Shannon Solomon refers often to a quote by poet and civil rights advocate Maya Angelou in describing her approach to leadership and to creating a culture that embraces diversity, equity, and inclusion: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” For Solomon, four key words — know better, do better — simply and powerfully lay out what leaders must challenge themselves with every day. Namely, continuing to learn, listen, grow, and act with intention to create positive change.
A 36-year veteran of the industry, Solomon spent the first half of her career with Yum! Brands, starting as a line employee and advancing right out of high school to unit management. For the past 16 years, she has been with Aurora Public Schools in Colorado where today she manages a staff of 300. The mid-career shift to K-12 foodservice was part of her personal quest to know better, do better. At age 35, working a high school kitchen manager’s schedule, she went to college. Hoping to set an example for her five kids, she earned undergraduate and masters degrees in business administration.
On DEI leadership, Solomon says targeting diversity and equity is relatively easy — they’re quantifiable. The harder work is creating an inclusive culture. “That isn’t something you can conduct training on, check a box, and think you’re done. It is a continuous process,” she says. “It starts with challenging yourself to see the beauty of the differences in others, but then going further to build relationships and celebrate individuals. We subscribe to the Platinum Rule, which is about treating people how they want to be treated. Reaching that level of inclusivity requires engaged listening, genuine caring, and making sure employees feel safe speaking up, advocating for themselves and being who they are.”
Showing her own true self, thereby giving permission for others to do the same, is among the strategies Solomon embraces to help nurture an inclusive environment. She also disciplines herself to listen and support without claiming to understand someone else’s life experiences. “That’s a leadership lesson my 16-year-old daughter, who is part Black and Hispanic, taught me,” Solomon says. “I can love and support her, but can’t pretend to know what it’s like to walk in her shoes.”
With her team, Solomon regularly reads and discusses books such as “The Power of a Positive Team” and “The Power of Positive Leadership,” encouraging the sharing of opinions and diverse interpretations. And she likes to note that it took 400,000 people doing individual jobs to put one person on the moon, emphasizing the value of every team member.
Based on her own journey, she believes the industry has strong and often untapped opportunities to develop talent from within. “Our industry is a diversity leader. Food is a universal language that brings people together,” Solomon says. “But we often overlook the diverse source of talent in our own front lines. We need to adopt grow-your-own strategies that meet people where they are. Tuition reimbursement may be great for some, but is it realistic for those working crazy schedules just to pay rent and childcare? It goes back again to know better, do better.”
Director, Nutrition Services