Binghamton University alumna Kelli Valade leads Chili’s chain

Image Credit: commons.wikimedia.org.
Photography: commons.wikimedia.org.

Gas up the car on Friday, drive home to Syracuse, work all weekend at a restaurant, come back to Binghamton on Sunday and get ready for classes. That’s how Kelli Valade ’91 spent almost every weekend of her junior and senior years. While the job provided money for gas and school, it did much more.

“I found restaurants to be fast-paced and fun,” Valade says. “I learned a lot, took on key roles and worked my way up to shift supervisor. Then, after I graduated, I ran restaurants while pursuing an MBA, and I felt this could be an industry where I could build a career.”

Since 2016, Valade has been president of Chili’s Grill & Bar, a $3 billion brand with more than 100,000 team members worldwide. She’s leading the company through one of the most challenging times in the industry as an increasing number of eateries fight for shrinking amounts of disposable income.

“Our brand continues to grow modestly. We’re in 49 states, so there aren’t many places where you can’t find us,” Valade says. “As we grow, we need to look at what made us great in the beginning and what consumers want from us today. We want to stay unique and stay relevant.”

Valade spent 13 of her 21 years with Chili’s in human resources, reaching the level of senior vice president. She was promoted to chief operating officer (COO), an unusual move as Valade didn’t follow the traditional path from server to manager to area director and so on.

“I was fascinated by my classes in sociology and women’s studies, and when I was in HR, I had a passion for understanding people and cultures. I was unsure if I was making the right move, from HR to COO. They said to me, ‘We’ve seen what you can do with people. This is a people business. We just serve food.’”

In addition to growing and increasing market share, Valade is focused on investing in her team through the “Women Taking the Lead” program. She has facilitated workshops around the country with the goal of helping women move into leadership positions and keeping them with Chili’s.

“I’m very proud we’ve moved more women into upper management. More than anything, I want our women to feel empowered and see someone is thinking about helping them develop to their fullest potential.”

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