Taco Bell President Liz Williams on College Life, Diversity, and Mentorship

Liz Williams is the President of Taco Bell International; prior to this role, she was the Chief Financial Officer. In February, following the departure of CEO Brian Niccol for Chipotle, Williams assumed leadership of Taco Bell along with Taco Bell North America President Julie Masino. Before she joined Taco Bell, Williams worked at The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) for six years as Principal in the Consumer and Retail Practices in U.S. and Asian markets. She also spent seven years at Dell Computer in various finance, brand marketing and corporate sales positions. BT spoke to Williams about her career, advice to undergraduates, and everyday life at Taco Bell.

Business Today: “You worked at Dell and BCG before Taco Bell. Could you talk more about your education and career progression, and if you ever saw the direction your career would take?”

Williams: “I started at Dell in a very generalist-type role, doing sales, marketing, finance, wearing a lot of different hats. I’ve always loved business. As a little kid I was fascinated by it, whether it was a paper route or making and selling bracelets. I was always a business-minded person. I loved Dell, great company, liked the high tech world, I just wanted a bit of a change, so I decided I wanted to go back and get my MBA. So I did that at Kellogg [at Northwestern]. Coming out of Kellogg, I was aware of more industries, so I became aware of the consulting field and had an opportunity to work for Boston Consulting Group. I jumped at the chance of all the things you get to see and do as a consultant, I thought it would be a really good opportunity. At BCG, I was there a little over six years and did various roles, mainly focused on consumer products. Loved the BCG world, got to work with some fantastic clients in a lot of industries, I developed that strategic thinking and approach. The one thing with consulting is that you don’t get to do much in terms of executing the strategy and rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty. So I reached a point where I wanted to be able to see the strategies come to fruition. Great timing, I got a call from someone at Yum!, and they had an opportunity doing corporate strategy at Yum! with the opportunity to essentially transition into one of the business units. I got really lucky in that I transitioned into Taco Bell, and moved from Dallas to sunny Southern California. So that was my journey to Taco Bell, and within Taco Bell I started on the finance team, and took a series of roles on the finance team. When Melissa Lora moved into the international president role, I took over as CFO. As Melissa is retiring from running our international division, I had the opportunity to move into international.”

BT: “You went to University of Texas. Did you study general business? Our target audience skews toward undergraduates – do you think you had any experiences in your undergraduate experience that were really formative?

Williams: “I definitely was a broad business major. Looking back on my undergrad, I really valued all of the extracurricular activities you could do. I probably over-committed myself. I ran for student government and served on that, I was Panhellenic president, the governing group of the sororities. I was in Alpha Epsilon Phi. That was an awesome opportunity. I don’t know how I got my schoolwork done. I look so fondly upon college. Take the time to learn and explore, and get involved, it’s the best time in your life to get involved. Pick something in your life that you’re passionate about and get involved.”

BT: “You’ve talked a lot about how Taco Bell actually has a really female-driven environment, with Melissa Lora and others. What do you think of the importance of mentors, especially for women? What have been your experiences as someone being mentored or maybe as a mentor now?”

Williams: “I’m probably more on the informal mentoring side of the world, in terms of informally helping people and working with people. I of course formally mentor people too, where it is very deliberate. Helping others succeed, whether they’re men or women, is one of the things I’ve always loved in my career. The reason I love Taco Bell is that we really believe in people development, and I personally subscribe to that. I think some of the best mentors in my life, formally and informally, have been men as well as women. I think there’s a lot you can learn from people who have come before you, if you’re open to it. Also, at Taco Bell, we’re big on what we call reverse mentoring. I learn just as much from some of the newer, younger team members who know how to use technology better than I do. A great example is that I’ve been trying to use Slack more. I grew up with Outlook, I’m a very linear thinker. For me to use Slack is not native. I think you can learn from mentors all around you.”

BT: “You touched on some general advice for college students. Would you say anything more specific to college students who are seeking corporate careers? How can college students best prepare themselves for careers in business?”

