Rising up the ranks from cleaning sheets to managing her own luxury beachside hotel in Dakar, Senegal, Souadou Niang shares her experience of defying the odds as an African woman to achieve her dreams of becoming a hotelier.
Souadou left her home to pursue a degree in America after finishing high school in Senegal. Impressed by the luxurious Ritz Carlton Tysons Corner in Washington DC, she asked for a cleaning job to pay for her education, all the while aspiring toward management, a goal she eventually accomplished. Twenty-five years later, having moved back to Senegal with the aim of bringing the same luxury standard of hospitality that she had experienced in America, Souadou now not only owns Palms Luxury Boutique Hotel but also has become an inspiration for likeminded women, empowering them to accomplish their goals and rise above the obstacles that are stacked against them in an inherently patriarchal society.
Souadou spoke to us about the trials and tribulations she faced in her rise up the hospitality ladder, her experience of building a business from scratch––from trying to find a loan to training and retaining talent––and also her plans to further her endeavors, “conquer Africa and why not the whole world,” as she said to the BBC Africa. This is herstory:
Tell us a little about your background and what brought you to the US?
I am one of 13 kids, all with the same mother and father. My older brother and sisters were already in the US, when I finished high school I joined them. They were in New York, I arrived in 1993 and after four years in New York, I moved to Washington DC.
Why did you move to Washington DC?
I got married and moved to live with my husband who was already in DC when I was 23. I lived in DC for 10 years before moving to Florida where I had two children, one born in 1997 and one born in 2000.
When you were in Washington, you went to college and worked at the Ritz Carlton at Tyson Corner?
Yes, I went to Nova Community College in Virginia in 2000 for liberal arts communication studies. I worked at the Ritz when I first arrived in Washington and was with them for the years that I got married and had children. At the Ritz, I started off as a housekeeper and then was trained to be able to work in every department before I could manage the hotel. These years made me who I am today.
When you went to Florida did you work for Ritz Carlton too?
No, I worked for Ralph Lauren in the Bal Harbor shops and at the same time, I was getting my realtor license.
How did you end up back in Senegal?
I was born and raised in Senegal. I moved back because I wanted my children to know my background. They were coming every summer on vacation but I decided that that wasn’t enough so in 2008 we moved back.
Did you move back with a plan to open a hotel?
It was in my mind. A year before my husband and I separated, I had decided to focus on myself, my goals, and my children. With the idea to open a hotel, I went to a lot of banks hoping to get a loan but it was almost impossible. They would say that it was too risky because I had no guarantees. I came with the American mindset that they would help without guarantees but that wasn’t the case.
If the banks thought you were too risky, how did you get a loan?
For nearly ten years, I kept going to the bank and not giving up. Eventually, I asked to see the risk department. Fortunately, that day, the bank branch manager for all of Africa happened to be in the meeting. I didn’t even know he had been sitting at the table until he revealed himself to me, saying that he could see the passion in my eyes and that this is something that was never done but that he would help.
Did you already have a property in mind?
Yes, I had my eye on a villa with 10 rooms. I rented it for 10 years and completely transformed it.
Was that your vision?
Yes, my aim was to show that we could have that same luxury standard in Africa as I had experienced in America. Within the property, we created 20 guestrooms, two restaurants, an Italian, and a bistro, with around 35 seats. We opened the hotel, Palms Dakar in August 2017. It has gone really well, last year, despite the pandemic, we did 80 % occupancy.
How did you go about the digital bits, like establishing the reservation system, etc?
How many people do you have on your team?
All together we are 60, there is a lot of us because we have different teams for breakfast and lunch and then people who work for dinner.
How did you find people? Did you train them yourself?
I trained them. 80% of my team is female and so most of them had never worked before because unfortunately, women here tend not to go to university, they stop schooling in high school or even before. I saw that there were a lot of women getting married and having kids so young with no experience working. I thought this needs to stop, they need to earn money for themselves and feel like a part of society. I empowered them through training. I remember to start with they kept saying “Oh no, I can’t do this” and I said “Why?’ You do not need a degree to do a customer service job as long as you have passion and the right training.” One of my employees told me when I first hired her that she would only be able to do waitressing, today she is the front desk manager.
You must have made a great economic impact in your community then?
It is wonderful to have so many women working for themselves. In Africa, one person that works has at least 10 other people to look after in their family, whether that be a sibling, child, or parents. By hiring 60 people, I am actually feeding maybe three or four times that amount by providing for their families.
Have you struggled recently to find workers like many other hospitality leaders?
No actually, I have been lucky that my team has stayed the same since 2017. Believe me, all the other hotels are coming to my hotel to try and take my people, but they are not leaving me because my team is a family. I told them on their first days, “if you are just here for your paychecks then this is not the right place for you. You have to wake up and be happy to spend so many hours together without your families, we all have to be there for each other.” I have a policy for my staff where if they wake up and don’t feel like working, they don’t have to come and they will still be paid. It is so important in customer service to bring good energy to work.
It is so important in customer service to bring good energy to work.
What an amazing policy, how do you cover shifts on late notice?
Everybody is cross-trained in every job so it is easy to switch people between roles, just like at the Ritz Carlton where if you were hired as front desk, you would know how to do the housekeeping, how to clean the room, and how to do everything else. This way everyone can help each other. I have applied exactly the same training here.
Where do your guests come from? Are they mostly foreign or local?
They are mostly foreign, often from the UK, Australia, or the USA.
How did you cope during the pandemic?
We were closed for one year, which was very hard but we held on. We missed each other so much, but we had a group chat on WhatsApp where we texted every day. I was glad I managed to keep everyone and that I was able to pay every single one of them.
Amazing, how did you pay your team?
For the first three months of COVID, the government gave out a certain percentage of salaries which was about 50% but after that, the government asked the bank to cover our costs for the year, but we are now in the process of paying back the loan.
When did you reopen?
We’ve been reopened since June but the borders were still closed for Europe so we didn’t see anybody until October, but we came back and prepared for that day.
What’s next? Are you thinking about growing?
I would love to expand for the benefit of the continent and for society here. Following the BBC interview, I had had a lot of young women all over Africa getting in touch with me and saying that I have given them hope that they can achieve their goals. All they needed was to see that someone did it, I am just like them and I trusted in my gut and focused on my goal. Therefore, I am teaching them to do that, to believe in their product, and be able to sell it to other people. Many women hadn’t ever thought that they could apply for customer service roles because the French system requires a Bachelor’s degree for these jobs.
Wow, you opened up the idea to women in Africa to pursue their goals?
Yes I opened up that idea, but not only that, my employees never spoke English and now they are all fluent. I encouraged all of them to learn English online with Duolingo and to listen to English kid's shows, and that’s what they did. They are all totally fluent now.