When the 114th Congress convenes in January, it will include a record 101 women in its ranks. That's good news. Even more impressive numbers can be found in the restaurant industry, where the real-life success stories show there is no limit to personal dreams and hard work. It's something I’ve known for some time, and a tremendous point of pride as a woman who leads the largest trade association representing restaurants both large and small from all over this country.


Whether it's Laurie Palmer from Waterville, Maine, or Marla Topliff in Elgin, Ill., or Sen.-elect Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstDrug price outrage threatens to be liability for GOP Progressive groups target eight GOP senators in ad campaign ahead of impeachment trial GOP senators introduce resolution to change rules, dismiss impeachment without articles MORE (R-Iowa) who began her workforce experience making biscuits at Hardee's — they all share something very important in common. They have risen to the top of their professions because they worked hard, learned critical skills and seized the opportunities provided to them by the restaurant industry.

Restaurants provide opportunities to women of all ages and at all stages of their careers, from owners to college students and managers to retirees. Sixty-one percent of adult women have worked in a restaurant at some point in their life. Marla Topliff got her first restaurant job at age 49 after raising her children. She worked hard and today is president of Rosati's Pizza. Marla has said there are few businesses that would have given her a chance, having to learn the business from the ground up, but her company welcomed her with open arms.

Thirty-seven percent of women say the first job they ever had was in a restaurant. Through this experience, they have honed skills that stick with them throughout their careers, including critical competencies of personal responsibility, teamwork, conflict resolution and accountability. Don't take my word for it: Listen to the more than 600 women who have signed a letter supporting restaurant opportunities because they know it, too.

I am enormously proud of the leadership role that women play in the restaurant business, making our industry a leader in the national economy, turning part-time jobs into successful careers. There are more women in management and ownership positions than virtually any other industry. Forty-five percent of our managers are women compared to an average of 38 percent in other industries. Half of all U.S. restaurants are owned or co-owned by women.

This includes local small business owners like Laurie Palmer. She started out in restaurants as a part-time worker in her parents' restaurants when she was a teenager and college student. Laurie now owns and operates four quick-service restaurants in Maine, employing 140 people.

Women-owned businesses are booming, growing at a faster rate than restaurants in the overall industry. Between 1997 and 2007, the number of women-owned restaurants jumped by 50 percent. During the same 10-year period, the total number of restaurant businesses in the United States rose by 36 percent.

Restaurants have led our nation's economic recovery and provide jobs to nearly 10 percent of our workforce. The restaurant and foodservice industry is the nation's second-largest private-sector employer, and women hold a majority of these 13 million jobs. We are proud of our role in providing opportunities for women to advance their careers, while also providing all of our employees with flexible schedules that allow them to balance their family or education priorities with their work.

And we take great pride knowing our employees value our efforts. Ninety-two percent of women who have worked in a restaurant said the industry is a good place to get a first job and learn basic working skills, while 75 percent said they would recommend that a family member or friend get a job in the restaurant industry. That's because employees recognize the opportunities for advancement to help them get ahead and the stability to secure fulfilling careers in a field where women succeed constantly.

I am proud to represent an industry that counts women like Laurie Palmer, Marla Topliff Joni Ernst and many others as role models for women and workers everywhere.

Sweeney is president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association.