When Michaela Mendelsohn began her gender transition in 2006, she had advantages most trans people don’t. As CEO of Los Angeles-based Pollo West Corp., one of the largest franchisees of El Pollo Loco, a chicken brand based in Southern California and the Southwest, she was able to disappear for a year. She worked from home with a small group of close colleagues while she underwent hormone therapy and surgeries. When she finally told her story at a Christmas party for her 600 employees and family, a female manager stood up and yelled, “You go, girl!” Afterward, Mendelsohn spent hours receiving hugs from friends.
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But it took six years for her to truly appreciate how fortunate she’d been to transition as the boss. In 2012, one of her managers hired a trans employee named Kristy Ramirez. At her prior fast-food job, Ramirez had been forced to use the men’s room, where a customer molested her. When she was eventually allowed to use the women’s room, a customer walked in on her and complained. Ramirez was fired. Inspired, Mendelsohn began hiring more trans workers, and she created a program called TransCanWork.org to educate businesses in California on employment law and inclusivity and connect them with transgender job seekers.
How did an activist like you get involved in the chicken business?
My dad had a pizza place, so I grew up in the restaurant industry. I had a startup that rented arcade games for a while, but home video games took the edge off that. I was eating a lot at El Pollo Loco and decided to check it out. In 1988 I opened my first location. At one point I owned 18 units, along with some other brands, but now I only have six, since I’m focusing on these other projects.
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Why didn’t you hire trans employees right after your transition?
Actually, the thought of hiring trans people never came up. Early in my transition I was struggling with my own place in the world, and we didn’t really have trans people applying, unfortunately. After I met Kristy, I knew these women needed help, and we started hiring more trans employees. But I was concerned. I wondered how this was going to affect business, what my other employees were going to say, how the customers would respond. I need to make smart choices. But I decided I needed to go forth and do the right thing. For us it’s been a recipe for success.
We’ve hired 40 trans people so far, and we’re stepping that up. For most of them, this is the first time they are working under their true gender identity. When they come to work, they get affirmed six to eight hours a day. Customers can see how happy they are and feel a connection with them. They are working and beginning to think about getting married and having children and going to school rather than sitting home depressed. Nearly 25 to 30 percent of the trans people we’ve hired have made it into management, which is a huge number.
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Any advice for employers beginning to consider trans workers?
The latest data I’ve seen from UCLA shows there are 1.4 million adults in this country who identify as trans. They’ve found 4.5 percent of kids coming up identify as gender nonconforming. This is a huge employment pool we’re looking at. Employers have already had to shift and figure out how to handle millennials differently. This is a similar pool of somewhat untapped people that they need to seriously look at getting into the workforce.