Alpa Patel, Founder & CEO of Spaceez
After unsuccessfully seeking out attractive and economical design and renovation options for her parents’ hotel business in Arlington, Texas, Alpa Patel was inspired to create Spaceez, a company dedicated to providing small-scale hoteliers with not just functional, but beautiful interior design at an affordable price.
Her path has been a bumpy one. Before becoming an entrepreneur, Alpa struggled in an unfulfilling marriage. It took her ten years to work up the courage to leave her husband and finally, at age 34, left with nothing except a job she hated in printing sales, and the belief that her life could be more. She had no vision of what her next step would be.
When her father asked for help renovating the Super 8 motel where she grew up, Alpa realized there were no design solutions for economy hotel owners, most of whom are people of her Gujarati community that make up 90% of the market segment of economy or select service motels and hotels. Even with a marketable idea, she still had many hurdles, failures, and lessons to learn.
By 2018 she was able to raise the money to set up what is now Spaceez and quit her printing job. Over the last three years, Spaceez has completed about 10 projects. Last month her company was selected by Hospitable Bridge, a new venture accelerator studio launched by the award-winning hospitality design firm AvroKO, which is on a mission to champion innovative women-of-color-owned businesses in the hospitality space through seed investment, mentorship, business coaching, legal resources, marketing guidance and more. Already, the connection with Hospitable Bridge has been a big boost giving Alpa the confidence to take Spaceez to the next level. Here’s herstory:
Let’s go back, how did you get your start in the hospitality business?
My family immigrated to the US when I was 10. My parents had been sugarcane farmers in India when they moved to California in 1991 with their four children to pursue a better life and education for their children. First, they started a dry cleaning business, but at the time and back as far as the 1970s, there was a saying, “if your name is Patel, work in a hotel” going around South Asians that immigrated from the Gujarat region. So, when my Uncle in Texas who was building a motel suggested that my father join him in the business, my family packed up and moved to Arlington in 1998 to run a Super 8 motel with 50 rooms in pursuit of the American Dream.
Did you work in the hotel?
Not just work, we lived our lives in front of and behind the lobby, which directly connected to our four-bedroom apartment! My sisters and I helped with the front desk from age 16 onwards, but we did lots of jobs to keep the hotel going. I’ll never forget, one weekend during the first summer at the motel, the housekeepers formed a union, went on a strike, decided not to show up for work. So my Mom, sisters, and I had to roll up our sleeves and clean nearly 48 rooms for the first time. I can confidently say that I’ve experienced almost every aspect of running a hotel including housekeeping. I have the greatest respect for housekeepers who do the most important job at the hotel.
Do you think hospitality is a ‘gene’ or you can learn it?
I think it’s both. My parents were very motivated to realize their American Dream and raise their children. My Mom learned the business for sure, including learning to use the computer systems and speaking Spanish. However, something that was innate to them was how to be great hosts. My father would greet every guest as if they were coming to our home because well, quite literally, they were! I was amazed to see how my parents treated their staff like family. My father’s motel has had the same housekeepers for the past 20+ years and some of their children now work there, too. Hospitality is definitely part of who my parents are, and this extends not just to guests, but to employees, and our community.
Did watching your entrepreneurial parents give you the confidence to start your own business?
My journey was a little more complicated than that. I lived a very sheltered, traditional upbringing. We come from a close-knit community, that in many ways was as if we’d never left India. There are certain traditional expectations for women--getting married, raising a family, and supporting your husband.
For Gujaratis, education is very important and I went to the University of Texas at Arlington, but I lived at home, not allowed to date, or have the typical American college experience. However, I was accepted into the Honors College and they awarded me a scholarship to study abroad for a summer semester in Prague. It was my first time away from family and at first, I was very homesick, then it became a defining moment...the highlight of my college career. I made new friends and grew leaps and bounds. I began exploring museums, cultural events, and activities and seeking local food. I changed so much in those short three months and truly came into my own. I started having bigger goals and dreams for myself.
So you came home from Prague ready to do your own thing?
No, I didn’t have the courage to stand up to my family, our community, and our traditions. I tucked my amazing international experiences away in my brain and finished university in Texas. My parents began to look for a husband for me, as is the custom. When they found a man from a good family when I was 24, we got married and I moved to California.
You had an arranged marriage?
Yes, at the beginning of our marriage as we were getting to know each other, he seemed ambitious and had big dreams. He wanted his own business and with the support of his family, he bought a printing company. I worked with him and tried to help him succeed, but inexperienced, he overextended, bought too much equipment, and things went downhill.
When did you realize you wanted to leave your marriage?
