In May 2019, Dr. Emily Williams Knight was appointed CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association & Foundation and officially assumed this leadership role on August 1, 2019. With more than 50,000 restaurants employing 1.3M Texans and posting sales of 70B in 2019, in her first year, Knight was at the forefront of leading one of the most important industries through the COVID 19 pandemic.
Knight was recognized as a fierce and effective leader, quickly securing several waivers from Governor Abbott while also lobbying and securing federal support to help the restaurant and foodservice industry survive. Without a playbook for leading Texas’s second-largest private employer through a pandemic, Knight went to her roots, leading from the front, empowering those around her to act, and by bringing honest, empathetic, and transparent communication into every interaction. Knight leveraged her passion and empathy for others to drive change at the state and national level and quickly rose to become a key thought leader with local and national media.
Dr. Knight took the pain of the pandemic and its devastating impact on the restaurant industry to Texas’ 87th legislative session where she and her team passed 6 priority bills that were signed into law including alcohol-to-go, liability protection, third-party delivery protections, and securing the ability for restaurants to sell bulk food. The results of the session provided the Texas restaurant industry with a clear path to rebuild and is regarded as one of the most successful sessions ever delivered by the Association.
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Thank you so much for giving us your time! Before we begin, could you introduce yourself to our readers and take us through what exactly your company does and what your vision is for its future?
Emily Williams Knight: I am blessed to be the advocate, fighter, and champion for the 50,000 restaurants in Texas. We are the trade association that protects and advances all restaurant and food service operators across the state. For more than 89 years, the association has worked to pass legislation that will create a favorable business environment for growth and stop harmful legislation. When the pandemic hit I had a choice to lead restaurants through it or to hide under my desk.
I chose to lead, and out of all 50 states, Texas was one of the first to reopen (in some cases a year before other states) and today is leading the way in the growth of new restaurants and restaurant companies. Securing executive waivers by working closely with Governor Abbott, the TRA was able to bring alcohol to go, groceries, liability protection, PPP deductibility, and delivery protections during the 87th legislative session. These legislative wins are being used as examples in other states as the TRA delivered the most successful legislative session for restaurants across the U.S.
NO child ever says I want to be a CEO/entrepreneur when I grow up. What did you want to be and how did you get where you are today?
Emily Williams Knight: When I was in 3rd grade, I was allowed to stay up late to watch a show called “Hotel”. I was living on a military base and everything was the same. Our parents had the same jobs, our houses were the same, and we all shopped at the same stores. I would watch this TV show and dream of running a luxury hotel and taking care of all the guests who stayed with me. It was in the 3rd grade that I told my parents “I am going into the hospitality industry”. Thankfully, they said they thought it was a great idea and they supported me through my undergraduate degree in hospitality to my first job in the Pizza Hut management training program.
As I reflect on the pandemic, what I loved and where I hit my stride was advocating for people. Being the voice for those that did not have a voice, and using my creativity and risk-taking skills to create the roadmap for our restaurants to follow in order to survive. My desire to serve others, even back in the 3rd grade, aligned perfectly with the pandemic. I now speak with business leaders about my journey and how empathy, a love of the people you represent, and the creativity to write the plan can propel you and your company forward and position you as not only a great leader but a great visionary.
Tell us something about yourself that others in your organization might be surprised to know.
Emily Williams Knight: I was originally booked on MH370. Due to an incredible assistant who told me “not to push myself”, I stayed overnight and was booked on the 2nd flight of the day. There are just 2 flights from Malaysia to Beijing a day and this 50/50 chance was a gamble I never made. As I stood in the airport and learned that the flight before me was lost, I was impacted in ways I could not have imagined. I returned to the U.S. with survivor’s guilt and even more, with a renewed sense of purpose to help others and to live my very best life – measured by the way I treat others, help others, and develop those I am charged with caring for as a leader. March 8th is a day my family and I still honor and I will never forget all those that remain lost today
Many readers may wonder how to become an entrepreneur but what is an entrepreneur? How would you define it?
Emily Williams Knight: An entrepreneur is someone who sees a problem or opportunity and something to solve. They assess the situation and use their creativity to create a product or service to address the need. They are bold, they are visionaries and they see the glass half full, not half empty. They are also people who are not afraid to fail. They see failure as falling forward and they have the GRIT to try and try again until they succeed. The entrepreneur is the person who wants to give up but goes one more day and finds success – while most quit on the day they have had enough. They make our world, brighter, better, and more exciting.
What is the importance of having a supportive and inclusive culture?
Emily Williams Knight: It is always We and not I. You can only win as a team, and that team needs to be diverse and care for one another. I treat my organization as a family. We will disagree, we will bicker, but we will always support one another. I was the first woman to lead the association in its close to 90-year history. I started my tenure being called “A Girl”, and with a board that had less than 5% diversity in its 90+ members. Today, the team is diverse at every level and the board of directors just had 75% women and people of color to this new board class of 15 new board members. We are living in a complex world and that requires complex thinking. This can only be achieved by having a diversity of people at the table.
How can a leader be disruptive in the post covid world?
Emily Williams Knight: Care about your people – holistically. People now have a choice of where they work and they care deeply about who they work for. We are seeing leading industries struggle with profitability due to a shortage of workers. The company that invests in its people, in the whole person, is the company that will win. Transparency, care, empathy, and an acceptance that the way we work has changed are the key attributes every leader must have to win post-COVID.
If a 5-year-old asked you to describe your job, what would you tell them?
Emily Williams Knight: I am the voice for all the restaurants in Texas. I make sure that they are cared for, that people don’t harm them, and that they can keep serving you all those meals you enjoy so much – like the pizookie from BJ’s that I know is your favorite. I work with the people in charge of our state, like the Governor, to help create the laws that restaurants need.
Leaders are usually asked about their most useful qualities but let’s change things up a bit. What is your most useless talent?
Emily Williams Knight: I can disappoint anyone… I have learned that leading an industry that is engaged in mask and vaccine debates.. this is a talent that is indeed useless.
Thank you so much for your time but before we finish things off, we do have one more question. If you wrote a book about your life until today, what would the title be?
Emily Williams Knight: “Living Your Best Life as the Person God Made You to Be”
Jed Morley, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Emily Williams Knight for taking the time to do this interview and share her knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Emily Williams Knight or her company, you can do it through her – Linkedin Page
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