In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Kathy Hollinger, President, and CEO of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington (RAMW), who has been recognized as one of the Most Influential Minorities in Cable and honored by Washington Business Journal as one of 20 Women Who Mean Business. Kathy shares how she has been able to create a positive culture within the community even during the pandemic.
Also mentioned in this episode:
Dr. Charlene Drew Jarvis, American educator, and former scientific researcher and politician
Adrian Fenty, Former Mayor of District of Columbia, DC
Vincent Gray, Former Mayor of District of Columbia, DC
Connect with Kathy Hollinger:
Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:
More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website:
Welcome to partnering leadership. I'm really excited this week to be welcoming Kathy Hollinger. She's the president and CEO of the restaurant association of metropolitan Washington. She has served in that role since 2012. Before that, Kathy held different positions including in DC Mayor Adrian Fenty's executive cabinet.
Now Kathy has been recognized as business person of the year by DC chamber of commerce and has been recognized by the Washington business journal as one of 20 women who mean business. And most recently, Cathy was recognized as a CEO of the year because of the role she has played in guiding the restaurant association through the current crisis.
Love hearing from you. Mahan@mahantavakoli.com, PartneringLeadership.com. There is a microphone icon. Feel free to leave voice messages for me there. And don't forget to share this episode with at least one other person. Let's help elevate other people's leadership too.
Now, here is my conversation with Kathy Hollinger.
Kathy Hollinger, welcome to partnering leadership. I am so excited to have you on this conversation.
I'm so excited to be here. Mahan. Thank you for having me.
Kathy, I have grown to admire and love your leadership and can't wait to talk more about that. But first off, I would love to know whereabouts did you grow up and how did your upbringing impact the kind of person and leader you've become.
I was born in Philadelphia, raised outside of Philadelphia in a town called Villanova where Villanova university is. I was one of three, two older brothers. I grew up in a interestingly progressive Persian family and Iranian family, two physicians, my mom and dad. So very ambitious. Had very high expectations of their three children.
And somehow as the youngest and the only girl, I was the only one that did not go into the medical field, but I hope I still make them proud, but I grew up in a family that really valued education, very, very principled in terms of various social justice issues given they made the decision to come to the US and raise their kids in the US.
But they were also Bahais. So they were a minority in Iran, which also shaped a lot of my thinking as I made my way through the world and through my own life experiences.
So, in what way, Cathy has that upbringing both as a minority with respect to the population that was in Iran and then with respect to your parents coming here in the us and growing up as an Iranian American, how did that shape you?
Well, you know, it's interesting Mahan because in Persian culture, as you know, there is a lot of construct that you can either fall into as a woman, as a young woman in terms of expectations that the parents may have of you as a young girl. But I grew up with two parents were very ambitious and they did shape my mentality around being able to do whatever it is that I choose to do without passing too much judgment on what that is, but also doing it the best you can. So whatever trade you choose, don't try to half it, do it fully with all of your heart with all of the skills that you hopefully acquire along the way. And I will say that while that in hindsight, there were so many valuable lessons throughout that. It was a lot of pressure as a young child because you don't necessarily know what it is you want to be, what you want to do, but there is an expectation that you do it very well. Education was incredibly important. It was not a negotiable in any shape, form, or fashion. Oh, you will be continuing your education. The question is, will you be continuing outside of a college degree and what is it that you will be doing? So, I'm so grateful that I had parents that valued that so much that made it so important and placed such a priority. And while I did not necessarily recognize it at the time, what I now see as a parent and as a mother with my own son in trying to help him understand all of what he can be, because I was positioned to think that way. It's an amazing lesson and somewhat of a tradition that I hope to pass on that I hope he will pass on in terms of giving him his children, his family, the kind of opportunities that really. My parents had to fight for, and I take none of that for granted.
And I understand in addition to their emphasis on education and your focus on education, you were also a competitive figure skater.
Yes, I was, which is crazy, but it was true story. So I skated competitively up until my first full year of high school. I stopped, but it was my everyday, all-day activity. I went to school right after school. I went to the rink. I had lessons. I had the freestyle lessons. I had the figure skating lessons and I competed and it was fantastic. I loved it because I wasn't necessarily so fond of team-oriented sports. So this was a way where I could be a real individual contributor, try to refine some skills. You know, the practice of practice in itself was very important and it was really freeing. There was something lovely and freeing. Mahan, I will also share that growing up in a Persian family doesn't necessarily create the kind of allowances that others in this country probably had socially. So for me, that was also somewhat of a social outlet or I could connect and bond with others my age that had similar interests outside of interests that my parents may have thought were not worthy of my time.
Yes. I joke with my girls that now when they're growing up, we socialize with their friends, parents. When I was growing up, I socialize with my parents friends kids. It didn't matter how old they were. They could have been 20 years older, we would end up socializing with them.
