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People Spotlight: Alicia Henriquez, Director of Learning & Development, Momofuku

There are many parallels between teaching in an educational setting such as a school and building a successful learning and development program at an organization.  One thing that is consistent is aligning objectives with goals and measuring progress along the way.  Regardless of the setting this will ensure successful growth and development of ALL people, while achieving the desired results.

Organizations are not always aligned from within and knowing what’s important to leadership is key to building out a successful learning and development (L&D) program.  However, being mindful of diverse populations and varied career paths is a skill.  To tie teaching and learning and development together, both need to put people first for the success of the team.  You always need to think about your learners and empathize with them in order to design learning that aligns objectives and measures progress.

So how do you get started undertaking this overwhelming task with so many moving parts?  The answer, one step at a time with a cohesive strategy.

Meet Alicia Henriquez, Director of Learning & Development at Momofuku (literally, ‘lucky peach’).  The organization was established by chef and founder David Chang in 2004, and has grown to include restaurants in NYC, Sydney, Washington DC, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Toronto.  The restaurants have gained world-wide recognition for their innovative take on cuisine and now Alicia is using innovation to engage and inspire their scaling global workforce.

Alicia started her career as an English teacher but transitioned to teaching Spanish at a new charter school with Uncommon Schools where she became the head of the language department. During this time, she became  the de facto diversity coordinator leading a diversity & inclusion (D&I) training strategy for herself and the staff.  A few years later, having decided she wanted to explore opportunities in the D&I space, a friend in L&D shared information about a company looking to build out a department that infused D&I with L&D, that role was at Blink Fitness where Alicia first started her career in the HR world.  After 1 ½ years in her role as an L&D Specialist she was promoted to L&D Manager and then jumped over to lead the team at Momofuku.

Early on in her career Alicia attended a seminar presented by the Association of Talent Development where she heard a CLO speak about branding new L&D departments and identifying a clear mission. This made a tremendous impact on her strategic view of building a people program that puts people first.

To build a successful L&D department you need to make sure you know your business well so you can create an L&D mission and strategy that aligns to it. 

This is something she’s done at Momofuku, Blink, and something she did way back when she was building out the Spanish department.

You need to be thoughtful and intentional about the mission for L&D and make sure you are getting buy-in from key leadership and stakeholders  (which includes who you’re designing learning programs for) along the way.  You need to brand and market L&D everywhere within the organization to guide employees to remembering the program. 

As an example, while at Blink she rolled out a development plan for all employees with a new career trajectory.  Along with the roll-out she created pens with the logo to give out and everyone wanted them.  She quickly branded the name of the L&D program which was catchy and related to the company brand and everyone picked up on it.  This drove engagement amongst employees and leadership.

Building out a cohesive L&D program is hard enough, let alone creating one that addresses a diverse employee population.  Being mindful about diversity has to go beyond demographics.  It must consider different roles, locations and needs of each employee.

You need to have a clear L&D mission that is aligned with the key business needs so everything is aligned and then there will be a greater ability to dial-in on the staff and the diversity of the population.  It’s so easy to get lost without a “true north” especially when thinking about the different needs of employees at a restaurant and hospitality organization.  Getting to know employees and the nuances of their role is critical to creating the mission.

A true L&D mission needs to go beyond job training by including a commitment to the personal growth of your employees.

The building blocks for a learning and development program are key to get the stakes in the ground but raising up the tent requires a budget and buy-in from management. Alicia shared that creating metrics that will tell a story that leadership wants to hear will guide this process. For example, our company goal is “Z”, in order to achieve this, we must address “Y”, this program “X” is going to help address “Y”. We will directly measure the success of “X” through measures “A/B/C”. She uses historical results to drive future growth and drive buy-in to expanding programs.

In a previous role I needed to build a case for adopting a formal learning management system. To obtain the buy-in I needed for this expense, our team tried to use a Google site as we could do this with a minimum economic investment while collecting results- a minimally viable product (MVP). We rolled it out to management to “see how it goes”. After a few months of adoption and use data, we went back to leadership with the successes of using the platform as well as limitations given the organization’s planned growth. In the end trying out the MVP showed both the results and short-comings to make the case for the more comprehensive “luxury” model.

Alicia shared some key advice for an L&D role, which is to be a thought partner and understand you don’t have all the answers and you’re not supposed to.  She believes it’s critical to model a growth mindset and above anything to immerse yourself, similar to when you’re learning a language.  As an example, she shared when she first joined Momofuku she needed to spend time in the restaurants to have an understanding of how staff could access virtual training materials. She quickly realized that printed resources could make a more immediate impact and decided to rework her strategy. Being in the restaurants also allowed her to build a rapport and relationship with individuals so that she could receive feedback and insights on how materials were working.  This would allow her to iterate on what was originally created and deliver results for both employees and the organization.

On that note, Alicia left us with a last thought….

Empathize with your users. As HR and L&D, we have such an opportunity to bring value because our work is centered around people and putting people first in everything we do.  Through my career as a teacher – and I do still consider myself a teacher and educator – I follow a quote from José Martí that’s driven me since graduate school.

She shared so eloquently in Spanish but then distilled it to English for us.

“Upon coming to earth every person has the right to be educated and in return contribute to the education of others.”  This is how we bring value and help people be the best they can be.


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