above South Wacker Drive in Downtown Chicago, inside The Hyatt Center, the corporate headquarters of Hyatt Hotels, Sal Mendoza outlines the need for global diversity and inclusion initiatives.
It’s common sense really, Mendoza says. But this is corporate America, where you better have the data and be up on the cur- rent industry buzz words if you want to convince executives of anything.
“You can’t lose that business focus,” Mendoza said this past spring. “This is a business, and whatever element we add, whatever relationships we form, we have to create a three-tier value. One of those is value to the organization. The second is what the organization brings of value to us. The third one is the most important: How do we add a value to that organization that is already a value to the constituency?”.
In Mendoza’s role, value-add means something entirely different. He’s talking about people, people with differences — race, lifestyle, culture — which are always changing and getting more and more specific. And it’s his job to ensure that Hyatt continues to see consumers as people first, while simultaneously presenting the business case to ensure the higher-ups are always paying attention. It’s a tedious, yet necessary balance, and one that Mendoza manages well. The position is one that he has a lifetime of experience preparing for, and it’s a job that allows him to fully match his intelligence and know- how with the sensibility only an immigrant can harness.
Fifteen years into his mission at Hyatt, and the Honduras native remains convinced of the work that corporations still have left ahead in the space of diversity and inclusion. For a long time, however, Mendoza wanted to work to see the eradication of diversity departments altogether, hop ing that corporations would fully understand the need for all-inclusive business practices, and thus lead to roles like his becoming obsolete in the face of that enlightenment.
But, the market and the signs of the times are suggesting that, in fact, people involved in diversity will become increasingly important, especially as corporations try to make sense of recent Census results and figure out how to genuinely target and retain consumers.
“It doesn’t matter how successful a company is in breaking revenue sales goals year after year,” he said. “Just for the sake of the argument, let’s say a company has been successful 10 years in a row. Let’s say they have grown sales revenue by 10 percent. There’s not going to be once in that company leadership where they say, “We’ve grown 10 percent for the last 10 years, I don’t think we need a vice president of sales or a vice president of marketing anymore. The same thing applies to diversity and inclusion as a business advantage.”
And Mendoza has proved it, and has helped garner some top honors and recognition for Hyatt, including Fortune Magazine’s Top 50 Places for Minorities to Work, Black Collegian Magazine’s Top 100 Employer, Latina Style Magazine’s Best Companies for Latinas, DiversityInc’s 25 Noteworthy Companies, the Association of Diversity Council’s 2011 Diversity Council Honors Award and Best Places to Work for LGBT Equality for seven consecutive years, and many more.
The accolades only remind Mendoza of the work that remains. Contentment, in his mind, is the enemy of diver- sity. Save the pat-on-the-backs for somebody else. Mendoza knows he has a job to do, a job that he may be the first to hold, but his work now is ensuring that he won’t be the last.
LL: What would you say was the biggest difference between the 14-year old from Honduras and the young man who graduated college?
SM: I would say relationships. I started asking myself how I could establish relationships with people who could help, but at the same time help you grow. For me, at the time, when I graduated college, I knew there had been a lot of growth, but I knew there was a lot more that I needed.
My friends and I always said we would be president of something. And it’s still in the plans. But it’s that motivation. 1) How do we make it better for ourselves as we go through the process? and 2) What is the foundation we are laying, and what is the example we are leaving for our kids and our friends’ kids? There are going to be challenges. I tell (high school kids) that they have advantages that I didn’t. You speak the language. You were born here.
LL: So you’ve graduated college. What happened next?
SM: When I graduated from college, I started working for LULAC. At night, I started teaching GED preparation classes. Most of the students were older individuals. They would work 10-hour days, and then come and take classes at night. Even to this day, I still see these people, and they still call me ‘Maestro.’ My kids ask me why they are calling me that. It’s amazing to know the impact that you can have. So from 14 to getting out of college, I knew that we needed to continue building what our legacy was going to be.
Years later when I had my first child, I had these philosophical conversations with my father. He told me that this is why the countries are the way they are. A lot of people educate themselves outside of the country, yet they don’t come back to contribute to the economy of our country. You don’t come back to invest that intellectual capital that you could bring back. Of course, I knew he was right. But I also knew that he was speaking from a sense of patriotism. He was a little disappointed because the idea was that we would educate ourselves in the US, and then we would go back there. He has an excellent point. That intellectual capital is not coming back.
LL: So how’d you land at Hyatt?
SM: About 15 years ago, I was organizing an event at Navy Pier, and I was trying to get a good rate at the Hyatt, and I asked my friend, whom I knew from playing soccer. So I was trying to work that angle. We started talking about soccer, and then he said, “Hey, you’re finishing your Master’s. There may be a position that is going to become open at Hyatt. It’s very similar to what you’re doing now, except that it’s on a national level.”
At the time, I was interviewing to be an Assistant Dean of Student Affairs at a community college. So I told him I was not interested. He tried to convince me. It’s the same thing, he said, but you’ll have a bigger influence. It’s one of those things that I said, “OK, here’s my resume. Do what you want with it.” It was one of those, ‘leave-me-alone’ sort of deals.
