Learn how to plan your DEI Initiative!

Transcript: Panda Restaurant Group Shares About “A Culture of Giving”

Transcript: Panda Restaurant Group Shares About “A Culture of Giving”

Gerry Fernandez [00:09] Welcome to a Seat at the Table. The podcast dedicated to helping companies and leaders build inclusive cultures brought to you by MFHA, the Multicultural Foodservice and Hospitality Alliance. I’m your host, Gerry Fernandez. I’m president and founder of MFHA. This week we’re talking with Philline that she’s the executive director in Panda Express’ legal department. She’s also co-lead of diversity, equity inclusion initiatives. It’s great to see you. I’m excited about having you with us today. Why don’t we start off by you telling us a little bit about Panda’s DEI effort and how it evolved over the past few years. Now, you’re gonna tell us a little bit more about Panda’s as we get into this, but but you can start with the DEI and that will be a good idea.

Philline Zitin [00:56] Thank you, Gerry. Yes, thank you for inviting me to talk about diversity, equity inclusion at Panda. I really love sharing about it. And it’s been a journey. It’s evolved, as you had said. And it’s began with us really looking at our culture and realizing it’s always been ingrained in our culture. But now we’re just working on being more intentional to prioritize these efforts and making sure it shows up in impacting our associates and our guests. And it really begins with our founders, Andrew and Peggy Cherng, and their immigrants who were building Panda Express from one restaurant in Glendale, California, in 1983. And over the years, they were really determined to find, build and uplift the community as they began to expand in their stores across the country.

Gerry Fernandez [01:39] That’s a great story. You know, I’ve met I’ve met both of them, and they’re impressive individuals. Why more intentional? Now why is intentionality matter?

Philline Zitin [01:48] I think we were obviously around for the pandemic and COVID. But I think May 2020, was another watershed moment in that time, we were able to really understand that, you know, we’re looking at ourselves as individuals and as organizations and asking ourselves, can we do more? And I think Ghana prides itself in really asking hard questions of itself. We came out with this answer of yes, we could do more. And so it’s really around committing in actions to support our associates in the community. And our Chief Brand Officer also was working with us as part of a taskforce for diversity, equity inclusion at the beginnings of this in 2020, to create sustainable efforts, and really help us figure out what’s our strategy and cultivating positive culture for our associates, guests and community.

Gerry Fernandez [02:42] Great, great. Can you talk a little bit more about your founders, and their immigrant story and how that contributes to Panda’s DEI efforts?

Philline Zitin [02:51] Well, Panda was founded by Andrew and Peggy as immigrants, and they got an education in the US. And then from there, when they decided to move forward with opening up a restaurant, they just started to expand and grow in the communities that had supported that when they started their company back in women was Panda in, which was a sit-down restaurant concept in Pasadena, California. And then the most powerful part of the giving is that, you know, Associates today, also, if they’re inspired, contribute back to that effort of giving as well, because that’s a core value of Panda is giving.

Gerry Fernandez [03:32] So talk a little bit more, if you would, about how paying the focus is on its DEI strategy, how it supports the DEI strategy, you know, for everyone, because of the shutdown, the pandemic and how it impacted disproportionately people of color, I was planning to focus on it.

