December 17, 2017
    'Pay attention to the experiences that shape you...All are important and each is meaningful'

    Excerpts of the acceptance remarks of Dawn Sweeney, CEO, National Restaurant Association, as the TRENDS 2017 Association Executive of the Year


    Photo by Chuck Fazio,

    Following is an excerpt of Dawn Sweeney's acceptance remarks. For a video of her full remarks, click on the image above. For biographical information and an interview with Dawn Sweeney, click here. For more videos of the honors presentation at the 2017 Salute, including for Association Partner of the Year Loretta M. DeLuca, FASAE, click here. For a gallery of photos from the TRENDS 2017 Salute to Association Excellence, click here.​

    And so, as I prepared my remarks for this afternoon, I would like to share a couple of stories – stories of life experiences that have propelled my career and my life so far, and maybe most importantly, have allowed me to grow beyond the setbacks, mistakes and failures that also dot the landscape of my life. 

    I was raised on a farm in a fairly rural part of Maine and from the time I was small, I worked very hard – in school, first and foremost, and on the farm. Alongside my grandfather, my brother, my parents and I built fences, milked cows, baled hay and grew and picked acres of beans, strawberries, potatoes and corn that we sold from our family roadside stand. And I lived away from the “city” (the “city” had a population of 14,000) and so when I left my small part of town to go crosstown to junior high and high school, I was out of my element and very uncertain of myself. Until, as a junior high student, I joined the intramural basketball team. I was definitely NOT a star athlete, but I was a team player and was grateful to be part of something so magical and almost spiritual! Working together, with a shared goal that was bigger than ourselves, and well… it was the beginning of a new sense of purpose for me. The day-in and day-out devotion to excellence (or at least to continuous improvement, in our case!) was motivating and life changing, as team sports often are. 

    One day, however, in a game against our local “biggest rival” team – where the stakes were high and the score very close -- I witnessed one of our junior high teammates intentionally trip another player on our OWN team, so that she could grab the ball and make the basket. I was beside myself with disbelief. How could someone do this?? Tripping another player was totally out of bounds in my book – but tripping your own teammate?? Unconscionable and highly unethical. We won the game that night, but it didn’t feel like a win to me. In fact, this experience dramatically shaped my lifelong definition of “winning.” And to this day, the quality and behavior that I value and regard most highly in my work team, with my family and with my friends, is the ability to work as a team – with less regard for the player’s name on the back of the jersey and a deeper devotion to the team name on the front. While there are many routes to success, none of them go through the path of deceit and deception. Today, more than ever, we need to lift each other up, clear the way, remove the obstacles and unite in mission and in deed. Associations provide a natural platform for team players and reward those courageous enough to play for the long run, and for the highest and best outcomes. And the reward comes not in the play-by-play wins but in the aggregate impact we can have over many months and many years. 

    When I went to college, I was one of only three people in my freshman class actually born in state. Colby College, my alma mater, was located in Waterville, Maine but attracted students from all across New England and beyond, and at that time (the late 1970s and early 80s), I found out quickly that there was, shall I say, a bit of disregard, if not an actual tinge of discrimination, against those of us who grew up in Maine. While my experiences pale in comparison to those who have faced true discrimination in their lives, I had a series of experiences as a young college student that made me very attuned to the importance of mutual respect, the power of being our authentic selves and the strength of building cultures of inclusion. “While diversity is given, inclusion is a choice,” and perhaps because of my early life experiences, it is a choice that I make consciously every day of my life. One of the reasons, I think, that I found my way to the restaurant industry, is that I have always prioritized diversity and inclusion in my life’s choices all along the way. 

    And there is no other industry in America as diverse and inclusive as the restaurant industry.…

    It has been my life’s passion to be part of a team that is diverse and inclusive, and I am grateful that the Executive Team and the Board of the National Restaurant Association, today, reflects the full diversity of our industry. It is the “collective genius” of different points of view, different life experiences and different values and priorities that leads us to the best and highest outcomes. And I am pleased to be part of an industry that truly values and promotes diversity and inclusion as a core business and social value each and every day.

    I’d also like to speak for a moment about the importance of aligning our personal values with the industry or profession we represent. As I have already mentioned, the values instilled in me as a child of being dependable and reliable, functioning as a member of a team, remaining flexible when problems arise and operating from a sense of purpose and service – these are the life lessons that have helped make me the person, the leader, the mother and the wife that I am today. And I think I was drawn to the National Restaurant Association because of an instinctive belief that restaurant work taught those same lessons to millions of other Americans.

    I truly believe that everything you need to learn for success in life you learn while working in a restaurant, and we actually now have data to prove it. Recently the Educational Foundation of the National Restaurant Association commissioned a study of successful professionals, across many industries, who listed the key attributes necessary for success in the workplace. 

    Simultaneously, we surveyed another group of former restaurant employees about the key attributes learned while working in a restaurant. The correlation was amazing. We now know that restaurants teach the critical skills for life success, whether in a restaurant or elsewhere: from teamwork to dependability, from adaptability to initiative, to problem solving and conflict resolution and so much more. 

    And we also know that restaurants are a profession; one with an amazing variety of career paths to be followed, especially for those willing to take risks and dream big. Our Foundation has formally mapped the skills and knowledge required for success and advancement in our industry through a Competency Model, built in partnership with the U.S. Department of Labor. And we can also demonstrate that there are 29 different positions in our industry which provide a middle-class income, and that we need to fill 500,000 of them each year. Those are powerful numbers. What is harder to quantify, but we also know to be absolutely true, is that perhaps nowhere else can an individual rise to leadership and even ownership faster than they can in America’s restaurant industry. For a farm girl from Maine who rose to become a CEO, that reality is a powerful one, and a big part of how the world of restaurants became my home.

    Many of you here today are in the early stages of your association careers, and may, yourselves, one day, be on a stage like this with an opportunity to share your life lessons. Pay attention to the experiences that shape you. Take note of those moments of inspiration, regret, breakthrough and heartbreak. All are important and each is meaningful. And the path toward your life and career goals will also have unexpected twists, turns and detours….

    Team NRA – we like to say “buns not guns” -- I must ask you to stand and be recognized….Every day, I am inspired to be better, work harder, and never, ever give up, because of your devotion to our industry and all that we stand for. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

    Association TRENDS