Fast food might not be the first industry to come to mind for being on the front lines of gender equality, but Michaela Mendelsohn wants to change all of that. She's a transgender activist and the CEO of Pollo West Corp., the largest El Pollo Loco franchise in Southern California. At her six El Pollo Loco locations in the Los Angeles area, 40 of her employees identify as transgender, and 25 percent of them have grown into management positions.
"I spent 50 years being the overachieving macho male business person," says Mendelsohn. "I had done such a good job at putting that veneer on that it took me a few years to come to understand who this new person was. Suppressing it wasn't a choice anymore." Her transition wasn't easy, but once she and her family came to terms with her new identity, she realised she could use her position in the fast food industry to help others.
Since then, she's done a ton of work to create opportunities for people in the trans community: She started a non-profit organisation called Trans Can Work that has helped over 50 trans people get jobs; she's also active with the California Restaurant Association, working there to help bring other companies and restaurants on board with gender inclusivity. She's also working on getting a new bill passed in the California state legislature that would make inclusivity training mandatory at all businesses.
"Working here, I feel human," Jessie says. She's a manager at the El Pollo Loco Restaurant in the Harvard Heights neighbourhood of Los Angeles. "I have been working here for a year and two months, and I feel free." In previous jobs, she faced hardships like mental and physical abuse because of her gender identity. Once, she was even stabbed at work. Although she's had a tough time, she hasn't let it set her back. "It's important to let the community know that transgender people can work in a regular place and will work hard, as long as we are taught what to do."
Angela is a more recent hire to the El Pollo Loco team and has a unique history. "I lived in Oaxaca, Mexico until I was 12. It is one of the few places in Mexico where there are truly three genders. It's regular for us." She had a difficult time coming to the US, but doesn't like to dwell on it too much. " I love working here! I have a lot of regular customers because I am so nice to everyone. We have a great community here and our customers can feel that."
With all the success that Mendelsohn's franchise is having, she realises that there's much more work to do in making the fast food industry more equitable. "The large companies are starting to train properly, but just a small portion of their stores are company-owned." she says. "They need people like us to go in and work with their franchise groups to get everyone on board. We're hoping to make this a national movement. We'd welcome any chain to be a part of it."