Customer Experience Blog

Top 15 Women Leaders in Service Industry - And Their Success Stories

By Avinash Patil

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Being a woman in a patriarchal society is tiring. With gender inequality, pay gap, sexism being the vices, women find it tough to thrive in the corporate world. Despite all the problems which slow down women, there are many women who have risen above them.

Here is a list of top 15 women influencers whom women can take inspiration from.

Breaking gender stereotypes, they have passed with flying colors. We have included women from industries such as Retail, Hospitality, and Restaurants.

Read on to find who they are!

1. Stephanie Vitori 
President at CheeseBurger Baby

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A chef by profession who has also succeeded as an entrepreneur is Stephanie Vitori. Her foray into the restaurant business began way back in 2001 when she bought CheeseBurger Baby. 

Coming from humble beginnings, where she first started out as a delivery truck driver, Vitori’s story is of unrelenting grit and determination. She is a woman of substance who going places and crusading in the restaurant industry on her own terms.

If you are a woman wanting to start out in the restaurant industry, you could certainly take some inspiration from her.

2. Kat Cole

COO & President at Focus Brands

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Starting out as a waiter at the age of 17 with Hooters of America, she went on to serve as its VP of Operations for 14 long years. She is currently the COO and President, North America at Focus Brands.

Apart from making it big in the restaurant industry, she is currently serving as the board member for the United Nation’s Global Entrepreneurs Council and World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leader.

On being asked the one piece of advice she would give to women wanting to make it big in the restaurant industry, she says ‘Don’t make it about gender’.

Kat Cole truly exemplifies the phrase ‘Woman of Substance’ and we wish her luck for her future endeavours. 

3. Rebecca Fine

COO & Lion’s Choice Restaurants

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The third women on the list who deserves laurels is Rebecca Fine. Currently serving as the COO at Lion’s Choice Restaurants, she has worked with Honolulu Coffee Company as the Chief of Operations.

The start of her illustrious career journey began when she started as an hourly wage employee and manager. As someone who’s been there and done that, she isn’t afraid to lend a hand during crowded mornings and congested afternoons.

A people’s champion, she also took on the mantle of managing human resource function at Panera Bread for close to 8 years. Beginning in 2004, she oversaw the growth of the bakery-cafe chain from 400 to 1450 during her tenure. 

4. Rosalind Brewer

COO at Starbucks

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Heading the operations wing of a $30 billion dollar global coffee chain is no easy task. In a racially prejudiced American society, Rosalind Brewer holds the distinction of being the first African-American women to hold this coveted position.

Adding to her long lost of achievements is her recent appointment as a board of director at Amazon.

Michigan born Brewer didn’t have an easy childhood. Born in 1962, Brewer was the youngest of the five siblings who were fortunate to attend college.

Relying on scholarships and the education loans taken by her parents, Brewer graduated with a degree in chemistry from Spelman College. 

She has been a vocal campaigner for black rights and this was the reason she was brought on board by Amazon. This move came after there was an employee backlash citing that all the board members were white. 

5. Janelle Brown

VP of Operations and Marketing at Uncle Maddio's Pizza

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A C-level executive who is a firm advocate of diversity in the workplace is Janelle Brown. She is presently serving as the head of operations, training, and human resources.

Her professional career started when she assumed the role of Regional Director of Training at Outbound Steak House. 

Her advice to women looking to shine in managerial roles is ‘Go get it done, and always lead from the front’.

A classic piece of advice that works wonders.

6. Heather Neary
President at Auntie Anne's

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Heather Neary is a woman who has mastered the ropes of the trade by doing menial jobs such as making sandwiches, subways and working as a waitress. All of this was done at the tender age of 15.

Now, she’s what we’d call a Wonder Woman.

Working with Auntie’s Anne's for 14 years, Heather has spearheaded the marketing activities for the firm with aplomb.

Also, as president of Auntie Anne's, Heather leads all strategic initiatives that keep a 30-year-old brand like Auntie Anne’s not only surviving the rapid evolution of retail, but thriving.

She is someone who isn’t afraid to go out of her way to get things done. This is something that she wants all women to follow. A seasoned professional, Heather Neary opines that since women are the key decision makers in the family, they wouldn’t find it difficult to excel in the boardroom as well.


7. Tara Gilad  

Founder at Vitality Foods

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A woman who has turned her passion for healthy foods into a profitable business venture is Tara Gilad. She is the owner of Vitality Foods which sells superfoods which are healthy and nutritious.

In Sept 2018, it reported a record high sale of 3.5 million acai bowls. The superfood brand has also opened stores in multiple locations with the current number being 100. 

The idea was born after her 7-year old daughter Ella was allergic to certain nuts, seeds, and dairy products.

Being a working mom and starting a women-led franchise system was a challenge. By monitoring it for quality, Gilad has raised the bar higher for health entrepreneurs in general and women in particular.


