Since I began my job at Black Box Intelligence (formerly TDn2K) (Transforming Data into Knowledge), I have been inspired everyday by the women in the foodservice industry. From Black Box Intelligence (formerly TDn2K)’s own CEO, Joni Doolin, to numerous other female executives I have had the fortune to meet and work with, I am surrounded by women who truly embody the spirit of leadership and empowerment. For instance, this year at our company’s annual Global Best Practices Conference, I saw several examples of Sally Smith’s admirable leadership at Buffalo Wild Wings and the effect it has had on those both inside and outside of the company. I found myself wondering, how did women like Smith get to where they are today? What did they do when they were in my shoes and just beginning their careers?

These questions were addressed throughout Women’s Foodservice Forum Annual Leadership Development Conference last month. The sessions covered topics such communicating in the workplace, effective networking and developing leadership skills. One particularly impactful session was the “Male Champions for Women Leaders” panel, which focused on the roles and characteristics of women leaders in global organizations. The panel was moderated by David Jobe, President of Winsight Events, and panelists included: Howard Behar, former President of Starbucks; Wyman Roberts, CEO of Brinker International; Greg Creed, CEO of Yum! Brands Inc.; and Steve DeSutter, CEO of Focus Brands Inc.

During the session, Roberts shared how Chili’s COO Kelli Valade works tirelessly to help other women achieve their leadership potential through her program “Women Taking the Lead.” This program gives women throughout the organization an opportunity to find mentors to help them develop their leadership skills. “The genesis [of the program] really gets back to this idea of championing women and having a strong woman leader in this organization coming to the realization that she needed to do more, to help other women advance.”

I found Valade’s work incredibly encouraging for young women. Her dedication to her job, her organization, and her fellow co-workers highlights the importance of being part of a strong company culture. Not only is it crucial to find a supportive team to work with, but you also must actively contribute to that support system and be a champion for your co-workers.

The panel reinforced another essential lesson. Leadership is not about being a man or a woman – it’s about what you bring to the table. Creed looks for three particular traits: intelligence, heart and courage. A leader must have functional and emotional intelligence, always lead from the heart and have courage in their convictions.

DeSutter emphasized the importance of also bringing intellectual curiosity, self-development and will to the workplace. Behar agreed, adding, “Developing oneself is a lifelong process.” This especially rang true for my colleague, Monique Dilonga, Member Services Manager at Black Box Intelligence (formerly TDn2K). “As emerging leaders, it can be easy to jump ahead of yourself with high expectations and perfection goals,” she said. “It’s a helpful reminder to take it day by day and learn from each experience. We can never stop growing, and there will always be something new to learn, regardless of where we are in our lives. It takes time, failure and success on your road to personal and professional development.”

Nely Galán, former President of Telemundo, also touched on the concept of self-development in her presentation at the conference. “The number one person to be a champion for is yourself. You have to go for abundance, and don’t settle for less.” Galán talked about the process of becoming self-made, which includes “killing Prince Charming.” “We can’t think someone is going to take care of us,” she explained.

I found this idea of “killing Prince Charming” particularly important to bring back to the workplace. However, I believe Prince Charming is not always one particular person. Oftentimes, a person makes their company their Prince Charming in the sense that they expect to be taken care of. While companies do have the responsibility to support each of their employees, it’s also up to the individual to bring their skills, hard work and willingness to their job. Your company cannot help you if you don’t help yourself. You must be your own champion.

The biggest takeaway for my colleague Patti Nguyen, Business Insights Analyst at Black Box Intelligence (formerly TDn2K), was the passion for equality and personal growth. “The conference was a great and necessary experience in that you got to witness how others live and breathe for gender equality. Nely was one of the many inspirational women there that you could look up to. Being able to see her and so many other women who have made a name for themselves and are doing tremendous things to help the world really motivates you and proves that anyone can do anything with the right mentality.”

Overall, the conference was an indispensable experience because it renewed my appreciation for my company and gave me a fresh perspective on becoming a champion. My co-workers and I continue to talk about the lessons we learned to this day, and I think it’s safe to say that we are already counting down the days until next year’s conference. Until then, thank you to WFF for an amazing experience that won’t soon be forgotten.