Moxie Leader: The Esendemir Sisters

1. What initially attracted you to starting your own restaurant? Was there a specific incident? Childhood? Did being a woman play a role?

Our older sister, Fusun Esendemir, was laid off from her job for taking too much time off in order to take care of our parents. Arzu Esendemir had just graduated from Montclair State University with a degree in Business Management and Finance, so she was trying to figure out if she should go to grad school or take a job working on Wall Street. Gonca Esendemir was in her last semester of college and was beginning to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. Fusun wanted to open up a restaurant, so she asked Arzu, who then asked Gonca, and the rest is history! Food is a big part of our culture and we are very passionate about it. We started Flatbread Grill because it allowed the three of us to bring our love of food and family together. Our parents also owned and operated restaurants while we were growing up, so we were familiar with the industry and we all pretty much worked in food service at some point in our lives.

2. Have you faced any particular challenges as a woman in your choice of career? Are there unique challenges you think only women face?

We have faced so many challenges with starting, sustaining and expanding Flatbread Grill and most of them have been directly related to being a woman in a male populated industry. When we first started out, there were many vendors and people within the industry who laughed at us, wrote us off and even told us we would never survive. There were people who didn’t believe that three young women were behind such a powerful, unique concept. We had to constantly prove ourselves. We worked our butts off and committed ourselves to excellence because this brand is an extension of ourselves and we never wanted people to say, they failed because they were young and female. People automatically assume a man is behind Flatbread Grill’s creation and success. It’s frustrating because it just exemplifies how society still views the potentiality of a woman’s ability to create something successful. People say some really ignorant and offensive things to us. It always seem like a passive-aggressive way to detract from our success and achievements. For instance, we often hear: “You don’t look like you started this business” or “How old are you?” and “Why are you single?” It’s frustrating because these are non-issues that have nothing to do with our work ethic, integrity and business acumen, but this is how people want to define us. We could give you a novel about the difficulties we encountered as young women and battled while opening up our first Flatbread Grill location in Montclair, NJ, but let’s save that for another time!

There are definitely some unique challenges that women face, whether it’s a male dominated industry or not. We are constantly being judged by what we look like, being questioned on why we have chosen careers over marriage, and constantly being pressured to live up to unrealistic, superficial standards that have nothing to do with our intellect and abilities to lead. Men don’t get questioned about why they work more than they date or if they plan on making time to start a family. If a man fails or makes a mistake in a position of leadership, nobody will say his gender had anything to do with it. Men are forgiven for their shortcomings in the business world, whereas women have a much more difficult time recovering from their mistakes. Women are also more vulnerable to criticism and we are expected to act with more diplomacy and tact than men. If we assert ourselves or express our independence, we get labeled as stubborn, pushy or bossy.

3.What does “empowerment” mean to you?

True empowerment means living your life on your own terms, ignoring the critics and being able to rise above the obstacles that life is bound to throw your way (and coming out of it a better leader with a stronger character). We don’t’ define our sense of empowerment by how long we have been in business or even how much revenues we have earned. We feel empowered because we have been at the bottom and were able to fight our way to the top, despite all the odds being stacked against us.

4. What in particular about your restaurant do you think helps you empower young women across the country? What message are you trying to send?

We are three Turkish-American women who grew up with almost nothing and now, we are growing a business internationally in one of the toughest, most competitive industries in the world. For us, it is so important to share our story and inspire other young women who may feel the way we felt in our lives and during our business journey. There were days growing up we didn’t have winter coats and couldn’t even afford clothes. We had to wear hand me downs. Flatbread Grill was built with love, dedication, passion and hard work. Our message is to fight for yourself and your dreams, to keep going and never give up. It’s only those people who persist and persevere that succeed. We are living proof that if you work hard, stay honest and keep at it, you can achieve anything. Flatbread Grill is a representation of our most authentic selves and we hope that it inspires other women out there to follow their dreams no matter what circumstances they find themselves battling.

5. Did you have role models or mentors? How have they helped you? (Who was the most memorable one?)

Our mother is a strong role model for us because she has always been such a warm, kind and compassionate human being. She raised us to be polite and honest. Her sincerity is something we all admire and try to live up to almost daily. Our father taught us how to be strong and brave. His courage and fearlessness has always inspired us. He was an entrepreneur himself who came to this country with nothing. He was bold and he took such a brave step. We don’t idealize celebrities too much, but instead look to women like Barbara Corcoran and Maya Angelou who are wise, strong and intelligent. Our parents are our most memorable role models. Dan Rowe from FranSmart has been a great mentor to us. He has a great deal of wisdom and experience to share with us, which we appreciate. He also motivates us to keep going.

6. What worked (or did not work) for you that would be good advice for someone else coming up in their career?

What worked for us when we were first starting out was ignoring the critics. People were constantly telling us what we should and should not be doing. Everyone had an opinion about how we should be running our business, even people that had absolutely no experience owning or operating a restaurant. We listened to ourselves first and foremost. We used our complementary skills, gut instinct, intellect and prior restaurant experience to drive our careers forward. If you seek out advice, great, use it to your advantage, especially if it’s coming from someone who has been there and done that. However, be weary of unsolicited advice, especially if it’s negative or critical. We would advise women, no matter where they are in their careers, to be brave and go after what they want with determination. Never stop learning and don’t quit no matter how many times you get rejected. If there is something you want to achieve in your career, find a way to make it happen for yourself.

7. What rules do you live by or if you have a life motto?

We are all have very different in personalities, so we have different life mottos, but the one that defines all three of us and our journey in building Flatbread Grill is definitely: Don’t give up, no matter how tough things get. Keep going. We are all fiercely independent, opinionated and assertive. We make our own rules and we follow our own path. It bothers some people and inspires others. What matters most is at the end of the day, we are impacting people’s lives in a positive way and creating a legacy that will stand the test of time, and we are doing it on our own terms.

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