Women in Business: Q&A with Arianne Bennett, Co-Founder & CEO of Amsterdam Falafelshop

Arianne Bennett is the co-founder and CEO of Amsterdam Falafelshop, a top-it-yourself falafel sandwich shop, and darling of Washington D.C.'s famed Adams Morgan neighborhood. The shop is No. 2 on Yelp for the D.C. area and has made a name for itself as being the place to eat falafel in the nation's capital.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position as co-founder and CEO of Amsterdam Falafelshop?

My previous positions were in administrative roles in larger companies in downtown Washington D.C. This gave me an appreciation for different management styles I witnessed, and the effectiveness of each style. Also, I learned the importance of internal structure, defined roles, empowering employees and financial tracking. I realized I needed to marry the attention to details and structure I learned in administrative roles with the forward-thinking and creative planning that is essential in a restaurant environment.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

It was very challenging initially. At the very beginning of any entrepreneur experience, you are dedicated every minute of every day - there isn't a lot of balance in your life. The dinners with friends stop...the vacations stop. But, the focus of any good entrepreneur who doesn't want to burn herself out has to be on creating balance as the business grows.

During the first year of our restaurant, my husband Scott and I would maybe take a day off here and there. During the second year, I think we managed a full week. After some years, we were able to take multiple weeks off and recharge our batteries. The only way we were able to do that was by putting systems in place that allowed employees to safely take on more roles and us to rely on tracking and monitoring systems to make sure our standards were still being met. In time, we began to reclaim our personal lives and enjoy a true work/life balance again.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Amsterdam Falafelshop?

We have broken ground and pioneered in an industry we truly love being a part of -- food, service and creating a relaxing, fun environment for our customers. What I like to call true hospitality. We are able to create meaningful impressions on people's lives, which has been extremely satisfying and rewarding.

Another highlight has been watching the business evolve from an exciting inaugural restaurant to a business with a more expanded mission -- a franchise opportunity.

My biggest challenge at Amsterdam Falafelshop was convincing people -- whether it was landlords, bankers or investors --that it is ok to take a less-common path with falafel over burgers and fries. Today, we are breaking from a more traditional role of a fast food restaurant; breaking from the tradition of details like uniforms, common foods and nameless staff. We are forging our own path. This can be scary for franchisees of more traditional brands, but many are embracing it -- they see it as the wave of the future. And the reward of convincing people and having them buy into your shared vision is truly memorable.

What advice can you offer individuals hoping to enter the franchising sector?

Document...document...document. Document everything you do so you can pass it on to other people. You are only as good as the people who carry forth your torch and their ability to keep it lit.

Learn how to teach really well. Utilize new media and old standards to find the best way teach and monitor your business model. Not everyone learns the same way, so understand their approach to learning and how to embed your mission in them.

Also, understand that the project is almost always larger than you think it is. You must be prepared for a very long-term, detail-oriented, labor-intensive path as you take the step from business to franchised business. Along that path, you must be able to teach people and be comfortable communicating with all sorts of people. You should learn about the people you are communicating with -- familiarize yourself with their age bracket, culture and understand how to connect with them best, so they will accept and embrace your approach to business.

When working in franchising with so many different people, you need to be flexible and communicate in many different ways to achieve a system of uniformity.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

Men. America is such a melting pot of cultures, and men come into the workplace with a very diverse set of backgrounds. While they claim to be enlightened and to feel that women are equals, you're never really sure of how men perceive you until you are at a critical moment in the workplace.

Despite how far we've come as a society in our views of women, despite what people vocalize...when push comes to shove, very often a man's reaction is unconsciously informed by how they were raised to think about women, or their previous life experiences with our gender. This can be demoralizing to the woman who has put so much effort into her project, and then is dismissively ignored, put down or held back because of these old influences cropping up.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?

I think she was right about a lot. People choose not to lean in for a number of reasons. I happen to think this is more of a personality trait than a gender trait. A lot of people don't lean in on their jobs or leadership. And as a result, they are living a less-than-full experience.

Where the gender lines begin to appear is when you consider that women think more 'connectedly' of the world in general. We ask ourselves questions such as, 'How will this choice affect all the people around me? How will it affect family, friends, co-workers, etc?' We ask ourselves this kind of question all the time. On the other hand, men tend to just go for it. The decision to lean in does not feel like a "decision" for many men. It seems to come as a natural instinct for many of them. When women lean in I think they do it deliberately after careful consideration and discernment of what the consequences will mean. Remember that book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus? There is a lot of truth in how we are raised to approach the world.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

I would be nowhere without the people who mentored me. From the people who taught me how to do spreadsheets; to those who taught me how to run a business; to the guy who taught me how to light a fire before we fried our first falafel; to the folks from the SBA who guided us along and helped us move into business ownership; to our investors who have hundreds of years of experience between them; to our personal friends. Everyone has reached deep into his or her well of knowledge to offer us wisdom. We would not be where we are without it.

Nobody can do this sort of thing alone.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

I admire political leaders like Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton for their strength and the positions of influence they have reached.

But I am a child of the '80s and was really heavily influenced by my years of watching Oprah. I felt a revelation of female empowerment when watching her stories of women who just got up and 'did it', who 'lived their truth'. You can't be afraid to try. And, it had never occurred to me that you have to love what you do in business to be happy in your life. I had been raised to think a job was simply a means to put food on the table -- it took me a long time to realize that your job would eventually become a big part of your identity and that you had better like that part -- or you would end up not liking yourself in later years.

Oprah revealed to me the joy you receive when you give back on any level. And, that part of giving back includes sharing your experiences so that no one feels alone on their path. It's really about passing the torch of strength.

The biggest message Oprah taught me: You are stronger because you are female. You are stronger because you are introspective and not afraid to look within.

Those are things that give me the strength to go forward when I feel stuck.

Her business flowed from her approach to life -- and mine does too.

What are your hopes for the future of Amsterdam Falafelshop?

That through franchising Amsterdam Falafelshop becomes as much a part of American culture as it has the Washington D.C. culture. We hope to become an essential part of people's lives, bringing Americans food that is amazingly flavorful and accessible at a low price-point.

In America, fresh vegetables have always been a boring side dish. We'd like to change that for everyone. Falafels done right are amazing comfort food. They are creative and they are delicious -- unlike any vegetables you have had before!