Philline Zitin [03:49] So Panda as an organization, And I think many organizations do this, we have this overall corporate strategy. And we look at foundations of culture, people and guest and community as part of our corporate strategy of how to grow. So when we think of diversity, equity inclusion, and how we can make an impact, we’ve actually just integrated our strategy in terms of pillars as well. So we have a pillar of culture and what we want to do in that space of DEI, we want to build inclusive teams, for example, and, and make sure that we’re kind of supporting areas of belonging, like associated Resource Networks, or ERGs. And creating that experience of inclusion for our people pillar, we wanted to make sure we, you know, really look at talent, and are we you know, finding the right talent retaining talent. And so part of that process is really to from a DEI lines, are we really giving our leaders the skills to be more inclusive and training from the hourly associates all the way up to the C suite? As well as are we doing practices and processes that are fair and do we want to make it a broader talent pool. So are we auditing, for example, our systems and our, our processes and practices and actually seeing gaps? And what are we taking in terms of actions to close those gaps and expand opportunity. And then finally, our third pillar is guest and community. And I think this is a really cool part of, of what we do with DEI and, you know, our corporate strategy, big picture is to be a brand of choice where guests say, you know, I love Panda and what they do, And I want to be a part of that brand experience. But for DEI, and we’re doing in that space is really again, extending what we do with our guests and, and making sure we’re giving back to the community and creating community impact. So part of this, that’s not the only thing but is giving, you know, And I think that’s, that’s really exciting in terms of creating community impact. And, again, as I’ve mentioned, I’ll probably mentioned many times throughout this conversation is giving is a core part of our company culture, it’s a, it’s a value, we talk about a lot, that giving doesn’t really solve all systemic problems. But it’s really, you know, when we’re passionate about you. So we thought this is a way we can be culturally and socially educated, and to continue growing and evolving our DEI strategy.

Gerry Fernandez [06:21] Well, you know, we are in the hospitality business, so, so, services, that honorable profession, what I learned long ago, and we have to continue to teach that. But you have a program called Panda Cares, tell us a little bit about that.

Philline Zitin [06:34] Part of that giving back was then to create a foundation that had a mission rooted in giving back to children in that community, and creating a life full of possibilities for them through, you know, giving back in the form of health and education programs. And that’s really what Panda cares is about. And we have in kind of invite our associates and our guests to participate in this giving across the nation. And today, we’ve raised over $329 million dollars. And yeah, it’s amazing. And right now, today, our commitment is to create these panic care center of hopes for kids, for their development 480 centers across the nation, we give back to also the Boys and Girls Club of America. So again, supporting kids and their development, and it’s usually impacting underserved communities in those ways. And I had the privilege of taking part in the Panda cares golf tournament, which is in California, but I got to see them invite me. It’s super fun and inspiring. And I think what it was is just having our vendors partnering with us and having our associates volunteer at the event, and really getting to understand how the money goes back to Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals and seeing that all come together in a celebration of acknowledgement for everyone. So that was really great to be able to be a part of that effort. And then, you know, going back to the I, I think really, then, from the issues of being more intentional is then how do we focus our philanthropic efforts around DEI and impacting communities in that way, and we began a Panda CommUnity Fund in 2021. And it’s run by the Panda CommUnity Fund team. And it’s a corporate fund that supports DEI initiatives.

Gerry Fernandez [08:38] Well, that was good. I was gonna ask you that question. You jump right into it. There’s a significant commitment over five years, I think my notes from when we talked the other day, was $10 million. It’s that’s a lot. That’s a lot of dough. But a lot of noodles, if you will.

Philline Zitin [08:58] Yeah, And I think that’s really something that we were, again, intentional about from a DEI lens is it’s a community investment and Response Program to support immediate and sustainable solutions at the national and local level. And it’s about really focusing on narrative change, representation, advocacy, and striving to create a more respectful, inclusive society of tomorrow. And really, to kind of step back for a minute, I think what I want to share too, is a Panda again, in our corporate culture, we talked about story because of our founders are immigrants, right? There’s this kind of story of, you know, getting from one place to another going through a challenge and then transforming in some way or and having some learning or like really being elevated it in some way. And that’s really what the immigrant story has been for Andrew Peggy, but so many other like whether tears associate or guests, that’s kind of that story resonates for us, right? Like, either you’re an immigrant or not like you’ve had this challenge and you’ve overcome it. So storytelling is really ingrained in who we are as a company, and leadership talks about it. And we share about what we’re doing and how we’re kind of uplifting each other and ourselves. And so narrative change for us really is important.

