Excellent service, strong leadership matter to Shirley Everett
BY MICHAEL PEÑA
As associate vice provost for residential and dining enterprises, Shirley Everett makes it abundantly clear that she demands excellence—whether it pertains to food, facilities or staff. She is regarded as being highly hands on, business-minded and authoritative when it comes to matters within her organization and throughout the university.
It was no different on Oct. 25, when Everett's presence filled the side chapel of Memorial Church for this academic year's first installment of "What Matters to Me and Why"—the Office for Religious Life's ongoing series of talks by faculty and staff who are invited to discuss their values, beliefs, passions and inspirations.
At the top of Everett's list are excellence in customer service, teamwork and giving back to the community. And on a more personal level, Everett said her life revolves around her family—including her husband of 28 years and their daughter, Karen—perseverance over emotional adversity and belief in a higher being. But she also infused her speech with a few spoonfuls of funny.
For instance, Everett said that when she first came to Stanford in 1991 as associate director of dining services, students complained that they were being served "grade-D meat"—no such classification exists—and that kitchens would have dinner ready at 2 p.m. and serve it hours later with "a lot of gravy on it."
"Change is not the word. We need a transformation," Everett recalled thinking of her task at the time. "I went to the CIA, the NRA and the FBI: That's the Culinary Institute of America, the National Restaurant Association and the Food and Beverage Institute."
But to give her convictions proper context, Everett began from the start. She was raised in Chicago, one of nine children, by parents for whom discipline and higher education were top priorities. Racial tension back then also left its mark, when as a young girl she was warned to stay away from certain neighborhoods where blacks were not welcomed. She recalled that her mother would take all nine children to the museum and receive wary looks from others, then later receive compliments on how well behaved they were.
They didn't touch anything, remained on their best behavior and held hands, two by two. Everett called it the "buddy system," an order that her parents imposed on all of their children up through college—with no one sibling pursuing a degree alone, wherever they were. Everett graduated from Indiana's Valparaiso University with a bachelor's degree in home economics. (She earned a Master of Business Administration degree from St. Mary's College in Moraga in 1999.)
At Stanford, Everett put all those values into play. She said her dedication to diversity drove her to create a sense of belonging among all housing and dining staff, regardless of race or education level. She added that her belief in teamwork made the transformation she spearheaded truly collaborative. And above all, she stressed that her commitment to excellence would ensure that operations would always be customer-focused and customer-driven.
"What matters to me most is how we treat one another, the value we provide to our students here," Everett said. "In Residential and Dining Enterprises, we believe that students are first, customers are first."
However, when it came to letting her own daughter go off to college, Everett said she could do so only with great difficulty. "And here I was on panels at Stanford, talking to other parents about letting go," Everett said.
More emotional turmoil followed: the death of her mother about six years ago, the murder of a 24-year-old nephew, and few years later, accepting her father remarrying.
"And then I had even more tragedies continue to happen, coupled with trying to balance my life here at Stanford, running a business, leading staff, trying to ask myself the question, 'How do I lift myself while I'm trying to inspire others?' That's the challenge," Everett said.
Meanwhile, Everett said she also had to oversee multimillion-dollar construction projects for new student housing, on deadline and under the pressure of demanding stakeholders. And on the dining side, she said the challenges were to shift the mentality of staff away from cafeteria-quality service, get everyone to work as a team and convince the various culinary institutes to partner with Stanford.
"I must be capable, inspiring, visionary and results-oriented in order to create that culture of excellence within Residential and Dining Enterprises," Everett said. "I want us to have great food. I want us to have a passion for it. … We're not trying to create cafeterias. It's restaurant-like food."
Everett said her first lesson in cooking for others came at the age of 10, when she decided to prepare Thanksgiving dinner for the family because her mother was ill. Young Shirley cooked a large meal with turkey and all the trimmings—and for dessert, she baked a lumpy three-layer cake.
Everett despaired, but her mother said to add a lot of coconut to hide the imperfections. "That for me was my introduction to large-volume cooking and hospitality," Everett said. "And from that day on, my family still thinks I'm a great baker."