Within a few years. I was deeply unhappy, but I didn’t want to disappoint my parents and I felt like I would be a failure, a big mistake on my part. I did a lot of soul searching to understand my feelings and realized I had to build up the courage to stand up for myself. Working daily on my self-esteem through affirmations, books, and therapy, and still, it took me years. Meanwhile, my husband spiraled along with the business. Finally, when he admitted he didn’t want to have children, I decided to leave.
Where did you go?
My family was supportive of my decision and I moved in with my sister who also lived in California. I left with nothing except my job so I stayed with my sister for nearly six months, saved up enough money to get my own apartment. I felt stuck in the printing sales job, but I didn’t have other work experience, and I needed to earn money and support myself.
What inspired you to be an entrepreneur?
By this time, my parents had bought out their partners in the Super 8 in Texas and owned it outright. Also, the Dallas Cowboys had built and opened a stadium two miles from the hotel, so the property had been doing well for several years. However, despite the great location, the hotel was steadily losing business to Airbnb, and my father felt a new lobby design would make his hotel more competitive. My father had asked me to help him renovate.
After lots of searching, I couldn’t find affordable design options for our Super 8 lobby renovation. Super 8 is owned by Wyndham and when we asked them for help, they didn’t offer any ideas. I began talking to other small-scale, family-owned hoteliers, and I realized we were all searching for the same cost-effective solutions, for more attractive renovations as we were all getting hit hard by Airbnb. When I realized 50 percent of hotels in the US are in the economy sector and 90 percent of these hotels in America are owned by Gujaratis, I was even more motivated to help my community. All these factors inspired me to start Spaceez.
Perfect, you had a great idea for a business, did it just take off?
Haha, no. The day after my divorce was filed, I officially formed the business. For the first two years, it was a side hustle but I knew this was my ticket to the life I wanted to lead. I loved design and the process. I helped my Dad, then family and friends. Through word-of-mouth and Facebook groups, more projects came in, but it wasn’t enough to support me, and not being able to focus full time, there were lots of ups and downs.
When budgets are small, you have to work harder and be more creative to make an impact. These aren’t sexy and glamorous projects, these are economy hotel lobbies and guest rooms, but smart, attractive design gives an experience and I was committed to the mission to help my community at affordable prices.
How were you able to find cost-effective solutions?
Using a contact in India, I found designers there who could work on projects with me remotely, help design the spaces, source affordable products, create budgets--all these things can be done online. Long before COVID, I was working with my team in India over Zoom through screen sharing. Finally, in 2018 I was able to raise the funding which allowed me to leave my printing job and focus on Spaceez.
Once you raised the money, then it took off?
People think entrepreneurial journeys are quick if you have a great idea, but in truth, building a new business takes time and requires a lot of patience and perseverance. Since September 2018, we’ve done 10 projects, everything from lobbies to guest rooms. We’ve grown with each experience, now our platform allows small, budget-conscious hoteliers to purchase beautiful and prototypical boutique-style designs for guest rooms and public spaces at affordable prices. We do everything from concept, design, sourcing, and branding to project management through completion. There are tremendous cost savings working with India, with each project we get better and offer more.
Do you have a big staff now?
No, that is why the Hospitable Bridge grant is so meaningful. We are running a lean operation. I have a project manager with 25+ years of experience in construction, a director of marketing, then I have my team in India and three interns from the local university in Orange County, California.
Now with the Hospitable Bridge partnership, it is amazing, we have access to the AvroKO team and resources, not just the seed money, founder Kristina O'Neal is mentoring us and sharing her extensive experience. Less than 2% of all venture funding goes to women-owned businesses and an imperceptible percentage of that funding to women of color. I am so incredibly grateful to Kristina and determined to take complete advantage of this opportunity to grow Spaceez to the next level.
What project are you excited about now?
We are doing our first mid-scale project, an independent boutique hotel in Oakland, California. It has 48 rooms, we are renovating everything including creating custom branding. We’ve been working on it for two months and it should be done by the end of the year.
Is it hard to be an entrepreneur, what motivates you?
Keeping my purpose close motivates me and gets me out of bed every morning at 4 a.m., well before the alarm is set to go off. Living my best life and doing the most good is what truly motivates me. Building a business serving my community with affordable design, creating a company that employs others, and making a lasting impact motivates me.
I am also very passionate about raising awareness for the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), world-changing and powerful goals that if realized by 2030 will help us build a more equitable, cleaner, safer and healthier world for us and the future generations. I also am committed to Flyte, which supports low-income communities to offer kids educational travel. This is personal to me because of how transformational educational travel was in my own development.