Gerry Fernandez [10:30] So I’m glad you bring that up. Because I wanted to make sure I understood that because the narrative change, because we have so many stories in our, in our industry, social mobility, I come from a very low-income family, my dad died when I was 11, mom had six kids. And we’ve all been able to socially become mobile through education and working in the restaurant industry is great like that. And, and so it makes perfect sense to tie it to your storytelling, because Asian cultures got a lot of stories, and they’re really part of a lot of a lot of history. What things do you wish you considered before you’re going to these initiatives, sometimes, you know, we get into things and, and then we go, yeah, if I was doing this, again, I would do a different other things that you you’ve learned from this process that you would do differently, or that you might change.

Philline Zitin [11:22] I will just say, because the Panda CommUnity Fund team is the one that’s really doing the work on the ground, and we partner together. And so I think this, from their perspective, the system work in progress, and they’re always continuously learning, things that they mentioned that they’ve kind of rubbed up against, it’s just how do you measure impact long term? Right? You know, we’re a company, we want results, we want numbers, but I think, you know, there’s a gray area in this type of change, right? How do we quantify it? And I think they are recognizing narrative change is a long game, you know, and it’s a, it’s through these long term education initiatives. So it’s going to take patience, and leaps of faith to be involved in this type of work. And I think that’s really the takeaway that they got. And I think that’s true. I think there are parts of DEI, even in internally where we want to quantify change. But I think part of that is going to have to be, you know, some more anecdotal kinds of examples of impact. And I think that’s important for the for the work.

Gerry Fernandez [12:30] Yeah. So that’s a good point. So can you give any specific stories example of a way your culture of giving the impact to your associates, helping them bring purpose to people in any, any story come to mind.

Philline Zitin [12:44] I mean, I think for me, like when, when example that, and this is also through the kind of community fund, that’s really kind of the cycle of, of learning and growing in the DEI space is that our grantee StoryCorps, we just invited them to be part of our Black History Month, last month, and they share what they’re all about. And I got to learn what they’re all about, which is, you know, creating these oral stories that are recorded, and then put in the National Library of Congress, for people to hear and, you know, their mission is really to create uplifting stories and in the black narratives, and you know, you see the headlines, there’s a lot of negativity and sad stories, of course, and we want to, one be mindful of those, but there’s so many uplifting stories around, you know, challenge and they’re also growing and learning and maybe some more oral history of like, who the black community has become since enslavement. And so I think it’s really a was a really powerful partnership, where associates actually learned from the grantee, it wasn’t just us, impacting the community, it’s like impacting our associates. They learn and then we invited them to also be a part of that, you know, storytelling conversation with the story for so I just really appreciate that we got the opportunity. And now that’s making me more mindful that even if we’re just thinking of the community, we can actually cycle it back to our associates.

Gerry Fernandez [14:14] Well, that’s, that’s a great best practices for the listeners on the podcast, you know, to tap into something existing like StoryCorps, which is a great program from National Public Radio, NPR, And I love it. Yeah. But the creativeness to go ahead and say, let’s tell the success stories of people that we’ve granted, you know, gifts to give, you know, that’s, that’s really smart. You also partnered with some community-based organizations. Tell us about those.

Philline Zitin [14:42] So yes, and we have partnered with the MALDEF you know, the Latino legal voice for civil rights in America Equal Justice Initiative, BLM p, which is Black LGBTQ la vie, a migrant project and Asian American futures. It’s important to think about have different backgrounds. That’s what we’re working on building. And, you know, storytelling again, has been a part of, you know, it’s in our food, connecting our Chinese culture with the American experience. And the more stories tool means more representation, we take pride in being able to tell the stories of our culture and our people, as a leader in that in our community.

Gerry Fernandez [15:26] You know, for companies that are new at this, you know, what considerations could you offer? Obviously, you’ve been doing this a while, this is probably some expectation, because your, your founders are, are of Asian descent, and they’re also immigrants, that they probably have some insight around DEI as to their own life experiences. But you know, what, what advice would you offer for people that are getting started in, in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiative?

