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Ellen Yin of High Street Hospitality Group (HSHG): “Think about time management”

Women should become founders because we are just as capable to do so as our male counterparts. There should be no hesitation to follow your dreams or passions because you identify as a woman — there are resources and organizations out there to support your achievement. While the hospitality industry has seen a great increase in women […]

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Women should become founders because we are just as capable to do so as our male counterparts. There should be no hesitation to follow your dreams or passions because you identify as a woman — there are resources and organizations out there to support your achievement. While the hospitality industry has seen a great increase in women leadership positions, we are far from a 50/50 split with men, and women of color are even less represented.


As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ellen Yin of High Street Hospitality Group (HSHG).

As the Co-Founder and Owner of High Street Hospitality Group (HSHG), restauranteur Ellen Yin operates some of the country’s most celebrated dining establishments including a.kitchen+bar, Fork, High Street Philly, and High Street Provisions in Philadelphia and High Street on Hudson, in Manhattan. A graduate of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and veteran of the hospitality industry, Yin is a multi-year nominee for “Outstanding Restaurateur” by the James Beard Foundation Awards and has been honored with Philadelphia Business Journal’s “Women of Distinction” award in 2020. Her flagship restaurant, Fork, was named one of the most influential restaurants of the past decade by the Inquirer and among Esquire’s list of “Top 100 Restaurants America Can’t Afford to Lose” in 2020.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Of course, thank you! I fell in love with the hospitality industry when I started working at a local French restaurant during my high school years. I realized immediately how much I enjoyed working in a fast-paced, creative, and diverse atmosphere. While I was attending the University of Pennsylvania, I worked at a Philadelphia restaurant called LaTerrasse. I wrote a business plan for a restaurant in Old City Philadelphia where I learned that raising the capital for a restaurant was going to be a major challenge. I didn’t become an entrepreneur until a few years later after dipping my toes in non-profit fundraising and health care consulting. From the time I realized that my passion was still owning a restaurant, I became singularly focused on building a community around our restaurants, making sure all of our concepts are innovative, equitable, and sustainable while trying to keep the industry moving forward.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Over 24 years, it’s hard to say what the most interesting story that has happened to me has been. My restaurant life has been exceptional and remarkable in that I have experienced so many ups along with so many challenges. I have had the opportunity to work with some of the most talented chefs in the industry and helped influence some of the talent of the future. I have seen people fight addictions, disabilities, and mental health issues. I’ve also seen resilience, perseverance, and growth.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’ve made so many mistakes, but I would say that one of my biggest mistakes in the beginning was not thinking that things could wait. I was always worried about missing something at the restaurant which prevented me from going on vacation numerous times because I was waiting for XYZ to happen. That isn’t exactly funny, but when your significant other calls you from vacation abroad and to tell you they are extending their trip multiple times, you start to wonder! Meanwhile, I’m waiting anxiously for that hypothetical XYZ to happen. Everyone needs to recharge, so always put time aside for yourself.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My closest business confidante is my partner of over 23 years, Roberto Sella. We were classmates together. Post-graduation many people left Philadelphia for finance jobs in New York City or elsewhere. Roberto ended up staying in Philly, where we became great friends thanks to our shared love of food, wine, and entertaining. Many dinner parties and bottles of wine later, we agreed that Roberto needed a restaurant to drink his own wine at and a restaurant with a seasonally changing menu that was delicious, warm and welcoming. With about $40,000 from each of us, we found an incredible industrial building in Old City Philadelphia. Our chef-partner at the time, Anne-Marie Lasher, also contributed $10,000 and we were able to borrow the rest to create an environment that was Fork — a warm neighborhoody New American bistro in 1997. That was just the beginning. We have had so many friends and family throughout the years who have contributed to making Fork and our subsequent restaurants vibrant neighborhood spots. I couldn’t be more grateful for our talented staff throughout the years — so many people have contributed to the growth and improvement of each of our concepts.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

One of thelast books I read is called Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger by Lisa Donovan. I found it extremely empowering. It critiques the rampant sexism in haute cuisine, gender-pay disparities, misogyny in our culture as a whole, and how love, family, and food are the fire that drove her through her professional journey. I feel I can relate a lot to this, as I continue to emphasize how much I value my team, community, and food. Sharing a great meal has created so many connections and lasting relationships. Food brings people with differences together, helps us learn about other cultures, and nourishes us all both physically and mentally. This holds true especially during a pandemic when we are all seeking normalcy and connection. Reading Lisa’s memoir was inspiring and I encourage other women to read it.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

One of my former sous chefs called me a “figure-it-outer.” Owning and operating a business is full of challenges and conflicts that can be quite overwhelming. The figuring it out part is so important because I often remind myself, “you just have to keep going, what choice do you have?” My chef-partner Eli Kulp and I used to say this all the time, but it became particularly relevant after his life-changing accident. This was especially important during the early days of the pandemic when the government ordered restaurants to close. Our lifeline of revenue and the ability to pay bills and our team members was immediately cut short. This need to keep going and figure it out motivated everyone in our group to keep trying new things and work it out.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Restaurants, in general, are all about community. That’s what really drew me in — a community of friends and family, the drive to make a neighborhood a better place, helping the less fortunate, and building a team. Although I’ve been honored to be a member of boards like the Delaware River Waterfront and Kimmel Cancer Center, I think some of the grassroots work has been the most meaningful. During the pandemic, a generous donor and subsequent others donated over $120,000 to feed front line workers, the food insecure, and restaurant workers. Fork fed over 10,000 meals during the two months after the initial shut down.

