“Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.” – Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Recently, we sat down with the women leading Pizza Hut’s Legal team – Chief Legal Officer, Lauren Leahy, Director, Chantel Cheatham, Director, Jasmine Tobias and Senior Director, Savannah Franklin – to find out more about why they chose law, how they overcome challenges, who inspires them and what advice they’d give someone wanting to become a leader.
At the start of your career, what made you choose law?
L. Leahy: I was one of those odd kids who knew what I wanted to do as soon as I could find the words for it. When I was little, I remember folks joking, “You do love to negotiate, you’d be a great lawyer!” I think I just took them way too seriously. I didn’t know a real-life lawyer as a kid, so I imagined the job as something straight out of a Perry Mason or Law & Order script. I wanted to stand in the courtroom and say things like, “You can’t handle the truth!” Over time, I realized that lawyering had so many complex challenges and facets beyond the typical depiction, and I found myself even more committed to the gig.
C. Cheatham: Honestly – Matlock. I grew up watching it with my grandparents and I was fascinated by it at an early age, even if I didn’t yet understand the difference between criminal defense and civil practice. My family would also tell you that, as the first-born of four, I was a natural advocate. No one in my life was surprised when I decided to go to law school.
J. Tobias: Actually, being a lawyer is my second career – I was previously in human resources. I chose law after working closely with an employment lawyer during an internal investigation. It was part hubris, but I felt like I could do what our attorney was doing. I didn’t realize that I was only privy to a small percentage of what our attorney was helping us out with, but I’m really glad I made the leap.
S. Franklin: I had a fantastic AP government teacher my senior year in high school who had us read landmark Supreme Court cases and spend hours discussing how we would have argued or decided on those cases – it was all up to us. I loved it and decided then that I was going to law school. I’d be lying by omission, however, if I didn’t also mention that I was completely obsessed with Legally Blonde around the same time.
What do you enjoy most about your role and working here at Yum! Brands?
L. Leahy: Hands down – the people. I’m blessed beyond compare to work with brilliant, strategic and, most importantly, kind business leaders who make me better every day. On the substantive side, I love to sit in the trenches with our teams as we untangle complex problems and – hopefully – find simple, lasting solutions. This is a total dream job!
C. Cheatham: I love that I get to work with so many amazing people within our legal team, throughout Pizza Hut, and with our sister brands. As far as the role itself, I love that I still get to work on challenging litigation matters, albeit from a different perspective. I truly enjoy protecting Pizza Hut’s interests and working with our law firm partners and internal clients to make that happen.
It’s not every day that you see an all-female leading cast. What’s your favorite part about working with this leadership team?
J. Tobias: Not only are we an all-woman team, but we’re also an all-mom team which is different for me. It has been great to work with people that understand that I am no less dedicated to my job just because I have young kids. I love that I can ask questions about a deal we’re working on, and then pivot to potty-training tips or bed-time hacks, and still be valued as an attorney.
S. Franklin: The honesty and support we give each other. We say what we mean, and we mean what we say. We don’t shy away from tough conversations (with each other, the broader business, or with outsiders) when they need to be had but, at the same time, we have each other’s backs. No one comes at any of us without getting to deal with all of us. That sounds aggressive, but it is beautiful and empowering to be part of a squad like that.
How do you balance work and life responsibilities?
L. Leahy: The best advice I got on this front came from Cathy Tang, an incredible mentor and sponsor throughout my career. She said, “You’re going to have a lot of balls in the air at any given time and it’s inevitable that you’ll drop a good many along the way. The trick is to figure out which ones are glass and which ones are rubber.” That’s been the question I’ve asked myself in so many scenarios: is this something recoverable? Or is it precious, un-droppable? Ultimately, I’m often failing a little bit as a mom and as an employee (or at least that’s how I feel), but I’ve gotten better at distinguishing which balls are which over time.
S. Franklin: Most days, not very well to be perfectly honest. A brilliant friend once told me that I would have to get comfortable with at least one person being frustrated with me at some point almost every day because I hadn’t gotten to their specific thing. Any given day, sadly, it’s about prioritizing who that person is going to be. Sometimes, it’s one of my clients or my coach. Sometimes it’s my husband or my son. Oftentimes, its myself when I skip the gym … again. I do try to at least start the week with a clear idea of “must-do” priorities and then I just start shifting those as new inputs flow in and new information comes to light.
