The Co-Founder of Panda Express Shares the Leadership Quality That Helps Her Keep the Brand Fresh
In this series, Open Every Door, Entrepreneur staff writer Nina Zipkin shares her conversations with leaders about understanding what you have to offer, navigating the obstacles that will block your path, identifying opportunity and creating it for yourself and for others.
While today, it seems like you can find a Panda Express at just about every shopping mall, stadium and airport terminal, in 1983, it was just one storefront in Glendale, Calif., the dream of husband-and-wife team Andrew and Peggy Cherng.
After 35 years in business and more than 2,000 locations around the world, Peggy Cherng attributes the restaurant chain’s longevity and success not just to coming up with innovative menu items, but an enduring commitment to being a contributing member of their community.
In 1999, Cherng established Panda Cares, the philanthropic arm of the company, something she says she holds very close to her heart -- and that she hopes inspires Panda’s employees.
“We are Chinese first-generation immigrants, and since we’ve been able to achieve the American dream, we feel a responsibility to pay it forward to the generations after us,” Cherng says. “We really wanted to create an initiative for our associates to see our mission and values in action.”
That initiative extends to events such as Family Day, which was launched in 2015 and in its first year alone, in partnership with the nonprofit Feeding America, donated 10 million meals to hungry Americans and $1 million to help families in need. Panda Express also makes it possible for diners to create their own fundraising events at its restaurants with the click of a mouse, with 20 percent of event sales donated to the organization of their choice.
Having grown the business into such a large enterprise has required the couple to shift their mindset from one that was solely focused on making sure they were meeting their personal goals to one Cherng describes as a “servant leadership mindset,” encouraging her more than 35,000 employees to feel comfortable speaking their minds and sharing their ideas.
“I focus on fostering a growth mindset in myself and in our associates,” she says. “A growth mindset comes from an individual that believes 'I can' and has the grit and perseverance to be deeply guided in their purpose in life. This builds inner strength, allowing people the ability to get back up when they get knocked down temporarily.”
While she is now a member of the California Restaurant Association Hall of Fame, Cherng’s background was no where close to the culinary world. She had a PhD in electrical engineering, which looking back she says helped when establishing the systems and infrastructure that made the business run.
Cherng says while she is always cognizant of where she came from, it is especially resonant during the month of May.
“I grew up at a time where the Asian community was not vocal in the U.S.,” she says. “Asian Pacific American Heritage Month allows us to vocalize who we are [and] what values we stand for.”