Women in business

Episode 21: WERKIN with Margot Slattery on the path from chef to Sodexo’s top executive in Ireland

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On this week’s episode, we’re WERKIN with Margot Slattery, Sodexo’s country president of Ireland. WERKIN founder & CEO Hayley Sudbury sat down with Slattery at Sodexo’s UK head office in London to discuss the joy of growing and preparing food; publicly coming out amid Ireland’s marriage referendum and what goes into a good gin and tonic— all on her path from chef to a top executive and diversity and inclusion leader.

Having grown up on a farm and around the hospitality industry, Slattery had an early exposure to food services, propelling her to culinary school,

“The reason I became a chef was that my Mom had a background in hotel management and I came from a household where food was a really big thing. All our family were big foodies and I grew up on a farm. We grew food, made food and loved eating food.”

Seeing many of the challenges female chefs faced in their careers, Slattery soon saw other opportunities in hospitality management and food services, but she wouldn’t stop thinking about the role of these inequities across industries,

“I probably recognised that cooking and being in the kitchen for a woman at that time was an incredibly hard job. At the time, [a career as a chef] wasn't really recognised the way it is today. Being a chef was not that glamorous back in the 90s.”

After going back to school for hospitality management, Slattery took a junior position with Sodexo. Having a knack for managing teams and projects, Slattery knew she found her place and built her career with the food service and facilities management company, now the 19th largest employer in the world.

Along the way, Slattery grew to appreciate Sodexo’s dedication to diversity and inclusion through emphasising equal access to opportunities. Amid Ireland’s 2015 same-sex marriage referendum, she was encouraged by activists to use her platform to support marriage equality on a personal level. Although she had long been out among friends, family and close colleagues, she was asked to make a more public statement.

“I was approached by a number of NGOs in the LGBT scene who said we need a corporate to come out, we need business woman. Will you do it? And I really hesitated in the beginning, because it was such an insular world and everybody in Ireland, we're only under five million people, knows each other. I was a little nervous that it might influence my career.”

The nudge by local activists was enough to prompt Slattery to provide her voice as a gay businesswoman, causing a ripple effect,

“Like a lot of people, there was that moment of truth with oneself where I said, well if I don't [share my story] we're never going to change, we're not going to move the dial. And so I did. It's incredibly important because it did move the dial and then others came out or others started talking.”

In addition to Sodexo being recognised as a leader in LGBT inclusion, it also has 50-50 gender parity on its board. How has Slattery’s own journey impacted and been shaped by Sodexo’s culture of inclusion?

“It depends on the regions of where you are and across the world. In 2014 and 2017 we did a survey of 50 different parts of the business or entities and we looked at the results of those businesses where we had a 40-60, men-women balance. We saw that our employee engagement, our financial results, our diversity and inclusion scores, our business retention, our winning and growth, and revenue numbers were all far better in all of those regions.”

Apart from working within a company dedicated to supporting underrepresented groups, Slattery attributes her success to her resilience and ability to prioritise what matters,

 “I try not to let anything get me down too much and recognise that work and everything else in life has its place and its time. [One must] be able to let it go at the end of the day if it's a work thing or if it's a personal thing, and try to find a way of getting on top of it all and stay cheery and good humoured and not get me down too much. So I think resilience is probably [the most important] for me.”

To hear more from Hayley’s interview, including Slattery’s preference for fast cars and her recipe for the best gin and tonic, listen to the full interview on iTunes or Soundcloud.