THE BLOG
01/02/2015 08:05 am ET Updated Mar 04, 2015

Women in Business Q&A: Joni Thomas Doolin, CEO and Founder of TDn2K and People Report

Joni Thomas Doolin is the CEO and founder of TDn2K and People Report™. TDn2K (Transforming Data into Knowledge) is a leading software and solution provider for the foodservice industry. People Report is the foremost provider of human capital metrics providing benchmarked data on compensation, turnover and diversity. Focused on best in class performance from national to market level, TDn2K currently tracks, analyzes and benchmarks an unmatched database, providing real time insight into the collective work practices and revenue performance of over 1,000,000 employees, $45 billion in annual revenues and 30,000 restaurants.

Since founding People Report in 1995, Joni has established a clear mission of helping member companies "balance people, profits and purpose". Her innovation and thought leadership remains focused on workplaces that make a difference in the marketplace and society. Her work to help business leaders recharge and reinvent themselves and their organizations is most evident in the two conferences produced annually by TDn2K. Both conferences include community service for attendees, another hallmark of Joni's passion for giving back.

Joni's extensive industry and community involvement is rooted in her values of conscious capitalism, creative thinking and mentorship to emerging and future leaders. She is a frequent speaker, blogger and has served as an advisor to numerous industry associations, media and boards as an expert in workplace and marketplace trends. She received the elite Trailblazer Award from the Women's Foodservice Forum acknowledging her contributions to the foodservice industry and her work to support the value of diversity in the workplace. Joni and her husband Wallace Doolin have funded an annual scholarship for women and minorities through the National Restaurant Association's Education Foundation as a commitment to their beliefs.

Joni currently serves on the boards of TDn2K, BBIMetrics, LLC, the national board of directors for Share Our Strength, the nation's leading anti-hunger organization; the national board of Coaches Collective International, and is a founding member of Changers of Commerce.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I remember the day I told my Dad that I was leaving a corporate job, and starting my own business. His response was simply "I wondered when you would do that." Today it seems impossible that I would not be an entrepreneur, but it was scary then, and has been even scarier along the way. The tests of a startup, of ideas that have not yet been acknowledged in the mainstream, the fear of failure, of not fitting in; I think those experiences all have impact. Conquering the tough challenges provides the perspective that makes you a stronger, more compassionate and sensible leader.

How did your previous employment experience aid your position at TDn2K and People Report?
Most of my career has been spent in the restaurant industry, and I was lucky enough to move through a lot of great jobs that still shape my work today. I was an hourly employee; server, hostess, bartender. Then I went into management and added washing dishes, cleaning stockrooms and bathrooms! I was a corporate recruiter, training manager, and ultimately a divisional HR manager. I have been an owner, a partner, and a managing director, learning finance, planning, and legal functions the hard way. I believe that best leaders are always learning - it never stops. The trick is to keep moving forward, and to share the lessons as you do.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
am not a big fan of that expression. People don't walk in the door to "work" and leave our "life" at home. I am a big believer in the Gibran quote, that "work is love made visible". The dignity of work, and the absolute joy of meaningful and purposeful work, is in many respects what makes the world go round. The challenge of course is to honor your body, soul, family, and spirit in tandem, and not let "work" get in the way. I love Arianna Huffington's new movement of the Third Metric, that espouses the idea of how we thrive.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at TDn2K and People Report?
People Report was our first business. We were lucky to attract some great partners, and some courageous HR leaders to help us start it. We were modeling collaboration and to drive competitive performance. But not a lot of us, including me, really understood the leap we were making. Dr. Jac Fitz-enz had just founded the Saratoga Institute. He is on our board today, but I wish I had met him earlier in our journey. Adoption was slow - painfully slow. My husband and I made the commitment to keep investing, and just seven short years later we were an "overnight" success.

Weathering the financial uncertainty and business malaise that started in 2008 was worth an MBA or two for all of us. We founded our second TDn2K brand Black Box Intelligence in 2009. We re-launched our People Report survey product as software in 2010. We held on to our vision of connecting the dots between people & profits; today the rear view mirror and the windshield say that we are doing it.

What advice can you offer women seeking to start their own business?
You have to find that opening in the marketplace, that unmet need of your target consumer, and it has to match your skills and experience. You will work hard, your will sweat financing, you will get told no a lot more than you will hear yes. Those are the givens. The difference maker is that intersection of your idea and the marketplace. You have to believe in yourself when your little voice tells you to quit.

When we started People Report there was an unmet need for benchmarked HR data. The market will change, faster than you can anticipate. We use the word "relentless" a lot in our shop. I think any entrepreneur has to understand that level of intensity.

Perhaps most important of all, no matter what business you are in, technology, manufacturing, service - you are in the relationship business with your consumers. The better you are at creating those raving fans and relationships that can weather the occasional hiccup, the more success you will ultimately find.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I have been involved in organizations that serve women in the workplace for almost as long as I have been in business. We also study demographics and diversity in the workplace. So I have been observing and studying these issues for a long time. In my career, the number of female executive role models has surged tremendously. But the statistics are known, women are still not represented equally, nor are they paid equally. There are definitely cultural biases, industry biases, and the mere fact that women do in fact juggle more than just their careers. How can we be proactive? We can get better at not taking everything personally. We can support one another. We can learn to communicate in ways that are more gender neutral. I believe the ace is life long learning. We can't be afraid of tackling what we need to know about technology, science, finance, and social business, continually acquiring the skills and experience required to lead in the digital age.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?
Sheryl's work is important. She is bringing together women of all ages, backgrounds and career choices to actively converse about how we support one another, and how we progress. I look forward to the movement growing beyond executive women, to the women who work in the middle, or in entry-level jobs who need just as much, if not more, of a helping hand. I think the fact that women are discussing "Lean In" all around the globe is electric and inspirational.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I have always been blessed with an incredible network of role models, mentors, advisors, "sheroes" and a few genuine legends who have sustained me in ups, downs and plateaus. That group includes men and women, and is widely age-diverse. My husband is my business partner. My 15-year-old niece is one of my "thought" partners. Our TDn2K team is full of insanely smart, innovative and generally stunning colleagues, male and female, whom I learn from every day.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There are so many; founders, CEO's, social entrepreneurs, community leaders. There is always a common denominator; they are leaving the world better than they found it. They are making a difference through their work and how they lead their lives. The short list would include Molly Fletcher, Wendy Clark, Cheryl Bachelder, Kelli Valade, Kathleen Wood, Sarah Chapin, Roz Mallet, Kat Cole, Amanda Hite, Anne Mahlum, Chere Nabor, and Pat Harris.

Our hearts all still ache and miss our common mentor, Fritzi Woods, CEO of the Women's Foodservice Forum who died last September. Her hallmark expression "Aspire Higher" will always be top of mind.

What are your hopes for the future of TDn2K and People Report?
TDn2K stands for Transforming Data Into Knowledge, which describes the essence of our mission, goals and passions. We serve an elite consortium of companies that in total produce over 45 billion dollars in sales, and employ over one million people. Our People Report, Black Box Intelligence and White Box Social Intelligence brands are working together to provide the true correlation between creating a great employee value proposition, and insanely happy customers. During the past decade we have come to believe that connecting people, profits and purpose is our contribution to commerce. I am excited about the future as our community continues to grow, our Changers of Commerce continue to influence, and our thought leadership shines a light for companies seeking to elevate all of our stakeholders. We are working in the most exciting time in memory, an age where change is so rapid we have the opportunity to shape it. I want TDn2K to be a part of that change.