So I know Kathy, you like me, take a lot of pride in your Persian heritage and we're coming up to no ruse. Which has been celebrated by Persians for over 3000 years.
What is it that you take such pride in and what is it that you hope to pass on both to your son and to the broader community about some of the richness of that culture and heritage?
Yes, for us, Nowruz was always and continues to be such a magical time of year and an intersection of great food, great people, rebirth renewal. Thinking about the year ahead, thinking about the lessons learned. And what I love about carrying on the tradition is all my American friends who do not have a concept of what nowruz is and they get to experience what we know Mahan is fantastic in terms of cuisine and how that brings people together. But the idea again, to pause and think about the year you're coming off of and what you have to look forward to, or be grateful for going forward. While it took me many years to be able to refine the talent of a half scene. I probably in the last couple of years, I've figured it out. Maybe leave off a couple of things, but just the symbolic meaning of. All the pieces that make up a have seen and what that looks like in terms of the significance of this amazing holiday that so many Persians and non-Persians, I believe right. All across the world, celebrate as they bring in a new year.
It is, and that rebirth and renewal is essential now, as we continue to go through crisis after crisis.
But before we get to that, Kathy, I also know you and your husband had a choice to make, and you chose to stay in DC after your education. And after you'd gotten married.
Why choose DC over all the other opportunities that you had?
Yes. It was definitely a turning point for us as two individuals but as a couple.
So my husband and I, we met in corporate America. We both worked for Comcast at the time, and he was positioned here in Washington, DC, but we're both from the Philadelphia area. So we have family there. He comes from a very big family. Mine is not big in numbers, but it's big in personality. So, at one point, professionally, personally, we were at a crossroads. We worked for this company who was headquartered in Philadelphia, we had family in Philadelphia, we had everything that was somewhat suggesting our direction should be Philadelphia. And for so many reasons, Mahan, I felt that it was so important given the backgrounds that we both came from. Tony, big family, African-American. My family, Persian American, and very, very Persian in the wonderful things, but incredibly present. In your life every day. It was an opportunity for us to step back and think about where do we want to be, what do we want to be, and how do we want to be in terms of members of a community that we create as our own. And we chose Washington, DC. We were still close to Philadelphia. We could still see family, but we thought we would be better everything's having a little bit of distance from family, from corporate. But also, as we bring in a new life into the world, we thought this was an incredible city, which it is. Locally, nationally. Yes, it is a federal destination, but we know it's so much more than that. And we are so glad we did because we love our city and we love that our son Bijan, was born in this great city.
And we love the fact that you chose the city to make us your home Kathy.
Now, I know you were involved in many different roles, including with the DC government. Eventually, at one point you were film commissioner for DC. It's a political appointment that Mayor Fenty had made, but with the new administration, they decided as could a Job as you were doing not to continue with you. And that was heartbreaking for you.
Yes, it was. It was heartbreaking because I love this city and I loved the work that I was doing on behalf of the district of Columbia. I took my work very seriously, not just to the mayor as in mayor Fenty, but I really felt that I was vested in this local market and local community.
Really, I learned it going into the role, but I did not think about it as that situation happened, is that prior to that appointment, I worked for Dr. Charlene Drew Jarvis, and she told me "politics is not personal. It never is. And the sooner you understand that the sooner you will be successful."
And while it sounds so simple, it was heartbreaking because my relationships, I valued so much. And what I recognized is that as a new mayor was coming in, which was Mayor Vincent Gray at the time, and all of the great work that we had done together when he was a council member, there was no love loss. It was a political decision. But for me at that time, it was impossible to separate the two, because to me it was a personal affront where to him, it was. No love loss. You were on the wrong team. So it was hard. It was hard because I am a believer of momentum and I felt that there was a great momentum in what I was building with the team that I had hired and for everything to suddenly stop. It didn't add up in my mind in terms of how work is to be done.
But of course, now understanding that when there is transition, the idea is that you pass on that insight, but there is a new leader in place at that point. And they have to decide how they use that as nuggets going forward, or they recreate their own platform for themselves. So at the time, it was difficult. And I was not as sophisticated in my mind politically, to be able to separate the two where now I think about all of the opportunities that came from an opportunity where a door was shut and many more doors were open because of it.
Yes. And so eventually Kathy, after transition and after a period of time, ended up at the region's restaurant association.
How did that come about?
So, you know, as I looked back at the work that I've done over the years, well, the common denominator was really the market in which I operated, you know, I was representing an industry or in-house with a company, whether it was Comcast at the time, but the value add was really the knowledge and perspective of a particular market, which was Washington DC.