During less stressful times, our team members have played a vital part in our community by participating in fundraisers that benefit overall community issues related to promoting local farming, food insecurity, eliminating food waste, and mentoring those less fortunate.

Finally, and most relevant to this interview, is supporting women and women’s issues. Women and women of color in particular, often do not have access to equal opportunities. Currently, I’m involved with Let’s Talk, a network of 350 women across 12 U.S. cities sharing resources and uplifting each other, as well as the Philadelphia chapter, dubbed “Philadelphia Women in Food.” Participating in these industry-specific networks of women is highly valuable and empowering. Through these networks, I’m able to share information and resources to elevate other women in the industry, making it more equitable and representative in turn.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

I think right now, amidst the pandemic, it is extremely difficult for women to start their own companies for many reasons. There are tons of statistics demonstrating how women’s progress in the workforce could potentially regress due to the pandemic. The responsibilities of child care, home schooling, and elderly care often fall on women. So the fewer women in executive and mid-level leadership positions in the food industry or any business, the harder it is to replenish. However, there are more opportunities to be found as the economy recovers. Many women I’ve worked with have started their own businesses but in a less formal way than this article is talking about and with no capital. They risk not being able to grow if things don’t change, as women historically have had less access to essential capital needed to found larger companies.

The National Bureau of Economic Research reported, “an ‘unprecedented’ 25 percent drop in the number of women business owners (measured from February to April of 2020) could hurt gender equality in the business world and beyond.” This is obviously upsetting because of the strides we have made together, but I understand why the pandemic is holding women back; with COVID-19, the effects have been much worse.

Can you share with our readers what you are doing to help empower women to become founders?

Empowering women in business is a throughline of all that I do. From the panels, boards and committees I sit on, I always offer my experiences, insights, and mentorship in an effort to make spaces more equitable for women. During March/Women’s History Month, these opportunities present themselves in great abundance. I work to accommodate each and every opportunity in an effort to help as many people as I can. I always strive to keep it real — sharing real experiences, struggles and victories so as to not sugarcoat the experience of being a female founder. It is challenging but utterly rewarding.

From the Let’s Talk and Philadelphia Women in Food groups, I have a pretty open line of communication to share experiences and mentorship. Additionally, I am a member of the Sisterly Love Food Fair in Philadelphia, a travelling food fair spotlighting products and services from women-owned businesses, introducing them to new markets and audiences to bolster their networks and, importantly, the bottom line. We’re all in this together.

This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

Women should become founders because we are just as capable to do so as our male counterparts. There should be no hesitation to follow your dreams or passions because you identify as a woman — there are resources and organizations out there to support your achievement. While the hospitality industry has seen a great increase in women leadership positions, we are far from a 50/50 split with men, and women of color are even less represented.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share 5 things that can be done or should be done to help empower more women to become founders? If you can, please share an example or story for each.

  1. Foster a strong sense of community

By working with Let’s Talk, I’ve learned that if we share resources and networks — we are unstoppable. We can become stronger together and rebuild a better industry for all, collaboratively.

2. Create meaningful partnerships

Like you mentioned earlier, none of us are able to achieve success without having some help along the way! Partnering with other small, local, and women-owned businesses — during the pandemic, especially — has been a way of life and survival. It also helps our customers who want to support multiple businesses in one fell swoop.

3. Think about time management

Women often have a lot of responsibilities that may get in the way of following their dreams. By putting time aside for family and personal matters, you will have set times to work for what you want, and have the drive to complete it.

4. Work from the bottom-up in the industry you want to start a company in

It is crucial to see how an industry works from the bottom-up. For those in the food and hospitality business, learning how a restaurant functions internally in its day-to-day operations is key to finding a good footing on how you would want to run your own business.

5. Empower other women — all year long

While I agree that it is important to have the month of March dedicated to Women’s History, we should never stop amplifying our message! Sharing our messages and empowerment year round is crucial to women’s advancement.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

If I were to inspire a movement I would focus on the survival of small businesses. COVID-19 has made it so much harder for small businesses to stay open, which in turn affects the economy and the lives of laid off workers. Massive corporations like Amazon have made more money in the pandemic than ever before; they don’t always act sustainably or ethically, and during all of this small businesses are permanently closing their doors. I want small businesses to thrive, and I would advocate for increased governmental support incentivizing citizens to shop locally, from small businesses rather than the major corporations taking over our world. The Wiley Public Health Emergency Collection found that “the loss of 3.3 million active business owners (or 22%) from February to April 2020 was the largest drop on record.” My movement would advocate for the survival of small businesses so that no business owner has to close their doors again.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would love to have coffee with Kamala Harris. As our first female and Asian Vice President, and small businesses being such a priority for their administration, I would love to learn what her thoughts are for helping more women succeed in small business.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My Instagram accounts are:

  • @forkrestaurant
  • @highstnyc
  • @highstphilly
  • @abar_philly
  • @akitchenphilly
  • @therealellenyin

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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