“AS WOMEN HOTELIERS, we are not where we want to be. We are not where we should be. But, thanks to all of you, we are not where we used to be.”
Those were the words with which Jagruti Panwala, vice chair of AAHOA, ended her presentation on Nov. 15 before a room full of like-minded women.
For about 24 hours, the meeting rooms at the Kimpton Gray Hotel in Chicago belonged to Panwala and 200 other women who gathered to talk about how to advance in the hospitality industry.
Women ForWard was an inaugural event held Nov. 14 and 15 by the American Hotel & Lodging Association.
President and CEO Katherine Lugar had charged AHLA to launch the program designed to educate and encourage women involved in many facets of U.S. hospitality. Lenders, property managers, social and political activists, franchise executives, suppliers, developers and owners came together.
They heard from women who had carved unique and fruitful paths in business and government as well as those on the fore of social change.
Panwala serves on AHLA’s board. She owns hotels with her family in the northeast U.S. and she is founder and president of a wealth-management company.
In April, Panwala will assume the role of chair of AAHOA, the first women to hold the post. She ran against two men for an officer post in 2016. AAHOA members, she said, “did not choose me because I am a woman; they choose me because I can do the job.”
When she first became involved with AAHOA about 12 years ago, it was a total boy’s club. Only 10 percent of women members were active with the association. Today, that percentage is 40 percent. Women now serve on the board as well as participate as regional ambassadors. It has taken a lot of hard work to get here, Panwala said. “We are seeing the movement in the organization in a positive way.”
Because women are more present and visible in AAHOA, the association is gaining recognition from the industry, she said. “Women bring diversity and create more exposure.”
Diversity being good for business was a recurring concept. People like Panwala, a first-generation immigrant from India, drove home the idea that diversity is indeed about women, but women of all backgrounds and business interests.
One of most meaningful presentations came from Reshma Saujani. Her double-dog dare to audience members to “be brave, not perfect” resonated throughout the group during the entire conference. It’s a message Saujani first shared in 2016 in a TED Talk that has had 4.2 million views.
Saujani is founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, a non-profit that forms afterschool programs throughout the country, teaching girls how to code computer language. When desk-top computers were introduced to the commercial market in the 1980s, advertising was targeted toward boys. Tech culture for the past 40 years has been male dominated, sending the message to girls and women that they are not good enough or smart enough to participate in the industry. “Culture matters,” said Saujani, who has a law degree.
“Coding teaches girls to be brave.”
She caught on to the dearth of girls in technology courses while campaigning for public office in New York (She did not win – a hard but good lesson in the value of failure). Her stumping took her to schools and community centers where she saw the disparity. Besides girls being shut out of technology, they are redirected to interests that are safe – meaning non-risky jobs where they won’t fail. “Boys are taught to be comfortable with rejection and failure,” Saujani said. “Not us.”
Saujani realized girl’s fear of not being perfect when a teacher in a computer class told her if a girl can’t come up with the right code, she thinks there is something wrong with her. If it’s a boy, he blames the computer.
A teacher also told Saujani if a girl is struggling with a code, she will ask for help, but her screen is blank. Hit the undo key a few times and the teacher sees what the girl was writing. So strong is the fear of not being perfect, she had deleted her incorrect code before asking for help.
The myth of perfection prevails into adulthood. “Our obsession with perfection is getting in the way of our advancement,” Saujani said.
Women ForWard did allow in some men. Mit Shah, CEO of Noble Investment Group, and chairman of the board at CorePoint Lodging Inc., a hotel REIT, and Michael Medzigian, chairman of Watermark Capital Partners, and a member of boards at AHLA and Marriott International, participated in a discussion about the importance of having women on a company’s board of directors.
Leading the discussion was Radhika Papandreou, global head of hospitality at Ferguson Partners.
Shah noted, in the early days of the Asian American hotelier community, it was usually the women running the mom-and-pop motels, sustaining the business while the men traveled and networked. Although that has changed for the most part, Shah said the industry is still “not doing very well” in promoting women to top-line positions or involving them in strategic decision making.
Shah and Medzigian have appointed women to positions of power as well as advocating for adding diverse voices on boards. But Papandreou cautioned against tokenism. “Companies have to be authentic when they say they want diversity of thought.”
In opening the event, Kevin Carey, executive vice president and COO of AHLA, said women have progressed in the hospitality industry over the past several years, but the upward trajectory “needs to move faster.”