Philline Zitin [15:55] I think it’s, um, you know, and again, I say this with humility, I, we’re always learning, I don’t know if anybody ever has it quite down. And think as I get to meet other companies and representatives that work in that space, I can see ways that we can learn from them and be more strategic. But I think for us, what was authentic was really working with what our company values, if we already have a strong culture, around values about giving and respect, being proactive having growth, then how, how did we just kind of make sure to elevate, no, DEI already that’s already kind of built in into those values. You know, when we show respect, what does respect look like? It’s relevant, being inclusive, right, and showing that action, right. So I think it’s like, when you’re considering how to, quote unquote, make the big change is actually to look at what you already have, so that you’re not bolting on something that’s very new, and having to drive new action that is kind of not as foreign to people or behaviors that are completely foreign to people, it’s easier to or to use what you have. Sometimes you just need to also narrow down and be strategic, like, for example, with giving and learn along the way. So sometimes we can’t do it all we just focus on on the things that are important. And then we just are learning to also ask questions of how do we impact community is also to ask, what does the community need? So not to assume, and then learning how we can develop that, you know, it’s just a part of our culture learning. So I think that’s part of always looking back and saying, What could have we done differently? And how can we move forward and do it there?

Gerry Fernandez [17:47] So building on the question about how people get started with wood, if you decide to create a foundation, or community effort of some sort, give back? Where does it fit in the organization? Isn’t an HR is finding a way to where would it fit? And then secondly, is it necessary for them to have like a separate foundation and like a whole legal entity? What’s your view on that?

Philline Zitin [18:14] I currently at Panda DEI does not reside in HR, it’s its own separate team. So I’ll say that it just had depends on the organization and what works. You know, I think we were talking about more of an evolution of Panda and DEI strategy versus like, against changing things wholesale in the company and trying to vote on something. So terms of our giving, it was natural to create a separate foundation apart from the Panda Cares, only because, you know, it’s its own kind of thing that has been working and, you know, we’re running like a well-oiled machine, we wanted to really focus our efforts in DEI so it made sense for our company currently today to create a separate fund. But it could be different for anybody. I think it just, again, asking what do you already have as a structure, so you’re not reinventing the like, you don’t have to you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, you can use what you already have for structure.

Gerry Fernandez [19:15] But that’s good. I think that’s important that people hear that, you know, it doesn’t have to be this or that it you have flexibility in the way you can do this. So that was a great answer. You keep coming back to and you said earlier in this portion of this conversation about values, and I spoke to a CEO today, we were talking about how sometimes things go wrong. He said, Well, when you stumble, you land on your values, And I thought that was really good. That if a company of the group hasn’t decided what they’re going to stand for before the proverbial you get into the deep yogurt of things. Yeah, yeah, you’re gonna have trouble but if you have your values and you’re clear about them, they will serve you well, even when you do make mistakes. So let’s come back to narrative change. There’s a few things that I had in my notes that that that you wanted to share about the narrative change. And I thought was pretty interesting. Maybe you can take some time at this point to talk a little bit more about that.

Philline Zitin [20:13] We have it connecting to art and university programs, we’re going beyond just our monetary commitment, we’re really trying to show appreciation and inclusivity and amplifying underrepresented voices. Another place that we do some of this kind of work of growing and learning, and expanding is person learning and offering resources to really reflect around, you know, your mind, body, heart, soul, you know, I think Panda’s just really proud of trying to look at holistically a human being a person or associate, and try to not just focus on skills for professional growth, but just personal growth. And so that’s part of again, narrative changes transformation, if you will have laid out where you where you are today, and where you want to be, you know, down the road, where you see yourself.

Gerry Fernandez [21:15] MFHA, along with the National Restaurant Association, Educational Foundation, and Cornell University, we did some research last year to talk to our industry, how they felt about DEI. And what came clearly out of that is we have to embrace people’s body, mind, spirit. And I don’t, I don’t I want I want to know what you stand for. I want to work for a company that I feel good about. And I want to know that my boss, my managers, they care about me this individual, so that you are really spot on with that call out there. How is DEI considered in the giving who you decide to support? How do you how do you do that?

