Lessons from Latina Hospitality Leaders for Hispanic Heritage Month
Hispanic Heritage Month runs from September 15 through October 15 each year. As we honor the contributions and history of this community, we wanted to shine a spotlight on Hispanic and Latina hospitality leaders.
It’s been reported that less than two percent of Hispanic and Latina women hold senior executive positions in the United States’ largest companies. Women like Gilda Perez-Alvarado, the former Global CEO of JLL Hotels & Hospitality and soon-to-be Chief Strategy Officer with Accor – are paving the way to increase that number.
As Gilda shared with us, we need to erase the idea that there’s only room for one woman and uplift one another. That collaboration is all the more important as recent research on the Latina workforce showed its drop in the labor market from March 2020 to March 2021 was “the biggest drop in labor force size of any demographic group.” As the hospitality industry is coming back, so too are Latinas in the workforce.
As we reflect on this importance of highlighting Hispanic and Latina women this month and beyond, we wanted to spotlight several hospitality leaders making a difference in their communities and the industry overall. hertelier interviewed four Latina women in four different places around the world about their career journeys and why we need to see more Hispanic women in hospitality leadership roles. (Answers listed in alphabetical order.)
How they got into hospitality:
Maricela Aguilar-Ochoa, Director of Talent Acquisition, The Charleston Place: I
always knew I would be working in hospitality – my first job in high school senior year was working with my mother, Anita, at a nursing home assisting her with laundry and as a cafeteria attendant. I started my career in hotels in Houston, Texas with the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. I had a 20-year career with them – working in F&B and Rooms – I had great opportunities to work at Aviara (CA), Austin, Miami, and St. Louis. After taking a year off to have my son Nick, I returned to the hotel life when I reached out to my very good friend, Melissa Livingston, who was in HR and she offered me a job as HR Coordinator in Las Vegas. This is where I found my passion in Human Resources!
Dayna Chacon, Hotel Manager, 1 Hotel West Hollywood: It all started because of my mom. She worked at the Four Seasons as a housekeeping supervisor, and when I finished high school, she made a deal with me for that summer. If I didn’t have a job by the end of the summer, she would find one for me. One day she came home with a box of hair dye – I had blue hair at the time – and said, “Dye your hair. You have an interview tomorrow at Four Seasons.” And that was how my hospitality career began! I started in PBX and then made my way to housekeeping like my mom.
Julissa Kepner, General Manager, Marriott Miami Biscayne Bay: When I graduated from high school I knew I wanted to serve others; the nursing profession felt just right for my adventurous character. I enrolled in nursing school after graduation but quickly realized that I had bills to pay like everyone else. I found myself looking for a job that was flexible to work with my first semester schedule in college. The perfect fit was at a hotel called The Roney Plaza on Miami Beach. I worked as a hostess in the main restaurant while I was attending my nursing school classes. Quickly I was promoted to food and beverage supervisor, then to accounting as accounts payable and receivable. Eventually, I changed my major to Hospitality after moving to California and becoming the Front Desk Manager at the Agoura Hills Renaissance.
Mazilli Restrepo, Director, Luxury Sales––UK, Spain, Scandinavia for Accor: My dad got me into the hotel business. I wanted to become a pediatrician, in part because I have some family members in the medical sector, and I love children. I told my dad this at 13 and he said, “That sounds good, but I think you’re going to be more in the hospitality world.” I was like, “What??” but he left it at that. Then I started studying what was supposed to lead me to medicine (where I grew up in Sweden, you spend the last three years of your high school studying some subjects that will help you in university). I found out very soon it was not for me. So I said to myself, “Okay, well, let's have a look at what you need to do to study for hospitality.” I studied hospitality management at university and have been living in London now for 22 years.
Why it’s important to see Latina women in hospitality leadership positions:
Maricela: Seeing someone who looks like me can inspire other Latinas to pursue a college degree and a career in hotel in leadership regardless of their background or ethnicity. It helps to break down barriers and we can contribute to a more inclusive environment in service.
Seeing someone who looks like me can inspire other Latinas to pursue a college degree and a career in hotel in leadership regardless of their background or ethnicity. –– Maricela
Dayna: I remember seeing women in hospitality who were Latina, but the only person that I remember vividly when starting out was this woman whose name is Nancy Chacon. We’re both from Guatemala but not related, but when I started at Four Seasons in LA, I heard so much about her and it was a big deal. She was a female, she was director of rooms. And this was 2002, when there weren’t a lot of women who looked like me in those positions. I never remember seeing anybody who truly looked like me. And if I did, they were always in housekeeping director roles – never director of sales or hotel manager. And I’ve always kept that in mind because it’s so important to see people that look like you in various roles. Editor’s note: Nancy Chacon is now the General Manager at Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta!
