Women & Leadership: AAHOA's Jagruti Panwala

To date, HOTEL MANAGEMENT’s Women & Leadership series has featured industry icon Marilyn Carlson Nelson, C-Suite contemporary Niki Leondakis of Commune Hotels and HSMAI award recipient Colleen Birch, who heads revenue management at The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas.

This month, we talk to a woman who has accomplished an industry first: In September, Jagruti Panwala became the first female officer in the history of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA), when she was elected secretary. A winner of the organization’s Chairman’s Award for Excellence, Panwala has also twice been elected to AAHOA’s female director at large, eastern division, a position that she also currently holds in addition to her position as president and CEO of asset managing and succession planning firm Wealth Protection Strategies.

Here, she tells HM what it means to be a woman, an immigrant and a finance professional working in today’s hospitality industry.

1) Talk about being a woman and an immigrant in the hotel industry? What was that journey like?

Panwala: I came to this country at age 15 with my parents, two sisters and my brother. The biggest challenges that we faced as a family were culture shock and not speaking English. But that is also the same story for many AAHOA members who came here looking for opportunity, without really having any money. To overcome these challenges, we worked hard in the hospitality industry. A lot of Indian-Americans got their start in hospitality nearly 40 years ago, starting in housekeeping, maintenance and the front desk where there were opportunities.

As a woman in the hospitality industry, I look at things a little differently than my husband does when we’re building or looking to acquire hotels. When it comes to certain amenities or locations, he looks at the bottom line; conversely, I look at how guests will feel—and while I realize the importance of ROI, I believe that comes with providing the right service for the right clientele. The experience of being a woman in the hospitality industry provides another perspective: Women are making most of the travel decisions and, now, we’re also more confident getting out of our comfort zones and making the decisions necessary for a hotel to be successful.

2) How does owning your own asset management firm ease your path as a woman in the hospitality industry? 

Panwala: I started working for an insurance company right after college and now I consider myself to be an accidental hotelier. An estate planning client mentioned he was struggling with a hotel asset. The hotel was two miles from my house and I saw an opportunity to acquire the property. But without having the money, it was almost an impossible task. We borrowed money from family and friends and did a lease-to-purchase option. From one hotel, we grew to six. I was really passionate about the asset-protection side of the business because of the asset-protection work that I was doing with my individual clients. I wanted to do the same for myself. I had become a hotel owner and a financial planner and the two worked hand-in-hand. On the hotel side, we’re always making sure guests have the best hospitality experience and on the wealth-management side, we want to prove the best service to our clients, ensuring their assets are protected from liabilities and taxes as much as we can. I chose both paths because I truly enjoy both aspects of it and financial success ultimately comes from doing something that you feel good about.

3) As the first female officer in AAHOA’s history, how do you think women can take more active roles toward leadership positions in this industry? Can they?

Panwala: I certainly hope that it opens up a door for many women. When I joined AAHOA six years ago, there were so many times when I heard ‘AAHOA is just a bunch of men.’ Whether it’s a women’s conference or a regional meeting, there are more women signing up and I hope, now that I’m in a leadership position, that thinking has gone away because AAHOA welcomes men, women and young people. AAHOA really opens its arms to everyone.

4. Given that you are one of three “female directors at large” among AAHOA’s leadership, do you think that other hotel organizations and companies could benefit from having specifically designated female leadership positions?

Panwala: It’s absolutely a necessity. The industry needs to hire more qualified women for senior-level positions. It’s 2016, and we’re still discussing this, but I hope that won’t be the case when my daughter is 25 and that men and women will hold leadership positions in the same proportions anywhere in the workforce. We need to empower women to have these positions so that for a woman like me to win a position on a Board of Directors, it won’t be big news, but a routine happening.

Today, about 40 percent of AAHOA’s membership is made up of women and this is the highest number of female members that AAHOA’s ever had. But compared with the total number of AAHOA members, it’s actually not proportionate. So we still need to make sure that there are more female qualified candidates running for leadership positions. I don’t think I was elected to the Board of Directors based on my gender. There’s a lot of space for more women, but it’s also a huge time commitment and for women that can be a struggle because of family life and work commitments.

As for my position on the Board of Directors, I think I’m the right person for the job; I don’t do my job well because I’m a woman, but because I’m passionate about the industry. But I do think my position on the Board of Directors positively affects young women, too.