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A Conversation with Michaela Mendelsohn, the Fast-Food CEO Determined to Get Trans People Employed

It started with a two-piece chicken combo and a side of beans and coleslaw. The golden chicken was easy to tear off the bone and best enjoyed inside corn tortillas topped with salsa. Thirty years ago, Michaela Mendelsohn ate this meal for lunch nearly every day. But in addition to mid-day sustenance, it was also the inspiration for her next big business venture: A El Pollo Loco franchise of her own.

Today, Mendelsohn, 66, owns and operates six El Pollo Loco franchises throughout Southern California as well as serves as the CEO of their parent company (Pollo West Corp.). And while her order has remained the same — the chicken combo with beans and coleslaw — plenty else has changed. Namely, Mendelsohn herself, a transgender woman who only underwent the transition to confirm her gender about a decade ago.

Ever since, she’s been a major force within the LGBTQ community, particularly as the founder of TransCanWork, a nationwide effort to help “transgender people thrive in the workplace”; and vice chair of The Trevor Project, an organization that provides “crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth.” In addition, she was named the National Face of Diversity by the restaurant industry earlier this year, and next month, she’ll serve as the Grand Marshal of the 2018 L.A. Pride Parade.

I recently caught up with Mendelsohn over the phone to discuss the ways in which El Pollo Loco is attempting to get more millennials hooked on its chicken; why so many transgender women live macho lives prior to transitioning; and how the advent of Atari meant the death of her first business.

Have you always been ambitious?
Yeah. I’ve pretty much been on my own financially since I was 12 years old, when I started my first business washing and waxing cars in Torrance, California, in the 1960s after my family moved there from New York. Once I got more accounts than I could handle by myself, I’d hire other kids to help me. After that, a quarter allowance was no longer enough. I decided that making my own money was the way for me to live life in the way I wanted.

I started my first legitimate corporation out of my parents’ garage when I was 21 in 1973. I managed coin-operated video games, putting jukeboxes and pinball games in restaurants, bowling alleys and public places throughout California. By the time I was 29, it was the largest business of its kind in the state. But that was disrupted when home-gaming systems became really popular. So in 1982, I opened a restaurant called Straw Hat Pizza. Then, in 1986, I opened the first of many El Pollo Loco stores. I owned 17 of them at one point, but let go of some of them during the recession.

And you really haven’t gotten tired of the chicken yet?
No, I’m never tired of it. There’s a real art in cooking our chicken. It’s really slow food, served fast. It takes us an hour to cook the chicken. We have to time everything to historical data that tells us how many chickens to have ready at certain times, which is what our cooking schedule is based around. Our chicken goes through four stages on different grills. That way, it comes out a little bit crispy and golden brown on the outside, but really juicy on the inside.

Overall, the brand is getting a fresh look. As of this year, we have a new CEO who was previously the senior vice president of marketing at Starbucks. He’s doing a segmentation study of existing and lapsed customers, and finding out where El Pollo Loco sits today in the restaurant scene. We want to go into the future with fresh approaches to our business rather than relying on old norms. One huge thing with the millennial market is the popularity of delivery services. Millennial taste has a lot of competition, given that billions of dollars are now going into these third-party delivery services. If we’re not addressing the delivery issue, we’re losing market share.

Amid this political climate, there’s constant commentary about the growing strength of the American economy, as well as a continuous stream of news stories about the Trump administration’s regressive civil-rights policies. As both an activist and a corporate CEO, where do you think we’re currently at as a nation?
Sure, the economy appears to be doing well on the surface. We’ll find out if whether what’s driving it is healthy or not in the long run — time will tell if money really trickles down to individual employees when big corporations save tax dollars. Under this administration, though, staffing is becoming a real problem. Our industry is starving for employees. We’re at the point where even Republicans are admitting that now isn’t the time to make paths to citizenship more difficult. Because where do we get our employees if everyone’s afraid to come to work? This labor pool is necessary for certain industries. How do you expand business without a labor pool? I know the farmers are crying all over the country.

Given the economic disparity transgender Americans face, with trans people of color facing unemployment at more than three times the rate of other Americans, your situation seems fairly unique. Do you consider yourself an anomaly as a transgender CEO?
There are more transgender CEOs than you may think, and there’s only more to come. It’s the same dynamic we’re seeing in politics right now. A little over a year ago, there were no transgender people in high elected office, including in large city councils. Since then, however, we’ve had seven openly trans candidates win their office. There’s a number of trans people currently running for office, too, including for seats in Congress. We can expect to see this influence a lot more in both business and politics. Of course, during the Obama administration there were some transgender people appointed to high posts, but that isn’t the case anymore.

