Women in Business: Q&A with Wendi Safstrom, VP of Education Programs for the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation

Wendi Safstrom is Vice President of Educational Programs for the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the National Restaurant Association. Wendi oversees one of the NRAEF's largest programs, ProStart, a two-year high school program that prepares students for careers in the restaurant industry. ProStart is taught in 1,900 schools across 48 states, Guam and U.S. military bases. This school year alone, nearly 100,000 students will participate in the ProStart curriculum, which combines classroom instruction and hands-on experience.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
My dad was transferred frequently in his professional career. I was by nature a really shy kid --when your family moves frequently growing up, that means new cities, new schools and making new friends. In hindsight, moving provided me opportunities to see and do things a lot of people my age never get a chance to do. But it was working in the hospitality business, in jobs where I was constantly in front of the public that literally forced me out of my shelI. In those jobs, I learned the importance of working collaboratively and confidently, to be accountable and own success and mistakes, to appreciate and respect people who came from sometimes incredibly different perspectives and places, to think creatively, and keep a sense of humor.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position as the VP of Educational Programs for the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation?
With the exception of one year, I've always worked in some aspect of the hospitality industry. Before joining the NRAEF, I managed a national college recruiting program where I had the chance to talk with young people considering a career with the hotel company for which I was very proud to work. I've held several positions within human resources, representing an industry that I believed in. My passion for people coupled with my human resources background has helped me in my role as vice president of educational programs at the NRAEF, where I'm charged with creating and managing programs and educational opportunities for young people interested in exploring careers in the restaurant and hospitality industry.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I make a conscious effort to unplug when I can. I try not to spend my weekends on a computer or my phone checking emails just because I have some downtime. It's also important to disconnect, so you can set a realistic expectation for your team. I worked for a woman who cautioned me once about sending emails late at night or before sunrise, because it signals to my team that that they should emulate that behavior. I have to be the one that sets a tone that encourages a work/life balance.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at NRAEF?
Many of the highlights have arisen from opportunities that presented themselves, but some of them came from addressing challenges. I have been fortunate enough to work through organizational changes at the NRAEF, and that has been a highlight for me because I feel like the organization continued to believe in me. One of the biggest highlights of my career has been the growth of ProStart, the NRAEF's two-year high school program that prepares students for careers in restaurant management and culinary arts. ProStart now serves nearly 100,000 students across 49 states and, this May, students will showcase their skills and compete for scholarships at the 13th annual National ProStart Invitational. ProStart is stronger than ever and I'm proud to be a part of a program that helps students prepare for a rewarding career.

What advice can you offer women seeking a career in philanthropy?
Find something you love. If you can find a cause that you absolutely believe in or that you can really sell, go for it. So much of our success hinges on the ability to sustain programs financially, and you have to able to tell your organization's story. If you can effortlessly tell the story from your heart, and have the outcomes to back up your work, everything else will flow from there.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I'm lucky to be working for an educational foundation that supports an industry that allows for unlimited opportunity and upward mobility. The NRAEF has many women in middle management and executive-level positions. The biggest issues some women may have is finding a place where they are valued for the experience they bring, as well as working somewhere that allows for an appropriate work/life balance.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?
I actually just started reading Lean In, but one theme that has resonated with me is where Sandberg writes that a career is not a ladder, but rather a career jungle gym. This is important for women -- and men -- to remember, no matter what point they are at in their career. People tend to focus on and pursue opportunities that will get them to the next rung in the ladder when in fact there are many paths that lead to career advancement. Now while I've been with the NRAEF for 15 years, I definitely got to doing what I'm doing by taking more of a jungle gym path.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
In every job I've had professionally, I've worked with and for women that have come from a variety of different industries and brought unique skill sets to the table. Many have come from start-ups and it's been interesting to see them go from "scratch" to making their businesses and causes something people sit up and pay attention to. I'm not afraid to ask questions of people I respect. I sought out people who I thought were doing interesting things and asked them how they've made the decisions they've made and about the challenges they faced. You just have to pay attention to people who are doing things well and not be afraid to ask. And don't be afraid to ask someone to be a mentor. You'd be surprised -- they'd be flattered.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I admire female leaders whose names you would recognize, and female leaders who may only be known to the people he or she worked with. I admire common characteristics from those female leaders -- characteristics that made me want to work for those leaders -- and to be proud of those leaders. Women who work hard and work smart. Women who are confident, believe in themselves and deliver results. Women who are good at developing and nurturing others professionally and who hold their teams accountable for their work. Women who can develop strategic partnerships and motivate people to work together. Women who have a vision for the future, and put the right people in place to help the organization get there. Women who are aggressive and results oriented, who are poised and have a thoughtful approach.

What are your hopes for the future of NRAEF?
Part of the NRAEF's mission for this year and beyond is highlighting the stories of all the good things the restaurant industry has to offer, from the potential for a rewarding and sustained career in foodservice to small business owners that chased the American dream to get to where they are today. I want people to see the industry in a different light. It's more than just a place for your next hot meal; restaurants play a huge role in our local communities and are projected to contribute more than $680 billion to our economy in 2014. I also hope programs like ProStart and our scholarship program continues to make a difference in the lives of the young people enrolled in our programs.