Jagruti Panwala, the first woman elected secretary of AAHOA, speaks of diversity in leadership, knocking down barriers and elevating the association’s stature.
by STEVE VISSER
Jagruti Panwala broke the proverbial glass ceiling at AAHOA in March when she became the first woman to be elected secretary of the 27-year-old organization, putting her on a path through leadership posts that will culminate in her becoming chairwoman in four years.
“It is not just about being a female but having a candidate who is passionate and committed for the association,” she told Today’s Hotelier. “It was time for the organization to truly have a diversification in leadership, because I feel that when you have a diversified organization, the more vibrant the organization is.”
“My dad needed me to help with all the hotel operations, and he thought it was important that I was a partner in the property. Even being a girl, he always made sure I had an equal partnership just like if he had a son instead of me at that age. It always resonated with me that, whether man or woman, you have an equal opportunity in whatever you do in life, because it came directly from my parents.”
— Jagruti Panwala, April 2016, when speaking on the values her family instilled in her, including the importance of equal opportunity regardless of gender
In other words, why would any organization not want all its brains and talents competing to rise in leadership and volunteering at all levels?
Panwala would seem like a natural fit for leadership. She manages several hotels – starting as a teenager – and also has become a highly successful financial adviser, giving her the asset-management skills that AAHOA wants to encourage in its membership.
Moreover, she has already taken the point for the organization in testifying before a Congressional committee against the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) interpretation of regulations that threatens to upset the franchise model. As a teen, she helped form a cultural organization that thrives today.
She recalls her father’s advice to remember where she came from while knowing where she is going.
The Pennsylvania resident noted her election over two male competitors, in an organization which she said is 40 percent female, was evidence that gender barriers are waning.
Currently, she said, there are four female members on the approximately 32-member board and she hopes that number will grow to be more reflective of the membership over the next decade – if not by the time she reaches the top post in 2019. Members elected secretary progress automatically through officer ranks annually from treasurer, to vice chair to chair.
But she said the key for the growth of AAHOA is a leadership dedicated to increasing its presence in the industry and a more active membership. Knocking down barriers – or perceptions of barriers – will help ensure a more robust female and male membership, she said.
“This election proved that AAHOA is an organization in which it doesn’t matter what gender you are or what community you belong to,” she said. “People are going to say, ‘If this woman can do it, why can’t we do it?’ That is great synergy.”
Chip Rogers, president and CEO of AAHOA, said women have always played an important role in the hotel business, but in the past few years they’ve stepped up and taken AAHOA leadership roles as ambassadors, regional directors and board members.
“Their voices help shape what AAHOA does every day,” he said. “Ms. Panwala’s election will certainly bring attention to AAHOA as she is the first woman to be elected as an officer. She’s also in line to become the first female national chair in 2019. That will surely serve as an inspiration for not just women but all AAHOA members.”
Rogers noted that Panwala had won a hard-contested election. AAHOA candidates run “highly professional campaigns” with websites, campaign teams, and debates and speeches at the annual convention.
Panwala said her father instilled in her the importance of equal opportunity regardless of gender after they immigrated from Surat, India, in 1988 when she was 15. At 18, her father made her a partner in a purchase of a hotel in Allentown, Pa.
“My dad needed me to help with all the hotel operations, and he thought it was important that I was a partner in the property,” she said. “Even being a girl, he always made sure I had an equal partnership just like if he had a son instead of me at that age. It always resonated with me that, whether man or woman, you have an equal opportunity in whatever you do in life, because it came directly from my parents.”
At age 22, she and her husband bought an independent motel – a 35-room Economy Inn in Levittown, Pa. – shortly after graduating from college. They borrowed money from family and friends to get the down payment to secure a loan. She once described the motel as old and dilapidated with “leaky pipes, a crumbling foundation, broken furniture, rust, mildew and a general lack of customers. For two years, we repaired, replaced, renovated and marketed our motel into respectability.”
They own five hotels now, all franchises, including a Best Western under construction in New York City.
Her father also encouraged her not to forget the importance of her cultural roots as the family struggled to build a prosperous life in the United States. At age 18, she was a founding member of Surati Modh Vanik Samaj of USA, an organization that focuses on heritage, language and culture of the Indian community. Its success helped show her the importance of organizations.
“We now have 6,000 members, and we started with four members in my backyard,” she said. “The main purpose is to make sure our children in the United States are familiar with the culture and where we came from. I’ve always believed in giving back to the community.”
“That is one reason I am so passionate about AAHOA,” she said. “It is not only a business organization. It is a community.”
During her first years in the hotel business, she wasn’t as passionate about the possibilities of AAHOA, but in 2011 she decided she had the time to devote to organizational politics. She ran for female director at large, Eastern Division, and was given the initiative to build up female participation.
Within five years, she decided it was time to take the next step and run for secretary, the elected seat which starts the automatic procession to the chairmanship for the holder after four years.
Besides her mother and grandmother, she credits Nayna (Nancy) Patel, a past director of the AAHOA board and past co-chair of the woman’s committee, with inspiring her to seek the path to the top of the trade group.
