THE BLOG
02/17/2014 05:19 am ET | Updated Apr 19, 2014

Women in Business: Q&A With Julie Rose, Founder and President of Sweet Hospitality Group

Julie Rose is the Founder and President of Sweet Hospitality Group. Julie began her career as a concessionaire in 1986 when she created a distinctive food service approach for the patrons of the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center Theater. At a time when theatre concessions were anything but sophisticated or creative, it was Julie's vision to create an elegant food and beverage experience. The core business concepts that Julie originally created for her first clients mandate that all Sweet Hospitality Group employees provide superior customer service and hospitality, offer the finest products available and maintain the highest standards of integrity.

Thanks to these key ingredients, Julie has revolutionized the concessions business on Broadway, moving well beyond grocery store candies and pretzels by introducing a full array of quality savories, sweets, and beverages.

Under her leadership, Sweet Hospitality Group introduced the specialty drink to Broadway as well as the show cup (at The Lion King) and created a new way of looking at the bar itself, with specialized and custom presentation based on the client and/or the individual production.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I always felt different from my family and friends; I saw things they didn't see and I would say it. I think the leadership aspect is that I would dare to say out loud what I was thinking. It's uncomfortable at times when no one seems to see or interpret things the way I do but I don't have a choice; I have to be true to my ideas! For a long time I didn't trust my intuition and had moments of doubt, but I've learned to listen to my instincts because so many times that's what has given our company the best result. It's like a crossword puzzle where you can't believe the first thought is the right answer but then it turns out that it is. And I've found that when you're right enough times, people start to listen. And if I'm wrong, I try to learn from it.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position as the founder of Sweet Hospitality Group?
Before I started my business 28 years ago, I had two bosses from whom I learned a great deal - one was terrific, the other a nightmare.

The "good boss" was an editor and producer at a small production company where I was a Production Assistant, a junior position. We would sit together and I would log film shots for him. He'd ask me which ones I liked and, when he disagreed, would ask me "why do you prefer that?" and then follow up with "let me tell you why I don't think that is the best one." He never made me feel anything less than talented and appreciated, and always made our work together a teaching/learning experience. That was a gift.

He also reinforced that we were all "in it" together, even when it wasn't glamorous. Once, working on a film, I was asked to clean up after some dogs so it wouldn't be visible in the shot. Because he treated me so well and because he'd take on menial tasks, too, I didn't feel it was beneath me. After all, it needed to be done and I knew it wasn't personal in any way.

Understanding his commitment - and the supportive way he treated me - made a strong impression on me and I've carried it with me into my company. I work hard to ensure all of our 100 employees feel valued, convey that we are all involved, and that EVERYONE is responsible for our success every day. Even though I'm the CEO, I still put on the rubber gloves and cleaned the bathrooms in Central Park for one of our contracts a few years back. You do what needs to be done to deliver the best experience for your client. If that means, literally, I need to do some unpleasant things, then I am not above it. And nobody should be.

I learned just as much from the "bad boss" as from the good one. Seeing mistakes can be the best learning tool possible. For me those moments are like signs flashing "danger" and I never forget them. I always think about how I would have done each differently, always keeping in mind the end result.

I worked as a receptionist at the soap opera "Guiding Light." At one point, I was fielding a lot of calls from dedicated fans of the show who were upset for various reasons, whether casting, storyline, etc.

To figure out how to make the audience happier, I took the initiative to create a survey and gave it to my boss to consider. When she didn't get back to me, I followed up, asking for her thoughts about my survey and a plan for implementing it. She responded with "this won't be helpful, because the research is after the fact."

Her response seemed idiotic to me, not because the work was bad, but because she was short-sighted, resistant to other's ideas and the feedback of the audience she was paid to serve, and resented an employee demonstrating a desire to improve the show. She just couldn't see it and she also intended to make me feel stupid. At that moment, I realized the importance of listening - to employees and, frankly, to everyone.

I ALWAYS listen when staff approaches me with ideas. Those are the ones I like to watch and develop, and they usually get promoted quickly. If a team member has the drive to be thinking about ways to enhance our business, I want to hear it. And, if he or she has the passion to share it with me or someone else, well, that is my kind of person.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Work is my life but it is my play as well. I need to have a lot of freedom; that's why I started my own business! Before I had my daughter, I could work 80 hours a week and not think twice about it. I was always, always working. If not literally at work, I was thinking about it.

Just before my daughter was born, we got a big contract with Disney. When she was three weeks old, we had our first performance working for them in the New Amsterdam Theater and I felt I should go.

As I prepared to leave her for the first time, I felt like my heart would be torn out of me. I also realized I wasn't physically fine: I was experiencing some of the unpleasantness that can happen in the weeks immediately following giving birth. Somehow, I toughed it out that evening but, in the following days, felt such incredible guilt for leaving my daughter that I thought about not working anymore. I confided this to our pediatrician, who was also a personal friend. She said the absolute best thing and it helps everyone I mention it to. Somehow it chilled even me out:

"As long as you know that WHATEVER you do, you WILL feel guilty, you will be all right. If you work, you'll feel bad. If you don't you will as well."

So ever since I heard that, I've chosen to just go for it ... but I still feel guilty. I'm excited every time when I get home and see my daughter and she's 16 now. I adjust my schedule the best I can to be there when she's home since she'll be heading off to college in just over a year, and I want to be around her as much as any teenager will allow. I love that I have the freedom to be home for her... before she goes to her room and ignores me.