And I was called by a couple of the members of that board at the time I had worked with the restaurant association. When I was at Comcast as we were a company at the time, believe it or not, we were rolling out high-speed internet when I was there. And it was a new product and we were rolling it out all across the city, trying to do it in an equitable way to hit particular parts of the city that may have more of a digital divide than others. And I worked with restaurants because there were also products that needed to go in restaurants as they were building out their businesses. And I got a call, they asked me if it was crazy for me to think about a role of running the restaurant association and representing the industry. And, you know, what's interesting is that, as new as it sounded to me, it was really just a different audience that I was a champion for in a market that I loved so much.
So it made so much sense and Mahan, I am so glad that I took that opportunity on eight years ago because it truly is an industry that I'm very passionate about. And I think that food is an amazing unifier really across all industries and issues that we have to deal with as humans.
And Kathy, it's an industry that at this point is fortunate to have you as a champion and an advocate. Because last March, when we got hit with a pandemic, that industry was hit as hard, if not harder than any other sector.
So what happened when March, the shutdowns came.
Wow. It was so tragic and everything happened so quickly. So early March, what's interesting is we had a big industry conference out in Seattle and a lot of our folks were out there and we were hearing here that Seattle was slowly starting to shut down. For whatever reason, it's happening in Seattle, but we don't think it could be happening or happen in Washington DC right? So as things evolved, we went into basic shutdown as a city and region, but not as an industry because we were considered essential employees and businesses. What really happened as well, they were able to stay open, they were only able to stay open in this modified way.
What I will tell you is this. We are an industry that values and builds our business models on social gathering, pulling people together and to have to pivot and to have to rethink how you can offer a service in a way where you still create community, still create experiences. We quickly had to do that as an organization, we were not able to pull people together. So the very first thing I thought to do as an organization is we have thousands of business owners that need information that are feeling disconnected and have no idea how to operate hour to hour. At a minimum, I want to find a way to create community in some modest way, which was really, through these emails that I was sending out every single day for about four or five months, or now I think we're at a couple times a week. But the idea of Mahan is that, to really find a way to create community at the most vulnerable time where people were feeling incredibly disconnected and people in an industry that don't necessarily have the luxury of being at home, had to be in their workplaces, but we're disconnected from their audience or community or other people. So I commend how resilient these independently owned operators are, which is 96% of our market. And they had to just reimagine footprints of I'm a restaurant, but now I'm going to become a grocery store because everybody needs toilet paper they don't need my three-course amazing menu. They need toilet paper, hand sanitizer. And you've seen the stories and you've heard the stories, just the creativity and innovation that they exercise was admirable and phenomenal. So to be able to represent them was an honor, but it required the same kind of innovation on my part as a leader of an industry.
So we are hopeful that 2021 takes us to another place where maybe there is a hybrid community of some of the in-person again, with all of the other new services that they are able to offer to residents across the region and visitors hopefully coming to the nation's capital.
What a magnificent example, Kathy of resilience that they have shown and re-invention that many of the restaurants have had to go through, but also your own leadership and advocacy of the group, which has been recognized, Washington business journal and others, has been magnificent and something we could spend hours talking just about your leadership with respect to this crisis.
Now, when you reflect on it with respect to leadership lessons learned, what do you take out of this as Kathy, on leadership and guiding organizations and guiding groups like this?
Gosh, so many lessons learned, but one very thoughtful consideration I had to make often throughout this year really is we talk a lot about listening more and talking less. I truly felt that I went through an exercise where I truly had to bite my tongue to stop myself from always assuming that I understand and experience that someone is going through versus listening, processing, pausing, and then being able to revisit that with that person. Mahan, as you can imagine, whether it is the business owners and the community of the restaurant association, whether it's my team or other business association leaders and elected officials that I've had to work with just over the year in this crisis, people are emotionally very charged and they manifest that emotion very differently. One area that I found incredibly useful for myself, but also to encourage others to do also towards me at a time when none of us know the answers, is I ended every possible email that I ever sent out to the thousands of restaurant operators with "be kind, wear a mask". Because we have to meet them where they are and they're processing loss very differently. We have people in our industry who have had to put their homes up as collateral or equity. And we just have to remember that small businesses are small businesses. They hopefully will result in thick profit margins, but this is an industry that operates on very thin. So going into COVID, it was already very challenging. A pandemic is devastating, but I will say to be kind in all instances, That is something that I have learned is invaluable for me and how I am communicating, to not judge and just to pause and make sure that you're mindful of judgments that you can be making and definitely myself included, to pause and reflect on that. And also just to recognize that people are adjusting and dealing with loss very differently and defined ways to meet them halfway.
The other thing I will say with business organizations in general, I am a believer that you can't find solutions by creating a win, lose situation. And I use this example that it's not very popular, but it's a good example of what we're dealing with right now. You have landlords who have tenants. You have tenants who can't pay landlords. You have landlords who also have their own business model of how they are going to survive. Everybody has to come to the table to figure out what the win-win is, knowing that no matter what there's going to be losing in it.
