now have in place as we have about 1,500 team members and almost a couple dozen restaurants. At this point, it's all about our grandchildren.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I don't see it as much of an issue as it has been in the past. I think women need to be educated, engaged, responsible and current. There are many women leaders not only in businesses both large and small, but also in government on the world, national and local stage. In our organization, more than 50 percent of our upper-management is composed of women and in the restaurant industry overall, 55 percent are women. It is a great industry for women because it allows for a lot of flexibility to manage the work-life balance.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
There are two sayings that resonate with me. One is that "it's better to give than to receive" and "it takes a village" which, outside of being a book by Hillary Clinton, I feel there are no words that hit home like those. If everyone did their part, no matter what the industry, my feeling is that we would be raising a generation of young people that learns and is elevated by generations before and they can also be part of the solution, not part of a problem.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
The leaders that I admire are those who use their celebrity as a stage for the betterment of those less fortunate and they include:
• Melinda Gates, who has done the most with her celebrity as the wife of the world's wealthiest man. It has enabled her to operate the largest charitable foundation in the world.
• Oprah Winfrey is one to admire because she has used her wealth to be a positive influence on the most needy. She's given much hope to those who can relate to her beginnings as a child and has served as an example of hope and possibilities.
• Angelina Jolie is another woman who has used her fame to be a humanitarian ambassador.

What are your hopes for the future of the Cohn Restaurant Group?
Because we have no "exit strategy," so to speak, and have family member involvement, my hope is that the company continues to thrive and continues to give back to the community that has supported us. We have set the stage and it's up to those who follow to carry that torch.