Continue to Site

    What Inspires National Restaurant Association CEO Dawn Sweeney

  • The National Restaurant Association CEO is one of the industry's most powerful people. Learn how she got to this position.

    National Restaurant Association
    Next year is the 100th anniversary of the National Restaurant Association.

    This is the greatest industry in America. It took me a little longer to find it than some. I’ve been in the business of advocacy, associations, and industry leadership my whole career: I started in dairy, went to the electric utility industry, and then to AARP. I have been with the National Restaurant Association for 11 years this fall.

    I had not come up through the industry but quickly discovered that most everybody else had. I needed a quick education, so for the first 12–18 months here, I went out and worked at restaurants in pretty much every position. Although I have built my career and reputation on being a hard worker, I never worked as hard as I did in those jobs. It gave me a huge appreciation for the roles and how unbelievably flexible and responsible you have to be to be successful.

    I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit but never felt it quite as appreciated as I have since I’ve been here; this industry is the cradle for entrepreneurship in America and maybe even the world. At the same time, I have gravitated toward the values of collaboration, respect, service, and authenticity in our industry. It’s something we’ve tried to build into our organization, because the National Restaurant Association must not just lead from a policy, legislative, and advocacy standpoint, but it must also reflect the culture of the industry.

    One of the things I love about this industry and my role in particular is the huge amount of collaboration among brand leaders and stakeholders. At the association, we’re not the only ones that care writ large about the industry. We’re surrounded by people who want to step outside their own brand and think about what’s going to happen to the industry 10, 15, 20 years from now.

    Next year is the 100th anniversary of the association. The industry has changed dramatically in those years and yet so many things remain the same: the willingness to take risks, the level of collaboration, and the devotion to build an industry that will be there for the next generation.

    What was your first job?

    My very first job was picking strawberries at my family’s farm, which I started doing when I was 4 years old. My first real job that I was paid for was a newspaper
    delivery girl.

    What’s your favorite type of cuisine?

    I love meals that use ingredients in creative ways. Innovation is the hallmark of our industry, and it is always inspiring to see that reflected on menus.

    Who has inspired you as a leader?

    It will be hard to just acknowledge one or two or three when there are hundreds of leaders in our industry that I admire, so I’ll stop short of identifying specific people in our industry. I would say I really admire Carolyn Miles, who is the CEO of Save the Children, and Anne Mulcahy, the former board chair of Save the Children and former CEO of Xerox.

    What’s the best piece of advice you think restaurant leaders should hear?

    I would give no advice to a restaurant leader, but broadly speaking to anybody, I would say my career mantra has been and continues to be: Work hard and be kind.

    What are some of your interests outside of the business?

    I volunteer in my free time for Save the Children and other organizations that are important to my family and me. I love TED Talks and make it my goal to listen to 10 a week. I just love listening to other people’s insights and stories and have learned a tremendous amount that way.