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Women in Business: Judy Shoulak, Executive Vice President of North America Buffalo Wild Wings

Thursday, January 19 2017 12:00am

Judy Shoulak shares her journey to executive leadership at the Ohio University College of Business Leadership Series

By Holly Moody

Whether you call it B-Dubs or Buffalo Wild Wings, chances are that you have probably stopped into the iconic black and yellow sports bar nestled on the corner of West Union Street and Richland Avenue to cheer on your favorite team with fellow fans.

Last semester, one of the leaders behind the operations of the successful sports bar and restaurant chain paid a visit to Athens to connect with future business leaders in OHIO’s College of Business.

Judy Shoulak, executive vice president of North America Buffalo Wild Wings, spent the day on campus and in her local Athens franchise to chat with the Ohio University Select Leaders about the importance of opportunity, perseverance, taking action and how these values led her to her current role and success in the industry.

From the retail floor of her local JCPenney department store in Milwaukee, WI to the executive offices of Buffalo Wild Wings, Shoulak has earned her spot as one of today’s leading businesswomen in the restaurant industry and a master of perfecting the ultimate social experience for fans.

Shoulak became a leading driver of the restaurant’s success for the last 16 years with more than  1,200 restaurants currently operating globally. However, her journey to becoming a leader and contributor to the brand’s global recognition didn’t come without capitalizing on opportunities, pursuing her passion and overcoming industry odds. She shared her story with us to inspire OHIO’s future business leaders.

Check out our top five takeaways from her discussion.

 1.   Your Circumstances Don’t Define Your Outcomes

 “The fact that life wasn’t easy for me made me very determined to succeed. I didn’t let my circumstances define my outcome, but instead focused on what I could control and took action to seize opportunities and move ahead.”

Shoulak was born and raised in Milwaukee, WI where she would begin her college education and career. As an aspiring first generation college student with little family support, Shoulak learned to make her way at a very young age.

After high school, Shoulak worked full-time to put herself through a two-year technical college. However, when she graduated as valedictorian of her class, she learned that her credits would not transfer to most four-year universities.

Although this was a setback, she remained determined to achieve her degree.

She continued to work her way through management roles and grew as a leader in customer service. Along the way, she also got married and began to raise her family.

After taking classes on and off for 12 years and working her way through the ranks at various companies such as The Original Cookie Company, Shoulak earned her Bachelor’s in Business Administration from Capitol University.

Shoulak considers getting her bachelor’s degree one of her most significant accomplishments in life. This journey and her perseverance helped change her outlook on challenges that she faces in her career.

2.   Opportunity Requires Action

“Take action to seize opportunities and move ahead.”

At the age of 21, the doors of opportunity for Shoulak began to open. As a part-time associate at JCPenney, she fell in love with the customer service industry and helping others.

Wanting to further her career and continue to pursue what she loved, she decided to pursue a management opportunity during a time when there weren’t many women working in management or leadership roles.

Although she was nervous, her initiative to pursue this opportunity turned into nine years of management and operations experience with the department store.

Believing in herself and pursuing this opportunity was the launchpad for her career. She would go on to serve as a general manager for The Original Cookie Company.

3.    Make Your Own Way

“Sometimes opportunity comes to you, but I’ve learned that sometimes you have to create your own.”

Believing in your work and contributing your ideas can open up doors to ideal opportunities.

As Shoulak pursued her college degree, she held a position as a general manager at The Original Cookie Company. As an assignment for her business class, she decided to write a research paper that analyzed how companies hired more managers based on their operational skills than their leadership skills.

Shoulak outlined the recommendation of incorporating centralized training, ongoing leadership and development, and tuition reimbursement in order to better develop companies’ managers as leaders. Seeing her recommendation as an opportunity to improve the company, Shoulak decided to send her paper to the president of The Original Cookie Company.

Little did she know, the company would agree with her recommendations and offer her a job in their Cleveland, OH office where she would build a training program for 200 general managers!

This experience­­­ was a turning point in Shoulak’s career.

4.    Embrace Your Challenges

“The great thing about opportunity is that every time you take on a new challenge, you get a new view of what’s possible.”

Taking on challenges will help you build personally and professionally in your career path.

When Shoulak started off in the customer service industry, it was during an era where women were not prevalent in leadership roles in the workplace.

But, she didn’t see this circumstance as a disadvantage to her. It did not stop her from working hard and achieving the goals that she set out for herself.

After her success at The Original Cookie Company, Shoulak moved on to join Office Max in 1993 as their Director of Training. She was later promoted to Vice President of Field Human Resources. There, she was the only female vice president out of 40 vice presidents at Office Max.

Upon entering the role, she was tasked with increasing diversity within the company where 70 of the regional managers were white males.

Although, this role may have been out of her comfort zone, Shoulak took on the challenge and gained a new perspective on what she had the power to make possible. Her success within Office Max finally led her to joining the Buffalo Wild Wings leadership team where she has played an instrumental role in the company’s growth and success.  

5.    There is Value in the Process

“You may not be doing your dream job – YET – but every job is an opportunity to learn something that will help you in a future job or career.”

Success doesn’t always come easy.

Shoulak found her love for customer service early on in her career and worked her way to where she stands in the industry today. She could certainly see herself leading teams one day in her career, but there were steps to getting there and value in the lessons that she would learn along the way.

From working in retail at JCPenney as an associate to leading general managers at The Original Cookie Company, every position taught her how to create an experience for others and become a successful leader.

She was led and mentored by others along the way who taught her what effective leadership looks like and put those best practices into place in her own career. She also faced challenges that taught her how to push through the tough moments and find a way to achieve her goals.

Today, Judy leads Buffalo Wild Wings North America, where she is passionate about inspiring others, developing leaders and high-performing teams, and creating the ultimate social experience for sports fans.