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The future is now

- Judy Maxwell (Assistant Editor)
A meeting room at the World Congress Center in Atlanta offered standing room only to those attending AAHOA

Women and young professionals rally at AAHOA conference to support next-generation Asian American hoteliers…

THE OPPORTUNITIES for young adults – men and women – to become involved in American business and public service are vast, and now is the time to move forward.

That was the predominant message that infiltrated discussions among women and young professionals at the Asian American Hotel Owners Association’s 2012 conference in Atlanta May 2-5, which drew an estimated 3,500 people to the Omni Hotel at CNN Center and the Georgia World Congress Center.

Although the encouragement emanated from the main platform as well as in educational workshops and presentations by experts, the message was driven home at two events held Friday, May 4, specifically to reach out to would-be industry leaders – AAHOA’s Women in Hotel Leadership and AAHOA’s Young Professionals, which each had standing-room-only venues. The turnouts impressed and excited AAHOA leaders, including 2012 Chairman Alkesh Patel and ex-officio Hemant Patel, who more than once remarked on the size of the audiences throughout the rest of the conference.

The next generation of Asian-American hotel owners are cutting their teeth in the worst economic recession experienced by their parents and grandparents, many who immigrated to the US beginning in the 1960s in search of a better life. They are the ones eyed by AAHOA as up-and-coming leaders who will maintain AAHOA’s stronghold on the US hotel industry, where its 11,000 members own more than 43 percent of all hotels and generate more than $31bn in business-to-business spending.

WIHL Committee Chair and AAHOA Female Director at Large, Eastern Division, Jagruti Panwala, a financial planner who specializes in business succession and wealth transfer, welcomed the estimated 200 women at the beginning of the 90-minute gathering.

Other event organizers were Kalpana Patel, Helen Zaver, Kay Surati, Tina Patel, Trusha Patel and Nancy Patel.

Dr. Sunita Kanumury was the keynote speaker. She shared her views on women empowerment and the importance of community involvement. ‘A little change in the family makes a change in the neighborhood, which thereby makes a change in the nation,’ said Kanumury, a physician who serves as a diplomat on the American Board of Allergy and Immunology and is 2011-12 president of the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin.

When speaking of their role models, Nancy Patel pointed to Bhavna Pandit, managing partner of Pandit Strategic Consulting in Washington, D.C., and a leading fund raiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Pandit led a panel discussion featuring event organizers and guests Laura Lee Blake, an attorney and vice president of AAHOA fair franchising, Debby Cannon, director of the Cecil B. Day School of Hospitality at Georgia State University and Surekha Patel, a former AAHOA director revered by many young women for her community involvement and her business success she shares with her husband Chandrakat Patel, a hotelier and 2010 AAHOA chairman.

The women spoke about the importance of political involvement and the need for more Indian Americans in political offices. ‘Women will bring it back to a personal level,’ Blake said. Members of Congress ‘want to hear from you,’ she added. ‘I think women have a stronger voice because it is so unusual to hear from women.’

Bhavna noted 4 percent of Congress is women of color, which places the US 90th in the world when it comes to female representation in the national legislature. ‘When you have women in the room, everything changes,’ she said. ‘We need to be loud and we need to be heard.’

Cannon shared her observations about women in business. Of the nation’s Fortune 500 companies, 18 have female CEOs and three of those are women of color. ‘I often wonder if we have really gotten away from the glass ceiling,’ a term used to indicate the invisible forces that seem to stop women’s rise to leadership in American business.

However, Cannon noted, while the glass ceiling might be imposed by corporate leaders, another phenomenon she has observed is what she calls the ‘sticky-floor syndrome,’ which she described as an able woman holding herself back out of fear or lack of confidence. ‘It’s very alarming and somewhat self-perpetuating.’ The nation has a number of women in leadership, ‘but when you look at who hits the media and the text books, we aren’t seeing some of the better role models.’

The college dean said she often asks graduating senior women where they see themselves in 10 years, and too many only see themselves as rising to mid-management levels. ‘Which is fine if that is what they want to do. I am a believer in being what you want to be and to be as good as you can be. Don’t hold yourself back because you believe there is not an opportunity. We should be further along … your shoes are stuck to the floor and you are unable to run the race.’

Many members of the panel pointed to their mothers and mothers-in-law as their role models. They remembered them as strong women who persevered through difficult circumstances or who were outspoken and relentless in their views and thus eventually gained the respect of the male-dominated hotel industry.

Blake noted her mother was a ‘stay-at-home’ mom, and she noted that many women spend the early part of their adult lives caring for family and raising children. ‘When I first joined a law firm, I saw that most of the successful female law partners were divorced. So you sit back and wonder who should my role models be? It’s a constant struggle. You have to take whatever challenge comes your way, and you have to be honest and share your struggles with your role models.’

Cannon advised the best role models are those who show women how to balance career and family life, how they deal with day-to-day things and different management styles. ‘We need women who can get human and help develop future leaders.’ And she challenged the women to examine how they come across as role models to other women. ‘All of us in this room have the opportunities to not only have role models but to be role models. One of the most important stages to give the message that you can be anything is with children. The important message of you can do this and I will help give you the tools to succeed.’

Young professionals

As a sign that the sky is indeed the limit for Women in Hotel Leadership, many of the women left the WHILmeeting and joined their male counterparts at the Young Professionals gathering. Hemant Patel, 2011 chairman, continued with the role model theme. ‘When we see all the young men and women here I am confident, but please take one lesson home from your parents – hard work, ethics and dedication is vital to your success. Do not get carried away. How we multiply from here ... our youth are our best support but our biggest challenge.’ Hemant Patel, 47, has served on AAHOA leadership for 14 years, and those first six years ‘I spent just listening to AAHOA leaders.’

‘Every young man should go through a challenge in life,’ he said, ‘especially in a financial crisis like this. So you learn that one plus one in the business world is always two and not 11.’

Pratik Patel, AAHOA 2012 Treasurer, urged the audience to be a part of the hospitality industry and AAHOA. ‘As a fellow young professional … It is our responsibility to take what [the first generation] started and to try to make it better. This industry has given us our livelihood and given us the opportunity to excel. I urge every single one of you to take your skills and talents and become part of this organization and protect what the first generation started.’

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