8. Linda Vap

Founder at HuHut Mongolian Grills

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A woman who personifies bold leadership abilities is Linda Vap. HuHut Mongolian Grills, whom she co-founded along with her late husband in 1999 is a success story.

With close to 60 units in 16 states, the success of the Asian food restaurant chain is credited to the entire Vap family.

After the demise of Daniel Vap in 2014, Linda and her son Andy have taken the restaurant chain to greater heights.

She is an epitome for a successful woman entrepreneur who has succeeded despite all odds. ‘Women need to believe in themselves to become great leaders’, says Linda who advises women to take risks and delegate in a business.


9. Marla Topliff

President at Rosati's Pizza

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Leading Rosati’s Pizza from the front since 1999 is Marla Topliff. She is instrumental in expansion of its stores from 60 to 170. She looks after the corporate and vendor relationships along with managing human resources. 

A veteran in the pizza vertical, she has been featured in and other publications such as The Suit Magazine and Chain Pulse Magazine.

Being a frank proponent of gender equality in the workplace, Maria’s advice to women in the corporate world is to look beyond the gender disparity and perform well. Topliff is someone who believes that women are great leaders owing to their empathic nature and great communication skills.

‘Keep your ego out of the way and try to learn as much as possible’ is her actionable advice to women.

That’s a great piece of advice!


10. Laura Alber

CEO at William Sonoma


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A prominent female influencer in the retail industry, Laura Alber is the CEO of William Sonoma who took over the prestigious post in 2010. Her unconventional yet pragmatic strategies have helped the retail brand grow leaps and bounds.

In May 2018, she was awarded the ‘Women of the Year’ at the World Retail Congress in Madrid.

Her recent decision to retain Sonoma’s physical stores despite the digital route of e-commerce being embraced extensively is purely a strategic move. 

Being in a leadership role adds a lot of stress but, Alber’s health regime helps her to get through the day.

Conscious eating and plenty of exercises is her secret to good health. That’s a word of advice we all need to follow.


11. Barbara Rentler

CEO at Ross Stores


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For a lady in a powerful position such as a CEO, Barbara Rentler is soft-spoken and doesn’t prefer to stay in the spotlight. She stays grounded and prefers not to divulge personal information.

Rentler rose through the ranks from being a merchandiser at Ross Stores to its CEO. She took the baton from Michael Balmuth who hung up his boots in 2014. She has been going strong ever since and is someone who lets her work do the talking.

As of 2018, her net worth was a staggering 69.9 million. In the recently concluded financial year, sales saw a 10% increase totaling up to $14.1 billion with profits increasing from $1.1 billion to $1.4 billion. 

Way to go, Barbara Rentler!


12. Mary Dillon

CEO at Ulta Beauty


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Mary Dillon’s appointment as the CEO of Ulta Beauty turned around its fortunes. Prior to her appointment, the beauty retailer was not doing well. 

Under her aegis, Ulta Beauty has displaced Sephora to become the numero uno beauty and cosmetic retail brand in the US. A combination of creative in-store experience and e-commerce focus has helped Ulta Beauty resurge to becoming a profitable brand.

All these efforts have led to a 50% surge in sales. It is also expected to open 300 stores by the end of 2019.


13. Jannis Cannon

SVP at Upscale Brands, Choice Hotels International

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Jannis Canon is one of the top honchos in the hospitality industry. As a SVP, at Upscale Brands, Choice Hotels, Cannon’s rise to corporate stardom begun as an entry-level executive.

‘Nothing great was ever achieved by being in the comfort zone’. This saying holds water as she was a bit apprehensive when she first received an opportunity to become the GM.

But the old adage, ‘There’s a first for everybody’ encouraged her to take the plunge.

Women aspiring to make a mark in the hospitality should definitely look up to Jannis Cannon.


14. Lisa Checchio

SVP & Chief Marketing Officer at Wyndham Hotels & Resorts

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Serving with an airline and then moving on to hospitality, Lisa Checchio is a woman with diverse experience under her belt. At present, she is the SVP and CMO of Global Brands, Wyndham Hotel Group.

As a leader, she believes that inspiring your team to perform better, and giving them a happy reason to come to work every day along with providing the necessary resources can help achieve great things.

And not to forget, she is a great believer in the power of positivity.


15. Vicky Poulos
Senior Director - Global Brand Management at Marriott International


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Climbing up the ranks in a male-dominated industry takes a lot of determination. Vicky Poulos has done this by challenging the accepted norms and that’s the reason why she is successful. 

Serving at Moxy Brands, a subsidiary brand of Marriott Hotels, she holds the position of Senior Director, Global Brand Management.

A valuable piece of advice she received from one of her mentors was ‘Should I lower my standards or should you raise yours?’


Avinash Patil

Written by Avinash Patil