I am the leader of a franchise small business, and I am a transgender woman. For the past 30 years, I have been an El Pollo Loco franchise owner, and I serve as the CEO of Pollo West Corp., a multi-unit franchise in Southern California. Pollo West Corp. operates six restaurant locations, and we employ 175 people across Los Angeles and Ventura Counties. In my role, it is my top priority to grow a business that is respectful and inclusive of all my employees and customers, not in spite of their gender identity, but because of it.
The business world and the transgender community intersect in important and challenging ways. In the United States, transgender people face unemployment at a rate two to three times higher than the national average. Forty-seven percent of transgender people are fired, not hired, or denied a promotion due to their gender identity, and of those who are employed, 90 percent report being harassed or discriminated against at their workplaces. These statistics are humbling, and they’re why I’m called to speak out, advocate for transgender people entering into business environments, and continue to lead to make my business diverse and inclusive.
Our success in creating a business that is diverse, respectful of difference, and inclusive of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals is due in large part to the franchise model itself. Franchising places the recognition and responsibility of a larger brand into the hands of entrepreneurs like me to create, shape, and grow a small business. The franchise model drives the creation of small business opportunities, and it allows owners and operators to make the important decisions to pursue hiring that suits the needs of the business and expands opportunity for workers. In the areas where we operate, we know that franchising is an engine for business development and employment. In Ventura County alone, the franchise sector employs more than 18,000 people and contributes over $1.1 billion to GDP.
I’ve implemented best practices at Pollo West Corp. – from hiring, to training, to management – to achieve our goal of a diverse and thriving workplace. I require management to complete “sensitivity training,” known in our business as “demystifying the workforce.” We hire consultants to conduct in-person training that includes role-playing as a way for everyone to learn what it is like to “walk in another’s shoes,” specifically including those of a transgender person. This training is integral in creating a business culture that encourages openness and respect for all my employees.
Hiring and integrating transgender employees is a win on both humanitarian and business levels. We decided to take this success and create an organization called TransCanWork.org, which could help businesses succeed in hiring transgender and gender non-conforming individuals into their organizations. We are encouraged by the widespread national interest in our program.
Policy implementation is not enough. At TransCanWork we are about changing corporate culture. The results have been encouraging.
The steps that I have taken to create an environment of respect and diversity directly impact the face of our business – our employees and management. We see that when we promote the dignity of all people, we are lifting livelihoods and opening doors to transgender individuals who might not otherwise have those opportunities. Over a five-year period, we have hired more than 40 transgender people. Of those, 25 percent have risen to management positions. They are hardworking, ambitious employees, and they have flourished in their professional lives due to a safe and respectful workplace.
Sales and revenue at Pollo West Corp. have improved alongside our increasingly welcoming environment. We started in 1988 with one El Pollo Loco location, at the corner of Venice Blvd. and Western Ave. in Los Angeles. From there, my company has owned and operated 17 restaurants, some of which we’ve since sold. This growth and success shouldn’t be limited to my business. Every business, from a restaurant to a bank to a law firm or repair shop can benefit from increased diversity and an openness to employees and customers of all backgrounds.
There are 1.4 million transgender adults living in the United States. If our hope is to live in a safe, peaceful, and respectful society, we must work together in Washington, D.C., and in statehouses across the country to ensure that laws are enacted to protect transgender people, and that small businesses like mine are given the tools and freedom they need to grow and succeed. My franchised business has empowered transgender people, and created opportunities open to all.
I am proud to be a transgender woman, and a transgender leader of a company that is affording business opportunities to the trans community. All of my employees, and my transgender employees in particular, are able to look and see that you can be transgender, and you can succeed at the highest levels in a franchise small business like mine. The Pollo West Corp. story is evidence of success in the franchise business model, of advancement in the workplace when all people are treated with dignity and respect, and how franchised businesses must be free to grow their businesses with tools that uplift all people.
Michaela Mendelsohn is CEO of the Pollo West Corp.