This story was created in partnership with McDonald’s.
Meet three female entrepreneurs following in the family business and making it their own–while still saving space at the table for the next generations to come.
Right now, 20% of Greater Indiana McDonald’s restaurants are owned by women entrepreneurs, and across Indiana, female franchisees are leading some of the most successful McDonald’s restaurants in the state. As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we shared time with three women inspired by the history of their families in the franchise: Mya Smith, Nicole DiMichele, and Stephanie Awad. These leading ladies shared how they were encouraged and inspired to be the leaders they are today, while also sharing insight as to how they’re already impacting and inspiring the generations to come.
Business in the Front, Playpen in the Back
Nicole DiMichele was quite literally born into the business. Her earlier memories often included the Golden Arches in the foreground, watching her parents, and tagging along to the restaurants, “My parents bought their first McDonald’s restaurant in St. Louis the year I was born. My parents would set up the pack-n-play in the back of the restaurant while they worked. I grew up working in the restaurants, even learning how to count change by working the cash window of the drive-through. Working in the restaurants instilled a hard work ethic at an early age.” Nicole’s excitement about becoming an owner-operator through elementary, middle, and high school didn’t waver. From an early age, she was able to see the way McDonald’s empowered her parents to become business owners, and she “fell in love with every aspect of McDonald’s. I knew becoming a McDonald’s owner/operator was the only thing I wanted to do.”
The path to owner-operator isn’t always a first play, and Stephanie Awad witnessed her parents grow into the role. “They are both immigrants and did not start out with much coming to the U.S. as college students. My dad worked as a crew member himself in a McDonald’s in LA, worked his way up to become a GM, won the Ray Crock award, and then was hired by the company to work for them for twenty-seven years, later ‘retiring’ to become an owner-operator. It was his dream to become an owner for so long, and he spoke about it for so long that when he got there, I had never seen anyone so happy to get to work every day.”
While Stephanie pursued a career in tech first, she worked as a crew member in her local McDonald’s during the summers while in high school. After moving home in 2020, she started to really reflect on what she wanted for her future and career. Though 2020 brought on its own struggles and hardships for business owners, she got to see her parents in a new light, “Seeing them work together as a team, have each other’s backs, make decisions, and support one another made me realize that this was my destiny and something I would be lucky to be a part of. After a year and a half, I worked up the courage to leave Microsoft and start from the bottom again with McDonald’s.”
McDonald’s continues to empower their employees as both Stephanie and her father continued to rise in their roles with the company. Excelling as an owner-operator is often supported by a degree from Hamburger University. “A lot fewer people get into Hamburger University than Harvard. That’s a fact,” Nicole says. Hamburger University only opens its doors to high-potential restaurant managers, mid-managers, and owner/operators specifically in restaurant management, and the intense training program is incredibly difficult to get accepted into.
LEADING BY EMPOWERING
In a similar way, the leaders in this company are often centered on serving and uplifting. Mya Smith, whose father became an owner-operator when she was 13 years old, shares how she “works to coach and help team members develop skills, so they can accomplish goals they never thought they could achieve.” Mya observed the mannerisms of those with confidence that were achieving and found her own rhythm. Now, she focuses on how she can influence her team so that they feel supported enough to feel confident in all they do. “My goal is that they feel so loved, celebrated, and valued that it overflows; and they share that spirit with other employees, their families, and our customers.” She reflected on a journey of growth with a shift manager, “I had one employee who started as a shy shift manager, was afraid to really talk, and didn’t think she could run a restaurant. She’s now a restaurant manager and has won Outstanding Manager awards multiple times for her leadership.”
Not only do these women focus on lifting up their teams, but they find their success in the growth of what they are able to accomplish together. Stephanie says, “I’m most proud of the progress we have made as an organization and at the individual level. Seeing our managers and crew constantly learning, growing, and evolving with us makes me the proudest. Most of them work so hard and I feel proud that they’ve decided to put their time and trust in our organization to help them achieve their dreams and goals.”
Leaning on other leaders, Nicole shares the strength in “building each other up with a strong support system. This support system within McDonald’s is the Women’s Operator Network (W.O.N.) for which I am the Greater Indiana Coop Lead. Women supporting other women is an impenetrable force.”
CARE AT THE COUNTER & IN THE COMMUNITY
Under the Golden Arches and in the communities they are built, McDonald’s is caring for team members and its community members. Stephanie tells more about how, “a lot of work outside of the restaurants and in our communities. We support our local schools, elderly communities, and special needs community members, and give back through the Ronald McDonald House Charities.” Not only that, but Mya goes further to share, “At McDonald’s, we give people a second, third & fourth chance in life. The past doesn’t have to determine the future, and I want to bring hope to our employees and customers.”
Mya’s family takes it an intentional step further: “My family and I have our family foundation, ‘The Smith Foundation’, providing $4,000 in scholarships per student for underserved & underprivileged students, donating school supplies, hosting toy drives, and feeding the homeless and seniors.” In the last four years, The Smith Foundation has awarded over $300,000 in scholarships.
Looking ahead for business and its community impact, Stephanie dreams of ways to bring both development and opportunity together for team and community members: “I’d like to continue to influence our communities in different ways, whether that’s through holding leadership positions on different boards or other organizations that make an impact.”
CALLING AND ENCOURAGING ENTREPRENEURS
Not only do these women work for their community, but they encourage more women to join in the opportunities offered as an owner-operator. Nicole inspires entrepreneurs to “believe anything is possible, work hard, and never give up when chasing your dreams. Learn something from everyone you meet.” As you grow, she also cautions that “tearing people down will not make you stand taller, but only make you look small to others.”
Even when you follow in the steps of a family business, there’s always a way to create space for you and your ideas. How? Stephanie encourages, “Create your own path, even though you’re following in your family’s footsteps, you can create your own journey and still be your own person through it all. You have to bring your own unique perspective and opinions to the table. The next generation is as valuable as the new ideas and strategies we bring to the table. We should respect the work our family put in so we could have the opportunity to prosper. However, we have to also contribute and elevate our business even further.”
The entrepreneurial journey is not always linear, and Mya tells all, “How you wait, determines how long you wait. Wait in excellence. Even during delays, I kept a positive attitude while waiting. Everything I learned while I waited, helped me become who I am today. In the process, I made history, and I became the first and only African American next-generation McDonald’s owner-operator in Indiana.” And as a second-generation business owner, she encourages the mission to live on, even as the business innovates: “Always remember why your family member started the business. Know their goal and mission, and be creative in keeping that alive.”
During the day, Ariana Cruz can be found creating community connections and dreaming up marketing strategies with Long-Sharp Gallery. She moonlights as a magazine founder and the owner of MORE Magazine, Making Opportunities Reachable for Everyone. Chat intentionally with her by connecting on LinkedIn.
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