Sure enough, within days, they called me from Hyatt. I dismissed it. I figured it was probably a formality from (my friend) working here. Sure enough, a week later, they called me for an interview.
But that time, I had already had two interviews with the school. But I decided to go to the interview anyways. At that time, I interviewed with Linda Olson, who was the Vice President of HR at that time, and I met with the team, and I was immediately sold. Hearing what they wanted to do, they really wanted to start the program from scratch. Hearing what they wanted to do, the philosophy behind it, and what they were looking to put into it, it just blew me away. It really piqued my interest.
In retrospect, the amazing career I have had at Hyatt has been incredible. It’s a hospitality industry so you expect for people to be nice and for everybody to get along, but it is amazing. I always say I am a born-again hospitality person. If I had to do it again, I would do it again.
I think I came in a little bit ignorant; I think that was in a good way. One thing that I don’t miss about the educational system was the bureaucracy. Everything happened by committee, and that was one of the biggest adjustments I had to make. There is an element of politics in the corporate sector. It is the politics of promotion that you play, but in a good way. It’s not about trampling over people. I am always a believer that it is up to you as an individual to seek out professional development opportunities, and to determine to what extent do you work with your colleagues or your community in a way that is mutually beneficial. It’s up to you if you’re going to play the corporate politics fairly. Eventually, if you’re a mean individual going up the corporate ladder, people are going to see that. People will figure that out. You’re success will be very limited to the short-term.
LL: How do you, and specifically Hyatt approach diversity?
SM: I always said that our contribution, when it comes to diversity and inclusion, the value that I brought over the years, has been that we already know that it’s the right thing, the moral thing to do. But I think that there are two other big elements I bring to the table. The first is my business savvy.
There is a 3-tier component that says if all three of us are happy about the value we are bringing, it’s going to be successful. Hyatt is a company that is becoming the preferred brand…but part of the process is for us is to find out how we can help those organizations grow, so that if we truly believe what they are doing adds value, I believe it is our duty to help them grow that way they can reach the community that much more. At the end of the day, it is that business component.
The other component is figuring out how we can build brand equity in those communities. For a company like us that has 90,000 employees worldwide, somebody is going to say the stupid thing sometimes. For us, in building those brand equities, a company can say or do the stupid thing, but the community will know that is not our culture; it is an isolated incident, and it is not part of the Hyatt culture. We know that the community knows that we are going to take care of it then, but we are going to be proactive in making sure it doesn’t happen again.
The other part is the integrity. Wherever I go, even on a Sunday, I represent Hyatt, and Hyatt represents me. I am tied to the brand. I carry myself within the communities the way that Hyatt has empowered me to speak on behalf of the company. It’s that integrity component. It’s the passion that is personal to me. I am an advocate for the employees; I am an advocate for Hyatt, and I am an advocate for the community. It’s not always in that order. But, I take it personally when one of those is being attacked.
There’s also an economic reciprocity component. How do we want to be branded? There’s an eco- nomic reciprocity component that comes with what we are we doing in supplier diversity. What are we doing in investing and supporting supplier diversity — minority, women and gay and lesbian, disabled and veterans? What do we do in that space?
In theory, and hopefully in practice, the more you invest with those vendors, you hope that they grow, and in the process, we are building that brand eq- uity in them, so in turn if they are successful, they can have meetings. If they’re successful, they can travel.
I think as a company we need to take the lead to see how we can start influencing those decisions. How can we start to influence the government? I always laugh because they give the example of China where there are a lot of women leaders in China, but not in the corporate sector. But in Latin America, the ‘machismo sector’… where else in the world have countries consistently voted women Presidents in those countries? Where else? You say they bring the machismo mentality, but you go to South America, and women get elected there. So there goes that argument. We know we can do better than that.
Don’t get me wrong. There are still companies who are stuck. There are companies who are doing it, and I hope they are doing it for the right reasons. Then you have other companies who are doing it kicking and screaming because they are afraid of lawsuits. Those companies are immature.
LL: Have you seen Latinos’ leadership role in hospitality improve? Obviously, Latinos are known for holding service-oriented positions within in the hospitality industry.
SM: The hotel industry has not always been seen as an industry that is a career opportunity for the minorities because it is always seen as an industry of servitude and not service. There is a reason for that. You can say my grandma, my tias, they were servers. So they have this mentality that it’s about that — that it’s not a career-oriented industry.
There is that image of the hotel industry that it is not a viable, successful, lucrative career. So that’s challenge No. 1: To say, “Let’s change the image”. Yes, it is going to happen. I have always said that we are diverse, but of course, there is that pyramid, especially the higher you go.
We created benchmarks some time ago in 1999. When I started, we did this so we could see where we were, and at that time, we had nine minority general managers. Right now, we have 21. We had six female general managers, and now we have 11. Of those 21, seven are Latinos. It is encouraging to see the commitment that the company has made, but it is also encouraging to see that the leadership has said that this is good progress, but we are not content with it. We need to make more strides.