There’s no doubt that sacrifices are often made at various stages in our careers. What were some notable sacrifices you powered through or still work to manage?
C. Cheatham: When I first started, I was in biglaw in D.C. My family moved to Texas and I had zero time for a personal life, but that’s what was expected as a young associate. When that firm dissolved, I moved to Texas and essentially had to start over. I had to take the Texas bar exam and find a way to break into the Texas legal market. I even went back to school to get an LL.M. (Master of Laws) at the University of Texas in Latin American and International Law. All of those choices eventually got me to Pizza Hut and I’m grateful, but it wasn’t easy at the time.
J. Tobias: Sleep! In all candor, I did not like or need much sleep before my twins were born, but through law school and my time as a BigLaw associate, I quite often pulled all-nighters to get everything done. Now, trying to balance work and two-year-old twins, I still stay up too late to catch up on work, do a load of laundry, or even clean the kitchen. I do hope that my all-nighters are a thing of the past.
As a female leader, what has been the most significant barrier in your career? Most significant win?
C. Cheatham: Being undervalued and/or underestimated has been tough at times. Fortunately, I have been able to work with great teams who created space for me to have a voice. Of course, that didn’t stop a judge from calling me “little lady” once. As for my most significant win, I hope I haven’t had my significant win yet. I will say that joining the Pizza Hut legal team is on the list.
J. Tobias: As a Black woman, my most significant barrier is discrimination. In the past, I’ve had to work with and for people who demeaned me as well as treated me as though I was not a smart or competent lawyer. My most significant win, so far, was just graduating from law school in the first place. My childhood best friend passed away from breast cancer my second year, my aunt’s cancer came out of remission my third year, and my great-grandmother passed away my third year. There was so much grief that I had to work through – but I was able to persevere, and graduate only a minimal impact on my grades.
Who is a woman that inspires you?
L. Leahy: Hands down, my mom. She is truly superwoman. She was a single mother, and one of very few women in the manufacturing and import/export industry at the time, who made endless sacrifices and experienced all kinds of career ups and downs to make sure that my brother and I had what we needed both materially and emotionally. She is gritty, funny and smart – and blissfully crass. By now, she’s traveled to virtually every corner of the planet (largely to find unique products and partner with new factories) and embraced so many cultures, foods and beautiful friendships along the way; her travel has exposed me to so many magical insights over the years. She cares deeply about people and has spent much of her life investing in the underdog. She still works crazy hours and finds time to put cooked meals in my fridge and take my kids to the park. If I could be half of what she is, I’ll be proud of myself.
C. Cheatham: My grandmother. She went to college and studied to become a physical therapist when a lot of women were not working outside of their homes. She also started a physical therapy practice and raised five kids. She’s an absolute rock star to me!
Just for fun, where would we find you at 10 a.m. on a Saturday?
L. Leahy: Chasing my kids.
J. Tobias: Before COVID – you’d likely find me at a hot yoga class or a community service project with one of the civic organizations I’m a member of. Now, you’d probably find me playing with my twins in their playroom!
What piece of advice would you give someone (especially a woman) who is wanting to become a leader?
L. Leahy: Get out of your comfort zone. Take on a project outside of your substantive or functional expertise, even if it’s not the “sexy” work, and play the long game. I’ve learned to trust Yum! and its leaders over time and so – while self-advocacy is critical – I truly believe that if you stay focused on growth opportunities rather than titles and promotions (per se), you will land in the right place in the end.
C. Cheatham: First, be a servant. Then, love what you do and do it well.
J. Tobias: Cultivate a trusted inner circle. You need people that you can talk to and lean on when things get tough. I have a core group of women that I can call when I have questions, am stressed out, need to vent, or want to celebrate a win.
S. Franklin: It’s a constant balance of hard-fought confidence and continued self-awareness. Surrounding yourself with truth-tellers is incredibly helpful to assist in striking the right balance between the two. I also think it’s important to remember that the projects that pave the way to becoming a leader are oftentimes not the most glamorous. Sometimes you’ve got to step up to take on a project that no one else wants to do because maybe it requires a lot of grunt work, presents some risk, and/or is generally just a little bit scary. Less people are gunning for those projects but if you can roll up your sleeves and drive towards the right business result in those types of projects, you are able to display your leadership skills in a tough context and set yourself up to advocate more for the next glamorous project that comes along.