When local entrepreneur Elizabeth Lessner -- who also calls herself a civic-minded gal -- was in high school, she never sat up front.
She rarely raised her hand.
She admitted that if she were in the same Bexley High School audience she addressed Friday, Jan. 10, during the school's Leadership Bexley Kick-Off, she would likely have been sitting in the back, arms crossed on her chest -- not very receptive.
And definitely not perceived as a leader. But today, she is called just that.
Lessner is the founder and co-owner of the Columbus Food League, a restaurant group that includes Betty's Fine Food & Spirits, Tip Top Kitchen & Cocktails and several other area restaurants. Engaged in green initiatives, downtown Columbus development and community affairs, she also co-owns Eartha Limited, a recycling company specializing in restaurant recycling, bio-products and composting.
She has worked with numerous committees, boards and other organizations, such as the Central Ohio Restaurant Association, Short North Business Association, Central Ohio Workforce Investment Corp., COTA's Mobility Advisory Board, Create Columbus Commission, University Area Women's Leadership Group and Dine Originals Columbus.
And on the day she addressed the sophomores and juniors at Bexley High School, she was set to open yet another restaurant, the Torpedo Room at the Gateway Film Center on North High Street.
Standing before the crowd in her blue jeans with blue hair, it was just another day in a busy life for Lessner. It's not about being somebody else, she told the group, or acting out a stereotype.
"It's not a popularity list," she told the early morning crowd. "It's about you. It's about bringing your best self out.
"Everyone has gifts and something to give."
Lessner's presentation was the Bexley Education Foundation's kick-off event for its annual Leadership Bexley program.
Every year, 25 students are chosen to participate in the Leadership Bexley development program, a five-week curriculum that helps develop the students' skills. It is supported by the Bexley Education Foundation's Pete Grimes "Just Do It" Fund.
The program was launched in 2006 to help spark the seeds of leadership within Bexley's youth. To date, the program boasts more than 200 graduates.
Lessner said she wished that schools had offered such programs when she was young.
"In high school, nothing about me would have said leader. I didn't really fit in. In fact, I barely graduated high school," she said.
Born and raised in Chicago, she went on to spend some time in California, where she was inspired to follow her passion -- cooking. She joked that when some parents threaten their children if they do not graduate from college, all they will end up doing in life is flipping burgers -- the threat by her parents had a whole new meaning.
"I loved flipping burgers," she told the students.
It's something with which she's become very successful. As the winner of a number of awards, including Entrepreneur of the Year, Best Columbus Champion 2013, Best Cheap Eats of 2012 and 2013, and the 2012 Arch Award, she continues to expand her success.
But it is also her leadership that has garnered attention. Several years ago, when she pledged to go "zero waste" in her restaurants, she quickly found out it was against the law in Columbus to recycle table scraps.
So she started rattling cages and sitting in on waste management board meetings, and pretty soon the tide turned. The laws were changed and now tons of scrap food waste are no longer headed for area landfills, but to compost piles that will help produce other food in central Ohio, something she is pretty proud of.
Out of the initiative, she co-founded Eartha Limited, providing environmental consulting, training, products and services to businesses and organizations in central Ohio.
"Often, you will find in life that you know what's best for you," she said. "It's with that self-awareness that you will achieve."