Donna Sell went from being a locomotive engineer to a successful franchisee in February of 2006. In this feature we’ll take a look at her career transition, gain insight on her start in the male dominated locomotive industry, and learn how her passion led her to open a Mexican restaurant.
Q: You’ve had quite the varied career trajectory. How did you go from being a train engineer to a successful restaurateur?
Donna: After I received my Bachelor’s in agriculture and my Master’s in hazardous materials, I joined CSX Railroad as an engineer, working as a safety chairman and operating mile-long locomotives along the rails from Richmond to Rock Mount, North Carolina.
Then while visiting my sister in Charlotte, I visited a Salsarita’s near her and was really taken by the concept. I really wanted to open my own business, so I did research and learned about Salsarita’s franchise opportunities. When a perfect real estate location became available, I knew it was the right path to take. I opened Salsarita’s in February of 2006. Since then, I have enjoyed every minute of owning Salsarita’s and I am so happy to offer a place where folks in Kingsport can come and enjoy fresh Mexican food.
Q: There is a perception that the locomotive industry is male dominated. What challenges did you face as a woman while climbing the ladder at CSX and, conversely, while trying to open Salsarita’s?
Donna: Being a woman in the male dominated locomotive field required me to prove myself with my intelligence and skills, showing them that I could do anything they could – despite having the same education and training. The same philosophy applied to opening Salsarita’s, being one of few women business owners, especially when it came down to obtaining financing.
Q: What was the largest motivating factor for you to switch careers?
Donna: I wanted to be closer to my family in Tennessee. I loved CSX but it kept me traveling the majority of the time and I never knew where I was going to be. I was always on the road and staying in a motel more than my own home. It was hard to be away from the ones I loved. Plus, I had always wanted to open my own business and opening Salsarita’s in Kingsport was the perfect opportunity to be closer to my parents while fulfilling that dream.
Q: What advice do you have for women currently looking to make a career transition?
Donna: My best advice would be to stay strong and positive. If it is something you love to do, stick it out and people will see your strength against adversity. I used my faith in God as a way to help me through some of the challenges that I faced and I would say to anyone looking to make a career change to find someone who will be there for you through thick and thin. It is so important to have a support system that will help you on your journey.
Q: What’s your favorite part of your job today?
Donna: My favorite part of the job today is spending time with my customers. In fact, I don’t even think of them as customers but more like members of my family. I am at the restaurant about 80 to 100 hours a week and I consider all my employees and customers one huge family. It is a privilege to spend time with them and know that we are providing them with great food and a great atmosphere.