Philline Zitin [21:56] Um, you know, I give credit to the Panda community fund team. I think they’re being very strategic about how to support and they vet a lot of the the grantees. So they go through our process. And then then I think they just really make sure they’re we’re considering underrepresented voices to make sure we’re amplifying their stories. So I think that’s really going funneling back up into a company strategy of making sure people understand that we care, you know, you reference, you know, I want to work for a company that cares. And it was recognized by Fast Company and few magazines, 100 companies that care award and in 2022. And I think that we should wave the flag frequently about that.

Gerry Fernandez [22:37] Yeah, yeah, doesn’t always get credit for some of the things. But you know, restaurants are always supporting the local baseball teams, the Boys Girls Club are always doing fundraising. So that’s great to see that you got recognized in that way.

Philline Zitin [22:55] Yes. And so I think that’s really a powerful acknowledgement. Part of the DEI strategy of giving is to make sure like if there’s any incident, like, for example, and EG hate crime, or something like that, where we wanted to take quick action. But that’s not the only thing. I think that’s just part of it, I think we still want to do more long-term shifts in representation in narratives. So I think that’s something that we are proud of, but it’s also something we’re mindful of that we are wanting to also take more long term approach in terms of supporting a community as well.

Gerry Fernandez [23:32] Yeah, that I mean, I mean, it’s great. I think we need to showcase more of our companies that are immigrant driven. Panda is a tremendous success story. You know, our time is almost up here. Do you have anything? What do you want to what do you want to leave the audience with in terms of words of wisdom, things that you learned or things that you think are most important for them to take away from today’s conversation?

Philline Zitin [23:59] I think that you know, what you want to consider it could be overwhelming at times to take on, quote, unquote, change, and how do you make an impact about diversity and inclusion in your company? I’m one person or we’re just a team. And I think it’s really to start having conversations and having a what we call at Panda Crucial Conversations are hard conversations about an uncomfortable conversations about what is, yeah, how do we want to how do we want to shift and just taking that step of grappling with the issue can lead on the other side to some kind of action? I know that it’s uncomfortable at times, and it’s a sensitive topic, it could be heated. But I think in those moments, it’s just showing your humanity right, that this is something that matters to us all, and then how we go about it. I think that’s been my journey is really learning how to work through those conversations and it’s a process but behind you It will be a great alignment to take action once you have the buy in. And it just turns into something really beautiful like this panic Community Fund. Right. So I just think that’s really what is the learning for me.

Gerry Fernandez [25:15] That was great your takeaways is, you know, it can feel overwhelming. Don’t let that intimidate you start having those hard conversations. They are difficult conversations. We call them straight talk conversations. We’ve seen the book Crucial Conversations. They’re not easy and it’s messy. You know, if you got to get into the mud, and then you really wrestled with the issue was not the answer wasn’t going to come right away. I really liked that the wrestled the issue to get to the action. Show your humanity. That is what I think our industry leadership has to show that we don’t just have employees, we have human beings that are helping us to serve fellow human beings. And the last thing that you said like the payoff is worth it. Yeah. So Philline let me say this. This has been fun, exciting, educational dispense of time with you. I just want to come to the to the Panda golf tournament next year.

Philline Zitin [26:11] Well, my people will talk to your people.

Gerry Fernandez [26:16] Well, that wraps up things for today. You know, I really thank you and your whole team for your involvement. And we look forward to running the podcast and doing something with you again. So thanks.

Philline Zitin [26:29] Thank you for the invitation.

Gerry Fernandez [26:36] That’s our show for today. And to all of our listeners, thank you for taking a seat at the table with us today. If you have found our show to be valuable, please share it with your network. Leave us a five-star review on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcast is that helps more people to find the show. You can also subscribe for free so that you never miss an episode. A Seat at the Table is brought to you by MFHA the Multicultural Foodservice and Hospitality Alliance. We’ll see you next time.