Williams: “Take advantage of internships. They don’t have to be long internships. Be open – maybe you don’t even get paid. Take every opportunity where you get to put yourself in a situation where you can go into the real world and see what happens inside of business.”

BT: “I know Taco Bell has 50% female executives, but the fast food industry definitely still seems very male, in terms of customers and maybe also leadership. What has been your experience? Does the industry feel very gendered?”

Williams: “I don’t see it as much, possibly because when you look at the Taco Bell consumer, we split pretty much down the middle in terms of men and women who love our brand and enjoy eating in our restaurants. I think it’s just as important to have both views at the table – men and women- and all other diverse views and culture. I was just in a culinary session today, and it’s really fun when you get to try things from different countries and they’re inspired by people who have traveled to different countries, or who are from different countries. I think diversity is great all-around. I think the restaurant industry is a pretty diverse industry. Maybe historically it was more male-dominated, but I think that’s changing.”

BT: “Where do you think Taco Bell, as well as the fast food industry as a whole, will be in 20 years?”

Williams: “I’d like to think we’ll be a very global company. Today we’re heavily skewed toward the US in terms of our restaurant count. In 20 years, I’d like to think that our international business will be as big, if not bigger, than our US business.”

BT: “Taco Bell has been acclaimed for its healthy options among fast food restaurants. Has this been a very purposeful strategic decision from Taco Bell’s end, and is this something you feel particularly committed to?”

Williams: “It’s been a natural evolution for us. We’re always trying to be a modern brand that is relevant with all consumers, and we’re also a brand that values innovation and value. Being able to have new products that are affordable and craveable so that everyone can enjoy them [is important]. We’re always on a food-for-all journey, where we want to have options available for everyone who comes into the restaurant. We never want someone in a group to say ‘I don’t want to go there, because they don’t have something on there for me.’ We truly want something for everyone, and every lifestyle. The thing about our menu that people don’t realize until they get to notice and that we’ve gotten a lot of recognition for in the past year has been that we have a really diverse menu. With our products and options, you can make just about anything on our menu vegetarian. So we have one of the largest vegetarian menus, which is a little secret. You can take any product, and if you want to make it a little healthier, you don’t add cheese, or you take off the sour cream, or you add more tomatoes. There’s a lot of different ways you can vary our products so you can make it work for whatever you’re after that day. It’s something we strive for. We’ve also had very thoughtful efforts to lower sodium on our menu, to make it such that there’s more options so there’s something for everyone.”

BT: “What’s your favorite item on the Taco Bell menu?”

Williams: “I’m a Crunchwrap girl. It’s easy, it’s portable, it’s delicious. It has every bit of Taco Bell all wrapped up, good to go.”

BT: “How do you stay connected to the daily operations of Taco Bell and the consumer experience?”

Williams: “I get out there a lot. During the week, we have a culture of getting into the restaurants. There’s no excuse for not being in a restaurant. The best part of trying to test something new is that you don’t have to do it theoretically. You put it in a restaurant, and you can go experience it for yourself. So I make it a point to get out a lot. I go and visit a lot of restaurants in our industry. In the weekends, my kids probably go through more drive-thrus than most. Back to reverse mentoring, I spend a lot of time within our support center getting to know the different teams and learning about what everyone’s working on, because within a big organization you can have a lot of initiatives underway. It’s important to stay connected.”

BT: “What do you think the biggest challenge facing Taco Bell in the future will be, as it tries to continue to expand?”

Williams: “That’s a good question. Internationally, it’s prioritization. There’s so many markets and opportunities out there – so it’s just figuring out the pacing and sequencing to tackle the world. In the U.S., I think we’re seeing a real transformative time period where technology is just so integral to all of our lives. So it’s about figuring out how we keep our restaurants relevant, current, and easy-to-access. Using technology so we truly have an all-access approach that consumers absolutely love, and that makes eating in our restaurants easy, and getting our great, craveable, delicious food in a very easy way.”