When Being Underestimated Is a Good Thing: Stacey Brown, First Hospitality
Stacey Brown originally planned for a career in sports medicine, but after struggling through a kinesiology course in college, she put that idea on the sidelines. Instead, Stacey switched to pre-law after some encouragement from her mother, followed by law school. After some time as a litigator, she went to work for the Teamsters labor union. Building on that experience Stacey then took human resources roles at a variety of large corporations that valued her expertise in labor relations and employment law. Less than a year ago Stacey joined First Hospitality, a Chicago-based hotel development and management company, as the Chief Human Resources Officer.
We chat with Stacey about her foray into hospitality, important lessons she learned in her legal career, and her experience as a Black woman rising through the ranks. Here's herstory:
What was your first job and did you ever work in hospitality before joining First Hospitality?
My first job was at TJ Maxx in South Bend, IN. My older sister Lesley previously worked in the same store, so they hired me instantly and placed me at the Customer Service desk. This is usually for more tenured associates, and my inexperience showed when my drawer was regularly fifty cents to a dollar off. After my second warning for not having a balanced drawer, I was terminated for being fifty-seven cents over. I got another job the same day down the street at JC Penney's, making a dollar more an hour, where I worked for two years until I went to college. To this day, TJ Maxx remains my favorite place to shop.
You studied criminal justice in college and then when to law school, did you always want to be a lawyer?
Absolutely not. I was an athlete all through high school, and I was determined to never have a job that required me to sit in an office. I originally majored in Sports Medicine (to this day I am still fascinated by and frequently diagnose on-the-field injuries while watching sports). After struggling through Kinesiology II in undergrad, I decided to switch to an easier major that did not require such heavy science and landed on paralegal studies. When I went home for a long weekend and proudly proclaimed my new major to my parents, my mother responded, "If you can be a paralegal, then you can be a lawyer. Either you go back to campus and change your major to prepare for law school, or you move back home because we are not paying your tuition for paralegal studies!" I am obviously terrified of my mother, because I am a lawyer, for which she still takes full credit.
After law school you went into litigation, that is serious stuff! What drew you to that aspect of the law and did you like it?
I attended the University of Dayton School of Law, and following my second year of law school, I participated in the inaugural year of an internship/clerkship program focusing on placing minority students in law firms. Gordan "Gordie" Arnold, of Freund, Freeze, and Arnold in Dayton Ohio hired me for a clerkship through that program. FF&A specialized in insurance defense, municipality defense, and employment law. After my clerkship and my first year as an associate, my future was secure within employment and labor law. I found the area fascinating, and it allowed me to enable both companies and individuals to do the right thing the right way.
From there you went to work for the labor union, is that the start of your shift into Human Resources?
I went to work as first a staff attorney and then General Counsel for The International Brotherhood of Teamsters in Chicago. I was able to understand the inner workings of labor unions and advocate for those who otherwise have no voice. While the union was not a part of my long-term plan, I am extremely grateful for the experience. From there, I was able to transition into company roles within Human Resources, first as a labor relations and employment law manager, then eventually leading human resources. The largest obstacle was not in transitioning into human resources but in learning how to lead when for so long I was an individual contributor.
Your legal background seems well-suited to the complexities of human resources, how has it served you?
There are many legal complexities within HR, as federal, state, and local employment laws are frequently changing. I believe my background enables me to provide thought leadership to the executive team, and also shape policy and culture that is both compliant and engaging. With my experience, I frequently see all the ways in which things go wrong. It's almost a roadmap in "what not to do." I try to avoid that.
What are the top three lessons you learned as a lawyer that would be useful for any woman in business?
Number 1. You will frequently be underestimated because you are a woman. This was incredibly frustrating in the early years of my career. I would be overlooked, ignored, and condescended to. I complained about this treatment to my then manager John Danish, who is a white male. He advised me to "let them underestimate you. They will under-prepare, and you will crush them with your skills." This proved to be outstanding advice. I would take particular pleasure in winning jury trials against male lawyers with decades more experience. Let them underestimate you. Be sure to smile and shake their hand as you pass them by.
Number 2. Do not hide who you are in your quest to grow your career. I wish I learned this lesson much earlier in my career. As a black woman, wife, mother, then single mother, I never wanted anyone to think I was "less than" the (mostly white) men with whom I worked, so I rarely mentioned my family. If I needed a day off to take care of my family, I would never tell them the real reason. I would only wear my hair straight in a simple style. I would even listen only to soft jazz in my office to avoid scrutiny or judgment. I remember the day when I had an emergency with my kids while at work, and I did not make up an excuse for why I needed to leave quickly. My VP at the time told me, "we were all wondering how you were managing to take care of your children. Of course, you don't ever have to ask to take care of your family." After that, I never tried to minimize my family, and I never allowed anyone on my team to do it either. I began to live more authentically at work and found true empowerment in that.