Julissa: We represent our work force and representation is very important for our community. Latina women are nurturing, we love to take care of our family, friends, neighbors etc. It is ingrained in our DNA. Our culture brings a unique perspective because we naturally are inclusive, gracious hosts, we are creative and innovative. We are better leaders to lead a diverse work force with [people from] many different backgrounds and customers from different parts of the world. It is natural for us to connect with our work force and customers.
Latina women are nurturing, we love to take care of our family, friends, neighbors etc. It is ingrained in our DNA. ––Julissa
Mazilli: I’m going to take Colombia as an example [as it’s where I’m from]. Women in Colombia may want an office job, or want to be a doctor, or want to be a dentist. But hotels have not reached that level yet. We don't tend to have that patience to be able to reach the position and the years it takes to get this position. More or less, it took me 16 years to get this position. You need to work at it and you need to prove yourself. It's a lot about proving yourself. I think we just need to open this way for women to feel that they can do whatever they want despite what the society feels that they should do. I feel that Latina women, they think a lot about what the family thinks, about what is everyone going to think about me?
On what's changing to increase the number of Hispanic folks, especially women, in management positions:
Maricela: There has been a great focus and shift to the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, which has helped to promote and represent Hispanic women. As well, the educational, mentorship and networking opportunities have increased throughout the years, which has allowed for Hispanic women to break through barriers and reach higher levels within organizations.
Dayna: I hear a lot of people that I work with whose parents also started in hospitality. And their parents were the bussers, the dishwashers, the housekeepers, the food and beverage servers. But then these children come into the industry as well. And they start to grow in the industry. I also think that the industry standards have changed to where we don’t have those barriers that if you're going to be a Front Desk Agent, this is what you have to look like. I think that the industry has started to give minorities more opportunities. And at the same time, we’re asking, how do we open doors for people that look like us as well? And how do we develop people that look like us? Whether it be a female, or whether it be a male, how do we continue to develop our people? The kids coming through now are going to be the ones that are going to take over our roles and our positions one day.
I think that the industry has started to give minorities more opportunities. And at the same time, we’re asking, how do we open doors for people that look like us as well? And how do we develop people that look like us?––Dayna
Julissa: The customer’s landscape is changing, and our Hispanic community is generous and has an incredible purchasing power. The combination of our purchasing power and the fact that we are the largest minority in the country, that makes us a group with a robust consumer spending. Corporations and company want to know more about us, and the best way to know more is appointing Hispanics into those leadership roles and allowing us to make good decisions to impact business in a positive way. This affinity creates opportunities for Hispanics to take on leadership roles. Editor’s note: Including Julissa’s latest leadership role – she is the chair-elect of the Greater Miami Visitors & Convention Bureau. As she shared, “It’s been 18 years since the organization had a Latina woman as a chairperson of this prestigious organization that creates economic impact to our hotel industry and our community.”
Mazilli: I feel that pre-pandemic, things were changing a little bit more. There were a lot of these groups that were being put together for women, not specifically Latina women, but women in general. Then there were a few Latina women there. But I have to say, post-pandemic, it's taking a toll on hospitality and a lot of really good talent has been lost. For me, London is a place where if you're good at something, you will get somewhere, but you need to put in the work. It's something you really have to have this commitment with yourself. Post-pandemic, it has hurt it a little bit because people are getting jobs where they feel that there is something for them right now and there is that instant gratification. Hospitality is not really like that. I would like to see more of it. I think we're not there yet.
What advice do you have for women, especially Latina women, starting their hospitality careers:
Maricela: Have a mentor who will help you throughout your career. Their guidance can help you navigate the intricates of the hospitality world. I am very thankful for Melissa Livingston and Ricardo Ramirez - they both took a chance on me in my HR roles, and Chef Alex Trujillo, who supports my consulting business. Advocate for yourself, focus on self-care, have a sense of humor and ensure your personal values are in alignment with your company values. If they aren’t, make your next move!
Dayna: Be proud of where you come from, be proud of how you started. If you're an immigrant, be so proud of that. I just had this conversation with a couple of colleagues, and I said, you know, our parents made a lot of sacrifices for us to be in this country, and for us to have the opportunities that we have. Be proud of where you come from, don't ever forget where you come from. And just always be humble, especially in hospitality – all we do is deal with people every day.
Julissa: Stay true to who you are. Ask for the opportunities in hospitality leadership roles – knock on doors. You have earned your seat at the table, you just need confidence to claim that seat. Don’t be afraid to take risks and step out of your comfort zone.
Mazilli: I think there is a lot about self-belief. Everything starts within our own self-belief. But I do feel that within Latin women, there is a lot of that transgenerational opinions there from their families, from friends. I think, as women and Latin women, we need more of that resilience. There can be perceptions of working in hotels and the role you’re in, and I have seen a shift in the way people see me now versus how they would look at me when I was first starting my career. If you're interested in hospitality, it's also a career that you need to go after because you love people and you're interested in people and being of service. That's what we need more of, that resilience and that being of service way of thinking.