You began your own transition in the mid-2000s. Was transitioning something you thought about your whole life?
No. I mean, when I was first dealing with a sense of duality, or a feeling about myself gender-wise, I was as young as seven. The word transgender wasn’t used yet. There were very negative connotations and characterizations of what they would call “transvestites” at the time. I didn’t understand what I was going through. I didn’t feel my family or friends would either, so I suppressed it for a long time.

What was it like transitioning while being the boss?
I was pretty much in hiding for a year, until I transitioned. A couple colleagues knew what I was going through and kept it a secret. They also helped me run things. After transitioning, I showed up to the holiday party and introduced my 500 employees and their families to my true self. One of my colleagues got on the mic and said, “I have someone I think you’re going to want to meet.”

I felt nervous, but empowered, and that feeling of empowerment overtook the nervousness. It was so important to me to introduce all of them to who I really am and tell my story. I feel like since I’ve done that, I’ve gotten much more respect from my employees for being so much more honest with them. It’s broken down barriers I might have had with them before, so there’s a greater closeness now. I find it easier to walk into one of my stores and connect with the people working there. Authenticity does that.

Is that why it’s been so important for you to employee other trans people in your stores?
When we hired our first transgender employee, following my own transition, we sat down together and discussed what her experiences at other workplaces had been like. I was disheartened. I realized what a privilege it was to transition as CEO, and so over a period of four years, we hired about 40 more transgender employees. It’s so healing for trans people to have a safe, supportive job. For some, working at our stores was their first time feeling comfortable expressing their true gender at work. In California, you live in the gender expression that you feel you belong — employers aren’t legally able to prevent you from doing that. But it doesn’t mean employers always create an environment that feels safe or comfortable.

Over time, about 25 percent of the transgender people we hired made it to management. Given our success hiring more transgender employees, we decided we should bring this out to other companies and talk about the business case of hiring transgender folks. That’s how we started TransCanWork. We train companies in diversity and connect transgender people looking for jobs with companies looking to hire transgender people.

We talk about inclusion and diversity not just in terms of social justice, but in business acumen. A diverse workforce is only going to make businesses stronger. Twenty-seven percent of youth between the ages of 12 and 17 are identifying or being identified by their peers as gender non-conforming in California, according to the Williams Institute, which is the foremost researcher of LGBT statistics in the world. More and more, Generation Z has the opportunity to not live in the traditional boxes that were created for previous generations. They’re taking this opportunity, and in doing so, they’re creating significant change in terms of culture, education and the workforce. If companies want to be successful going forward, they need to take these issues seriously right now.

You’ve talked about your experiences being hyper-competitive before transitioning, almost as if you could “win” your way out of your gender experience. How so exactly?
I adopted a persona, and it did well. I spent 55 years presenting as an overachieving male, a macho athlete and a successful business person. So much of that was about trying to overcome what was going on inside of me.

Since transitioning, I’ve met so many trans women with similar stories — women who also tried to overcome their gender issues by taking on super masculine or macho jobs. I know a trans women who was on the L.A. SWAT team for 22 years before transitioning; another who was a jet plane pilot; and yet another who was a racecar driver. Personally, besides competing in business, I got into extreme sports before transitioning. My two favorite sports were whitewater kayaking and rock climbing. Part of the appeal of these activities was that I couldn’t focus on anything but what was happening at that very moment, because it was life-threatening if my mind wondered. Also, they gave me a feeling of being truly alive that I didn’t get to feel before I began truly living as myself.

When I decided to be that super athletic person, that was a transition of its own kind. Before that, I was significantly bullied. So when I was 14 or 15 and sick of being bullied, I went on a fitness kick. I lost 15 pounds and eventually set city records in different physical fitness programs. I remade myself so I could get past being bullied and distract people from recognizing that I was different.

In that way, everyone can transition. Gender transitions are just one dramatic example. But we all have the capacity to transition, even if that just means living the truth of what we really want or wanted to be. Sometimes we have dreams we feel ashamed to have because a parent or teacher once told us we weren’t capable. Everybody has things hiding in our own closets.