Number 3. Stand up for yourself, even if you are quaking in your stilettoes. If you are being offered a role at less than they would pay a man, demand more or walk away. If you are intimidated, take a deep breath, pull your shoulders back and chin up, and fake confidence until you find it coming to you naturally. Find both a quiet place and a rowdy cheering section and learn to discern which you need and when.
What drew you to hospitality?
The opportunity to grow my career in an industry where I could help shape the culture of caring for people on their journey together. I have been amazed at how truly service oriented our industry is, and I am hopeful to shape careers for those who may have just been looking for a job. I want to be of service.
You've entered the industry at one of the most challenging times with a severe labor shortage and coming off of the pandemic. How are you approaching the business and what lessons can you share now that you have been in your role for about nine months?
Our data supports the premise that recruiting great talent is not our biggest challenge but retaining the talent we already have. In a market where opportunity abounds, we must create career paths, work, and a culture that is compelling. We are an industry that works hard, and must therefore have empathetic and inspiring leaders, opportunities for all of our team members to see themselves supported and successful, and a culture that others aspire to. I have learned over the last nine months that in order for us to create an environment in which guests want to visit, we must first create a culture where employees want to work. Thankfully First Hospitality has a long history of that culture on which I am able to leverage for our growth.
Switching gears, coming up the legal and corporate ranks as a Black woman, were there times when you were the only person of color in the room and possibly the only woman?
I have experienced being the only woman and the only person of color in just about every job I have held over the last 25 years. It is almost a daily experience for me, even today. I have been called names. I have been cursed, bullied, and even physically threatened. In those moments, I try to appear (probably foolishly) fearless and to quietly never back down. Thankfully, that doesn't happen to me much at this stage of my career. I am painfully aware, however, that it continues to happen to others. I am committed to kicking down those barriers for other people of color and women, to standing up for those who are still finding their voice and creating space along the way.
I have experienced being the only woman and the only person of color in just about every job I have held over the last 25 years. It is almost a daily experience for me, even today. I have been called names. I have been cursed, bullied, and even physically threatened. In those moments, I try to appear (probably foolishly) fearless and to quietly never back down.
The hospitality industry has a ways to go for racial equity, what actions do you think the industry can take to move this along?
We must identify the barriers that prevent our diverse frontline population from advancing to supervisory and leadership positions. Is there inherent bias in the promotional process? Do our leaders mistake language and cultural differences for inability? Are hairstyles, lifestyles, body types, and religion perceived shortcomings? Once we identify the bias, are we able to overcome it? My mission is not to change minds, for everyone is entitled to their own thoughts and perspectives. My mission is to change outcomes.
What opportunities excite you most about the hotel industry right now?
It's not just the growth of the industry as we continue to rebound from the pandemic but the growth of opportunities for travel, careers, and investments. If there is one thing the pandemic taught us is that humans want to explore. We want to see cultures and places different from our own. We want to explore opportunities for our financial future. The hotel industry has limitless exploration.
What is your morning routine?
To hit my snooze button until the last possible second, then to run around like a crazed woman to catch the train on time.
What do you do for self-care or exercise?
I read voraciously, cook like I'm on the Food Network, and yell rabidly at my sons' athletic events. I work out at home on my exercise bike and treadmill, and am a firm believer in stretching, yoga, and deep breathing exercises.
How many of the 50 First Hospitality properties have you visited?
I think I am only up to 11 right now. My goal is to hit all 50 within 18 months.
What is your best travel tip?
TSA Pre-check adds years to your life. I'm convinced. And always keep a small bag of over-the-counter medicine for whatever could ail you while away. There's nothing worse than getting sick while traveling, so I keep a bag with Tylenol, antacids, Pepto, and Band-Aids.
What is your favorite room service order?
French fries and a salad
What is the best advice you ever got?
When you fail, get up, dust yourself off, and try again. Don't. Ever. Quit.
What is the worst advice you ever took?
To shrink myself to make others feel bigger. To be quieter, smaller, and dumber. More or less pretty. To smile and apologize unnecessarily to ease another person's discomfort.
Any books/podcasts/TV shows you are into right now?
I am catching up on back episodes of Queen Sugar. I regularly watch House Hunters on HGTV and Diners, Drive-In's, and Dives on the Food Network. I read fictional novels constantly. I have not ventured into podcasts.
Just for fun, are there any legal-based TV shows or movies that actually capture what it is like being a lawyer?
There was a Law & Order series in 2005-2006 called Law & Order Trial by Jury, which came very close. It was based on real criminal prosecutors and defense lawyers and followed their cases. It was fascinating for us lawyers but lacked the manufactured drama that the rest of the franchise contained. Unfortunately, it only lasted a season, but I loved it!