Everything starts within our own self-belief. But I do feel that within Latin women, there is a lot of that transgenerational opinions there from their families, from friends. I think, as women and Latin women, we need more of that resilience. –– Mazilli
What can the hospitality industry can do to welcome Latina women and encourage their career growth?
Maricela: Continue to be involved in the Latino community through mentorship, networking and involved in community events, promote how the company supports diversity and inclusion and show how we promote growth and opportunity at our workplace.
Dayna: I see a lot of recruitment for the bigger colleges, the bigger universities, the bigger names, but try focusing on the smaller ones that maybe are community colleges or have more minorities attending. Mentoring is a big one too – and how do we mentor? Are these generations coming through to be the next hotel managers or to be the next director of front offices? I do think hospitality has changed a lot and I see a lot has changed. My director of front office is a Latina. Our director of marketing is a Latina, our director of catering is a Latina. That was one of the biggest things when I was interviewing at hotels, and there were people that looked like me in executive roles. And that, for me, was amazing. I had never seen it. So when people come to interview now and they're looking for companies to join, if you're a person of color, if you're a minority, if you're a female, those are questions that you ask, do people look like me? Because that allows you to see that there is growth potential that you can get to the next level.
I do think hospitality has changed a lot and I see a lot has changed. My director of front office is a Latina. Our director of marketing is a Latina, our director of catering is a Latina. That was one of the biggest things when I was interviewing at hotels, and there were people that looked like me in executive roles. And that, for me, was amazing. ––Dayna
Julissa: The hospitality industry should provide mentorship programs to Latinas that want to grow. In addition, organizations need to take a chance with Latina women in leadership roles because their work ethic and understanding of the diverse background will help drive the business to be a more profitable one. The industry will have to be intentional in incorporating these type of platforms to promote Latina women in leadership.
Mazilli: I think coming up with things like Hertelier —this is why this is so important. This is also on the part of the hotels and the hotel management companies out there to do that. I believe there is the perception that is still out there that not a lot of people would be interested in it. But if we don't... One of my mottos in life, if we don't try, we will never know. My vision is to change the perception completely. That takes time. But you need to start somewhere.
On any women – especially Latina women – who have impacted their hospitality journey:
Maricela: Quite a few friends who have been a reason why I continue to evolve -Rose Perez Herrera, Melissa Gamble Livingston, Cinthia Pedroza, Dionne Proper, Dayna Chacon. I personally want to thank LeeAnn Boissiere-Rigualt and team Charleston Place Hotel for giving me an opportunity to shift in my career and move into recruitment! and I would not be who I am today without the love and support of my mother, Anita, and sisters Julie, Leonor, Silvia, Blasita and Maggie – their upbringings of working in the fields (picking cotton and okra) and watching them be successful in areas of purchasing, medicine, business ownership and a librarian assistant has been my inspiration plus they are retired now enjoying life!
Dayna: Maricela Aguilar-Ochoa, you are it! Learning the HR world from her was so impactful. And having somebody that my room attendants could go to that spoke their language and they feel heard and understood was so amazing. Of course, my mom – she’s the whole reason I got into hospitality in the first place. And Karina, someone I met through my mother. She had worked with my mom for years, and was looking to continue to grow. My mom said, “Hey, I have a referral for you.” I ended up hiring her as my assistant manager, and continued to develop her and really worked with her and was able to promote her to Assistant Director of Housekeeping. And now she's a director of housekeeping at another property. You know, it's always it's been so amazing to see her career blossom.
Julissa: My mother Maria is a remarkable woman who raised four kids in Peru. Coming from humble beginnings she has been an inspirational source and motivation to me. She always wanted more for me and always believed that I can go far in life. During my growth in hospitality I had wonderful leaders that guided me in my journey such as former general managers and regional leaders; their common characteristic are strong women that don’t shy from obstacles. Today, they are my mentors and my groups of support when I have questions about the industry.
Mazilli: That is a very, very good question because of my upbringing, and this is very interesting because it takes us to the point of the whole conversation about how few Latina women are out there in this industry where I am in London. For me, it's been all my managers, many female managers – English, German, French, and of course, when I was in the US, Americans. But I think it goes back to the awareness that needs to be done to be built around the perception of hospitality. I want to start putting that seed in people’s – specifically Latina women’s – minds about all you can do in hospitality. Hospitality is such a big career in itself that the awareness of it is not there yet.
Thanks to Maricela Aguilar-Ochoa, Dayna Chacon, Julissa Kepner, and Mazilli Restrepo for participating! For more about Hispanic Heritage Month, visit https://www.census.gov/newsroom/stories/hispanic-heritage-month.html.
Melissa Benhaim is Founder of Benhaim Public Relations, specializing in hospitality and travel PR. She has worked with hotels, destinations, and travel clients across the United States and the Caribbean, managing social media campaigns and securing media coverage in the outlets that matter to them most.