The guilt of being responsible and dedicated to both family and business, that just never goes away.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Sweet Hospitality Group?
I don't mean to deflect the question but I think every moment is a wonder and a challenge for me at Sweet Hospitality Group. I learn something every day, either through a mistake, which I then figure out how to fix, or watching something that comes together perfectly and trying to understand why.

Last year my challenge was about structuring the company in a better way, and that's been a tremendous success.

My challenge now is in being a stronger manager; our business has tripled in just three years, with six huge new venues, others coming on board, and a big expansion of our catering work. We've had to figure out how to still be a company that has a highly personal touch and handle that kind of growth.

I always saw myself as an entrepreneur but not so much as a manager, and wasn't sure that I even wanted to be one. In many ways, this is my first time embracing being a manager and I'm finding that I love it. There's always a new challenge, which is what I actually love about it or I'd get bored. I feel very zen about it - whatever's in my path is the most important challenge and one is not more important than the other; no looking back!

What advice can you offer individuals who are seeking a career in the hospitality industry?
Be nice. And be really, really helpful. Try to do for someone what you would want done. Though our company is Manhattan-based, I am from Ohio and have always felt that being from the Midwest instilled in me a certain sweetness that I may not have had if I were from someplace else. I can be tough, but I pride myself on being fair to everyone. Hospitality is about meaningfully connecting with people - both those you work for (clients) and those you work with (employees).

Here's an example. When we had a café in Central Park there were many regular customers- local residents. One day, a woman we often served became upset, saying her tea wasn't hot enough. She'd already finishedthe whole cup, yet still wanted her money back. Our manager was polite and indicated that because "you drank all the tea, I can give you more hot water." Although they'd always gotten along, she became verbally abusive towards him and demanded that I be made aware of what was happening.

As soon as I was alerted, I called her. After she told me her story, I simply said "you were not nice to Mark (our employee) and he was upset. You really need to apologize to him." She started crying and shared that her husband had recently died. So we talked about it. The next day, she brought Mark a CD and poetry she had written.

For me, hospitality isn't that the customer is always right. It is about having a real conversation.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
From the time I started my company 28 years ago through to today, every time I walk into a new client meeting led by men, they always assume that the men with me are in charge. Male executives we meet for the first time act like the women present have tagged along and are not the senior players.

Once, four of us went on a sales meeting with a potential client from a very prominent arts organization. Our team consisted of two men who hold senior roles in my company, another senior level woman and me. The prospective client would only address the men I brought to the meeting. At one point he laughed somewhat condescendingly and said about the project, "this is going to cost you a lot of money," inferring that we couldn't handle the job or have the capital required.

Oblivious to the fact that the woman he was intentionally ignoring across the table was the founder and CEO of the company he wanted to do business with, I looked at him and said, very quietly, "that won't be a problem. We have plenty of it." He visibly jumped, got a sudden understanding of the lay of the land, and a healthy new respect for me and the company.

It makes me laugh and it continues to happen, time after time. I don't mind it because I really don't care what they think; I know what I can do. The men who work for me are more annoyed about it than I am.

On the flip side, this atmosphere often serves me well in negotiations. Because I am generally soft-spoken, no one thinks that I am going to be so tough, but I know what my company needs - and what the client needs from my business, too. They do not expect me to be such a strong negotiator.

Ultimately, I can't be rolled over if I think something will hurt the company. I will fight for what I know we need. I'm in it for the long haul and see each project as a marathon, not a sprint, and no one expects it.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?
I don't make decisions based on someone being a woman or a man. And I never make excuses that being female has held me back. It hasn't. I am an entrepreneur. I own my own business and make my own way. I stand by my convictions, which aren't always popular, but which have proven themselves time and again to have been the right calls.

I would love to mentor more women. Businesswomen often find themselves without strong female mentors. Anyone could contact me and I would help if I could.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I have had two standout business mentors. Both are men. In my industry, there just aren't too many women in power.

My first mentor was actually a client who taught me how to negotiate deals that were equally fair for the client as well as for the service provider (me). When he hired me, he asked me for a proposal detailing what I would do for him. I had no clue; I'd never done this before so I made it up the best I could, naively overpromising everything.

He hired me. After a couple of weeks I had to go back to him and tell him I couldn't give him what I'd said.

He said,"I know" and then added "I figured you would figure it out." It really doesn't get any better than that. So we renegotiated and he helped me learn how to do it. Figuring out both sides is how I negotiate to this day; understanding each other and both of our needs. There is a balance, a sweet spot where both parties can be happy. I learned that from him.

More recently I've had a different negotiation mentor. As we serve over 3 million people each year, these days we negotiate with the big boys (yes, the vast majority are men, to the point of the earlier question).

My current mentor is the toughest negotiator on Broadway. He is relentless. He throws everything at the wall and sees what sticks. I marvel as he expertly haggles with unions and prospective clients alike, grinning as he seeks to reach consensus that leaves both parties "just happy enough" with deals that are exceedingly, equally fair. For me, witnessing his efforts has been the equivalent of a Harvard MBA. Watching him in full force is another gift.

In my personal life, I have had the most amazing relationship with my second piano teacher, Hilda Jonas, for over 46 years; she'll be 101 in January! She was there for me in ways that probably saved my life as a "troubled youth." I would read her my poetry and she would give me feedback and took the time and the care to get "me." She was my teacher and then my friend and now she feels more like family. She's both an inspiration and the very definition of "mentor."

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I can't think of anyone in my own particular part of the industry. I've had to carve out my own path so I now see other female leaders as compatriots and colleagues; we can all learn from each other.

What are your hopes for the future of Sweet Hospitality Group?
To continue growing our company's reputation as synonymous with theater nationwide, to give more and more people great and creative catering, and to being the best food and beverage company around.