Erika Wilkins, Food Service Director in our Higher Education line of business, has a habit of rising in the ranks throughout her career – and lifting up others in the process.
Having worked at Aramark since before she graduated college, Erika was enrolled in our Student Management Program, learning how to lead while earning her stripes in the campus kitchen. It was there that she began her path to success, and where she started to learn the value of a mentor that cares.
“When I first got into the student manager program, I was actually asked to do so by my then manager. And through her, I met the lady who I consider to be my mentor, a Resident District Manager at another Aramark account. I got to meet and grow along with someone who was following the same career progression that I wanted to follow. I was surrounded by people who were constantly encouraging me to do more, to grow, and instilling confidence in me that I may not have had in myself. It’s a great feeling.”
When asked about how her relationship with her managers and mentors early in her career has impacted her leadership style, Erika spoke of a personal leadership approach based on empathy, encouragement, and just a touch of toughness.
“I try to do the same thing for the other people that I work with. I have a kind of ‘lift as you climb’ mantra that I follow. Anytime I go up, I am also trying to either bring someone up along with me or leave someone behind me in a better place than they were when I met them. For example, when leaving a previous role, there was a woman who’d been a supervisor for about eight or nine years at that point, and I knew my job was going to become available. So I went to her and said ‘you gotta go for it.’ She replied something like ‘I don’t know if I can..’ No. You go for it, you’re already doing it. Go for it. The worst they can do is say no – but they’re not gonna say no. So you go for it. And she actually ended up getting that position.”
While new opportunities have kept her busy, Erika has never lost touch of how important it is to inspire and encourage others. According to Erika, sometimes, in order to help someone achieve their goals, they just need a little push.
“The fear of rejection is real. I know it. I live it. But you’ve got to take that step, or you’ll stay where you’ve always been. Sometimes, you just need a push from someone else to to give you the confidence you need to overcome that fear.”
To hear more about Erika’s responsibilities as Food Service Director, working at a University, or Aramark’s commitment to diversity & inclusion, check out the Q&A!
— Erika Wilkins, Food Service Director
Hear more from our conversation with Erika in the Q&A section below.
How did you discover Aramark?
I was a junior in college, and I just moved off campus for the first time so I was looking for just a job to cover my bills. I knew that the dining on campus was always hiring so I just went into the Human Resources office at the dining center there. I filled out my application, I interviewed that day, and they hired me on the spot. I actually started about a week later as a general utility worker in the dish room in one of the residential halls.
How have you gotten involved in the Aramark community?
One of the first Employee Resource Groups (ERG) I joined was LEAD, that's the Leaders and Employees of African Descent. The first time I went on one of their calls, I got to see the faces of everybody that was at the meeting and I was like, wow, there's so many people who look like me and who sound like me. That's what made me join the other two. I realized I can have a connection with other people around the company that have similar or the same experiences that I have had in my life. The next one I joined was Aramark Pride, I got to see the Pride magazine that they put out and to read people's coming out stories. I was kind of teary eyed going through it because I'm like, Oh my god, this is me in a book. Then I joined Empower, the women's resource group. It's great to know that Aramark has made all of these communities, it gives you resources, both corporate resources and local resource groups that you can get involved in. I've really enjoyed them.
What is it like working in the university environment?
Honestly, one of the little things is the schedule, you kind of never really graduate from college when you work on a university campus, as your schedule follows the students schedule. Another thing is the excitement - especially towards the very beginning of every semester. You do have the students who are sad, who are nervous, but you also have the grand majority of the students who are just so excited to be away from home and to be on their own, and they're learning how to eat responsibly, they're learning how to handle money for the first time. So there's always a lot of people around you just learning their environment. So that's very connected. You can feel it, it's like pulsing. Then you get to mid-terms, and there's a little bit of a dip, because you can feel it, they're over it now. And they're like, oh, just let this be over. And then the excitement happens again at the end of the semester. So we get that surge, you know, two times, four times every school year, with the beginning of the semester and the end of the semester, a lot of joy and excitement around what's going on.
Do you feel you have a real impacts on students?
Yes. Absolutely. I remember this one time, I was just out doing table touches around talking to the guests. "Hi, how are you? How is your meal? Is there anything that you need that I can get for you?" Then I came across this young lady, she looked like she was just defeated at that point, like she's just having a terrible day. I just walked up like "Hi, how are you? Is there anything I can get for you?" And she was like, "No, thank you. I'm fine." I was going to walk away but I kind of stopped and hesitated a little bit and I was like, are you okay? She looked at me and her eyes are red and she's starting to tear up and then she just started to cry. I was like, well, looks like I'm sitting here and we are having lunch. She was a freshman and she was just explaining to me how hard it had been for her being so far away from home so I just sat with her to try and make her feel better make her day a little bit better. I realized I kind of had the opportunity to impact students. I wasn't too far removed from being in the situation that she was in, I was about seven hours from home, so I know what she's feeling, I know what she's going through. Maybe I can help ease the strain for her just a little bit. It's just a good feeling to know that you can help make a lot of people's lives and a lot of people's days just that much better.
How have you made Aramark a better place to work as a Safety Champion?
So the Safety Champion is the person who champions safety across their district. I investigate every incident that happens when someone gets hurt or injured across campus, I get the call. I make sure that I go over, I talk to the employee that it happened to and I talk to their manager and we try to figure out as a unit, how we can make sure that this kind of thing doesn't happen to anyone ever again, or just kind of mitigate the risk a little bit. While doing it over the past three years that I've been the Safety Champion on this campus, we have been able to decrease Incidents and accidents by about 60%. I was also safety champion at my last campus and it was a smaller campus, so it was a little bit easier to attain, but we were able to have zero accidents and zero incidences for about a year and a half. No one got hurt at all.
Why food service?
Because food impacts everyone, every day. I'm in a position now where I am impacting food for 1000s of people on a daily basis. At the dining hall here in my building, we're feeding about 4500 people every day, seven days a week, so that's a lot of people to impact with what you do. There's also retail in the building, about $7 million worth of retail business. So it's just impactful all the way around. It's how people survive, you need food to live. We were having an issue with food insecurity over the past few years. As a company here on campus, we were able to open this place called one cafe, where if you just have $1, you can come in and you can get a balanced meal any day, no questions asked. You bring $1 and then you can eat you can dine with us here at this cafeteria. It's not just college, providing them not only dealing with food, but we're providing jobs to people in the community. Growing the community around us was a great thing that we were able to do.