‘Just do it, don’t be afraid. Don’t think about all the things that can go wrong’
Margot Slattery of Sodexo Ireland on female representation, LGBT leadership and cooking
Margot Slattery: Her leadership in the fields of diversity and inclusivity has brought her the most media attention. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Equality, for Margot Slattery, head of Sodexo Ireland and an advocate for diversity, equality and inclusion in the workplace, began at home in Co Limerick in the 1970s, where her dairy farmer father would often be the one to cook the family dinners.
“My parents Mick and Anna were both good cooks. My dad had been orphaned young in life and had to fend for himself, and my mum had come from a family of ardent bakers.” Food was a major part of her life then, she says, as it is now, accounting for around half of her work portfolio with Sodexo Ireland, an outsourced multi-services company which is responsible for feeding around 90,000 people daily, across more than 200 locations.
When the heavy hitters from the International Monetary Fund sit down to lunch at the Central Bank, or when Davy Stockbrokers wants to entertain clients in-house, Sodexo chefs are doing the cooking. Michelin-starred chef Derry Clarke is an advisor to the company, which Slattery says can deliver private dining “equal to the best restaurants in the country”. Schools, universities and hospitals are also clients, and in 2017, the company spent more than €19 million on Irish food and drink products.
Campaigning for change is something that is close to her heart, having felt compelled to avoid disclosure of her sexuality both at work, and with her family
When I visit the company’s new offices in Blackrock, Co Dublin, to meet Slattery, an array of trophies are being dusted off before going on display in the reception area. There are a lot of them, highlighting the company’s achievements under Slattery’s direction.
But it is her leadership in the fields of diversity and inclusivity that has brought her the most media attention. Slattery has been included in the Financial Times Top 100 list of OUTstanding LGBT Business Leaders every year since 2015, is chair of the group’s steering committee in Ireland, and is a member of Sodexo’s global LGBT network leadership team.
Campaigning for change in this area is something that is close to her heart, having lived through years when she felt compelled to avoid disclosure of her sexuality both at work, and with her family. She says it was “a conversation I never got to have” with her late father, but she did tell her mother, after meeting her partner, Trinity academic Dr Sarah Barry, eight years ago. The couple married in June 2017, three years to the day after celebrating their civil partnership – “to avoid having another anniversary to remember,” she says with a smile.
Although she regrets not being able to be open with colleagues in the past – “not being out meant a lot of lost conversations” – she believes things are changing for the better. “I believe it is getting better. But it is important that we keep it in focus.”
Slattery’s route to the top of the corporate ladder began at college in Galway, where she qualified as a chef, followed by a spell in the kitchens of the InterContinental hotel in London, where she was one of only two female chefs in a brigade of 100. Working in a professional kitchen at that time was not easy, but she stuck it out. “It was a very sexist environment and also a very aggressive environment,” she says.
Returning to Dublin, she cooked at Bank of Ireland HQ for a while, studied at night for a degree in hotel and catering management, and made a move into catering management, “because I knew I had more in me”. She has been with Sodexo since 1991, working through a variety of roles, and is now country president with responsibility for Ireland, north and south. The French-owned Sodexo Group is the world’s largest multi-services company.
To young women starting out in the food or hospitality business, looking at her career trajectory and wondering just how she did it, Slattery has the following advice: “Just do it, don’t be afraid. Don’t think about all the things that can go wrong. Find a good community of advisors and role models and people who will not only mentor you, but sponsor you. I have had people who have done this for me and it’s so important.” Sponsors, she says, are with you for the long-haul, as against mentors, who may just provide support on a short-term basis.
As Brexit approaches, she says it is a concern for Sodexo “on many fronts”. Preparations are underway “around communications and engagement with our team and our suppliers and our supply chain. We are prepared to hold stock and ensure we can deliver to our clients .”
It is a time of great uncertainty. But the quality and integrity of Ireland’s food industry is something she has complete confidence in. “Our food is some of the best in the world and I feel that so much when I travel. Its quality and taste and links to its origins is special.”
But there is a note of caution too. “I think the challenges are in our economy of growth to keep the value there for all levels of diners,” she says, adding that families, and those on lower incomes, should be able to enjoy dining out, and have access to fairly priced meals.
Quality food at a fair price is something Slattery says she enjoys when spending weekends with Barry at their second home in Carrick-on-Shannon. The couple are regulars at The Oarsman, a gastropub in the Co Leitrim town. They spend most weekends there, gardening, watching food TV – Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is a favourite – and cooking.
“I am a happy person,” she says with a smile. “I am proud that I have achieved a good part of my potential. I was thrilled to be made a Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite by the French government for services to our industry. I am glad I made my parents proud, and for Sarah that I can be myself.”