Carrie Leishman: Delaware Restaurant Association President & CEO
It’s a little known fact that Carrie Leishman describes herself as a bit of an introvert when she can step out of the spotlight that shines on the Delaware Restaurant Association these days.
“I’ve heard I’m charismatic, but really, I’d say I have a problem not knowing what to say when at a public-facing event or when to stop talking,” Leishman said, laughing. “I’d like to say I’m more approachable than putting a label on it. People have so many layers, after all.”
Growing up in upstate New York, Leishman soon went to Syracuse University to study journalism and communications. When she graduated, she took a position at the Baltimore Magazine but didn’t stay long. She heard that the Maryland Restaurant Association was hiring, and she jumped on the opportunity.
So began her love affair with the restaurant industry.
“First it was really falling passionately in love with food and drink, but then it was the restaurant industry and hospitality. I love the fact that it’s a melting pot of people in this one industry,” she said.
That passion fueled the restaurant sector’s fiercest advocate. Leishman soon became charged with advocating for members in the press and in front of the state legislature. After a decade in Maryland, Harry’s Hospitality Group partner Xavier Teixido reached out with notice that the Delaware Restaurant Association was hiring for a leader.
“Back then, we started out of my basement. But when I got here, I never looked back, and I often joked with my board, ‘Don’t fire me, because I don’t have other skills,’” she said. “I’ve been driven to advocate for restaurants these past 34 years, and we’ve really grown from an industry that no one wanted to work in to one that has a professional image.”
Starting out, Leishman’s biggest challenges were understanding legislation and being taken seriously as a young woman. While she eventually cut her teeth on reading bills and lobbying, the respect eventually followed.
“It’s a dude’s world and there may have been some skepticism because I wasn’t from here. But you have to build the respect in the room,” Leishman said. “As a mother, it was hard because I couldn’t be the room mom while my kids were in elementary school. I was a few minutes late to their soccer and field hockey games sometimes. But I was still there.”
Her philosophy of leadership isn’t finding passion in the work, but instead the ultimate mission of the organization.
“You have to have the confidence in the vision to move quickly and be sure in your decisions. That’s not to say there’s never bad decisions, because there are. But you have to be able to be nimble when they don’t work out and reassess that,” she said.
Confidence in your team is also key to successful leadership, she added.
The true test of leadership came when the COVID-19 pandemic came and Gov. John Carney imposed restrictions and capacity limits. Leishman served as a megaphone for Delaware’s estimated 4,000 food establishments as they lost millions of dollars in revenue over the past 16 months. She and the Delaware Restaurant Association created the Restaurant E.A.T.s (Emergency Action Trust) to provide grants to those in the hospitality industry, and served as a key advocate for businesses.
In her more than 20 years with the Delaware Restaurant Association, Leishman’s accomplishments include launching the Delaware Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (DRAEF) to provide training for students and those in the state’s prison system. Today, the program reaches 3,000 students across the state and is focusing on youth apprenticeships.
Leishman also was recognized by President Donald Trump in 2018 for the Delaware Restaurant Association’s work in providing industry training for substance abuse awareness and prevention. But among these high honors, she is most proud of how far the organization and her team has come.
“I am most proud of building this organization from the basement of my house to a team that is confident to take on their own projects and feel as if they have rewarding careers,” Leishman said.