“She was one of the pioneers of the woman’s initiative in AAHOA,” Panwala said. “She has been my mentor. She held my hand for the first two years. Even through this election, she has been my biggest supporter. She has stood by me, and she has guided me.”
Since 2011, she has been instrumental in planning four national women conferences, and as co-chair of the Women’s Hotelier Committee organized a record of 35 women’s sessions across the country. She has served on AAHOA’s Strategic Planning Committee since 2013.
In September 2014, Panwala found herself as a witness in Congress before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. AAHOA had become very concerned when lawyers at the NLRB had signaled they were going to interpret the franchisor-franchisee relationship as a joint-employer model – an interpretation being pushed by labor unions to help with unionizing the workforce.
Panwala told representatives and their staffs that interpretation threatened the very business model she had been operating under since she and her husband secured a franchise from Choice Hotels International for the first motel they bought and began to operate as a Comfort Inn.
She explained that nothing in the relationship made her an agent of the brand – noting she only interacted with staff at Choice Hotels International occasionally each month. In effect, she simply secured the brand name and thus a bigger customer stream in return for fees and a cut of the revenue.
She said she feared if the joint status was granted, the franchisor might feel compelled to try to assert more control – above and beyond brand quality – and oversight into her operations that would result in her no longer being “in business for myself.”
“I am an independent small-business owner who makes decisions about my business and staff autonomously,” she said at the 2014 hearing. “Affiliation with a franchisor can help generate revenues, but, ultimately, success or failure and profitability of the hotel is based on my decision making.”
Panwala continued her testimony with, “Mr. Chairman, it is for these reasons I am extremely alarmed by the radical decision of the NLRB’s General Counsel seeking to confer joint employer status onto franchisors. As I understand it, the franchise model has existed for nearly 100 years and franchisees have long been considered the sole employer, because we control the working conditions of our employees. This relationship remains the same today.”
The testimony was one of the early shots in the political fight AAHOA expects will be one of its most important issues over the next 12 months. Chairman Bruce Patel has said he is committed to increasing AAHOA’s lobbying power in Washington to tackle that issue and others.
As secretary, besides encouraging women to get more involved, one of Panwala’s top goals is to expand the organization’s ambassador program throughout all areas of each region. That way, she said, it can better act as an early warning system regarding any state or local issues, laws, taxes or regulations that could affect hoteliers.
“We need to use our volunteers more efficiently,” she said.
Being on top of the issues early is key. She noted a $5 hotel tax slipped into Georgia last year before anyone noticed. Correspondingly, legislation raising the hotel occupancy tax in New Jersey was vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie after Panwala said she questioned him about it at an event for his presidential campaign.
She hopes to raise AAHOA’s stature to ensure it becomes a go-to organization for print, broadcast and online journalists reporting on the hotel and hospitality industry.
Currently, each regional director appoints 10 to 12 ambassadors; Panwala wants to ensure the ambassadors are spread throughout the region rather being overly represented in a particular state. She would also like for AAHOA to be able to assist more members in resolving their disputes with franchisors.
Panwala wants to tweak AAHOA’s Certified Hotel Owner (CHO) program to encourage more female participation by making it less time-consuming, possibly cutting the five-day program to three. Women hoteliers, Panwala said, often face time constraints brought on by family duties that make it difficult to break away for five days to attend the course.
Another top initiative will be on educating members how to structure management companies and Wall Street loans. “Most of the second generation [of hoteliers]are not just managing hotels, they are managing assets,” Panwala said. “They need to take the business to the next level.”
Panwala is uniquely positioned to push business diversification. As the owner and president of Wealth Protection Strategies, a company focusing on asset protection, Bloomberg said she has earned a lifetime member spot on the Million Dollar Round Table, and she has consistently placed in the top 50 of the thousands of John Hancock Financial Network representatives.
She said she thought those objectives could be achieved well before she takes over as chair in 2019.
“Of course we need to realize that any platform can change at any time because we don’t know what will come up,” she said. “As a chairmanship legacy… I just want to leave a legacy of achievements where the membership is proud. That groundwork has started.” ■
Steve Visser is an award-winning journalist and freelance writer who works and lives in Atlanta, Georgia.
Women leading: 6 ways to speak up and stand out
Jagruti Panwala hopes plenty of other women will be competing within AAHOA and the hotel business for leadership positions. To that end she advises:
- It is OK to be uncomfortable, because you need to get out of your comfort zone to accomplish new things.
- Women have a lot of barriers, but they can get past them. In a meeting room full of men, sit in the front and walk with your head high and demonstrate belief in yourself; then other people will believe in you, too.
- Women need to support each other in the organization despite any personal differences. “It is a real tough battle if you don’t have the support from other women,” she said.
- Make sure to support the right candidates for leadership positions who have passion for advancing the organization. Recruit women to run, but get behind male leaders, too.
- Be proactive on legislative and franchise issues. Ensure franchisors understand that it is a two-way partnership to make franchise relations better.
- One of the biggest mistakes women leaders make is they say “yes” to everyone. They need to say “no” when it is time to do so.