I think that as soon as we, as a larger business community, understand that with our nonprofit partners, with our higher institution partners, everyone is losing and no one should be winning right now. But how can we create systems where we're all winning slowly as we're rebuilding? That requires kindness and that requires thoughtfulness and patience and no judgment. And those are all skills that I have worked on myself and I'm encouraging that everyone consider that as they move forward in our resetting and rebuilding phase.
And those are Kathy, probably the most critical leadership skills in any organization. Something that we all need to work on ourselves as we look to lead. And as you say, trying to cooperate together and create the kind of environment. That can prosper in the future.
So if you were to look ahead at what you project will be happening with respect to the industry and the broader ecosystem, what are some of your thoughts with where we are headed?
We're an interesting industry on many fronts. How we do business, how our wage system works, how we work with other vendors, how we work with our landlords. I think so much is going to change. I think the silver lining is that it somewhat creates a level playing field for all of us to rethink on doing away with worst practices right away, no need to even revisit worst practices. How are we really thinking as we are rebuilding on creating a platform for some of the best practices?
What I will say is that I see and talk to a lot of restaurant owners right now within the industry. We have a workgroup that is focused on issues of equity, diversity, inclusivity, best practices, and really thinking across many different disciplines with that as the common denominator. And it's fascinating, the kind of things that people are thinking about as they think about their teams and they think about training, they think about the kind of education and skills that are going to be needed going forward as these businesses are not going to look the same. We're going to look really different. And that shouldn't be a bad thing. That should be something that we look forward to. But the unintended consequences that everyone is not going to be able to evolve in that way. We're going to lose some along the way, but those that do evolve, they're going to be stronger and better. They're going to have more content teams and workforce. There are going to be programs that address mental illness that are part of the workplace and community of employees that work for this industry. There were be wage conversations that speak to not only models that may work for the restaurant, but models that may work for the employees. Benefits that work for the employees. I think there's a lot to look forward to, but it takes a lot of work, and willingness to think about this is the opportunity to do it. And if there's any, as I said before, a silver lining it's that we should do away with what has not worked or has been questioned in the past. Treat this as a level playing field and move forward as we rebuild. And I'm so hopeful Mahan that we really do that when we talk about being forward-thinking not just as an industry, as a people that we really do that this time around, we should not have to wait for the next pandemic to address some of the inequity that exists in every industry and every community right now.
And it takes leaders like you Kathy, to make sure that we have the conversations and do the things that it takes to create that better future.
Now, You have shared a lot of brilliant leadership advice. I wonder when people seek you out for leadership guidance if there's anything else you tell them that they need to refer to become more effective as leaders.
Yes. I always go back to what people have shared with me, but I had great leaders. I mean, we all know Dr. Charlene Drew Jarvis. She is one of the brightest amazing minds I know. I mean, the fact that I could just be a sponge around her, was such a grace that she offered. But my point is this, many people have shared and I share with them hire the best people, hire the best team. Don't let anything hold you back. No insecurity. If you don't know 10 things, but that individual that you hire does. More power to you, more power to your mission, your priorities. You want to hire the best. And then as you hire the best, create the proper platforms for them to either grow within your organization and team or position them to be leaders outside of your organization because we know this is a really small city and a really small region, and we all work with one another in reinvented ways constantly. Right?
I would also say that it's important to find early on your passion points and have the self-awareness to know what you may be weak in so that you can take the time to cultivate those skills. I will never forget when I was a Comcast while I was in a very external-facing position. My husband was running the operation. He was deep in people. I didn't even know what a P and L was Mahan. I didn't know what a P and L was, I was probably the one that was spending far too much money, but I did not know the ins and outs of what goes into building a budget. What are the considerations? What is the forecasting that is required in terms of thought and foresight? And I wish I had done more of that as I was growing and I encourage anyone and everyone, whether they work for me or they work for someone else. If you have a passion point, but the only thing keeping you back from pursuing is the knowledge or skills in that particular area, take the time to learn and absorb as much as you can so that you're better positioned as you move forward in your own journey but also as you contribute to the organization or business, or community that you were a part of at that time.
I have a great team. I've been fortunate to be able to keep them intact during this time and we're all learning how to work remotely and be efficient and still have that connectivity with one another. But I'm telling you they're fantastic and I would place them anywhere in the world that they wanted to be if I had the power reach to do that. If they ever express that willingness or interest to leave my organization, because that's what it should be about. rIght.
What great leadership insights, Kathy. And I'm sure this is the first of many conversations as we continue to celebrate your leadership and your impact. Both impact on the restaurants in the region and the organizations in the region wanting to come back better and stronger than ever.Leaving some of the legacies of things that didn't work and creating a much better future.
Thank you so much for your leadership and for sharing some of your background and leadership insights with the partnering leadership community. Kathy.
Thank you, Mahan.