In 1980, Gail Smith-Howard walked into the Grand Hyatt New York seeking a job. Thirty-five years later, she has climbed the ranks and now works as the Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill. Smith-Howard recently opened up to ESSENCE.com about what it is that makes the Hyatt Hotels Corporation, which ranks at No. 7 on our Best Workplaces for African-Americans list, so great.
What would you say is your favorite part about working at the Hyatt?
The people. When you work in a hospitality field, you hear a lot of companies talk about it feels like a family, and that’s why you like going to work because you have another extension of your family. However, working at the Hyatt is truly like that. My entire time with this company, I’ve met great friends and mentors, and you don’t find those connections with every single company that one would work for. I think I’m very blessed stumbling onto this industry because it’s not something that I ever thought I was ever going to get into. When I grew up, you went to college, you became a lawyer, you became a doctor, you became a teacher. Hospitality was not something that was really known to African-Americans, at least not in my social circle. When we traveled, we stayed at our aunt’s house or our cousin’s house. So I never knew about the hotel industry, and when I stumbled upon it when I was in New York City accidentally, I just found a passion for it.
What drew you to the company in the first place?
I went to school for marketing and finance. I was in New York looking for a job on Madison Avenue when I saw a newscaster. I walked up to him and introduced myself. I told him I was looking for a job and asked if could he point me in some direction. He was working on a story on Hyatt. He said, ‘That’s a hotel company that’s hiring. You should go work for them.
Isn’t that crazy? The line wrapped around two New York City blocks, and I thought, ‘Mmm, I don’t know if I want to stand in that line. It’s probably going to take me about six hours to get to the front.’ So I went up to the front, introduced myself to the person and said, ‘Here’s my resume. If you’re interested, please call me for an interview.’ And as fate would have it, they did.
And the rest is history.
And the rest is history. I started at the Grand Hyatt New York, and I just loved being with the people. I loved the camaraderie, I loved the teamwork, I loved the vision as far as where your future could go, I liked the fact that you could travel and see different parts of the country—now you can travel internationally—and it just fit what I was looking for. It encompasses my education; I was able to use the skills I learned in business, the skills I learned in marketing, and plus it teaches you life skills.
In terms of diversity, how do you think Hyatt differs from other companies?
Hyatt has always been ahead of the curve. I remember 20 years ago being called to Chicago and having meetings with human resources and other African-American managers. We always look inside of ourselves, and whether you’re African-American, whether you’re a woman, whether you’re Asian, whatever it is, it’s a very accepting organization…Shortly after I got the call to interview to be a general manager, I found out that I was pregnant. The senior leaders looked at me and said, ‘You know, it’s your body that’s pregnant, not your mind. You have been working for this for the last 13 years. Why would you turn down this opportunity?’ How many companies would say that? But that’s Hyatt.
What advice would you give someone seeking a job there?
I would say if you’re looking for a company where you can grow and a company that’s going to care for you and is going to help you grow your talents and give you the opportunity to not only see the hospitality world domestically but also internationally and to hone your skills and who’s going to accept you for who you are and help you to get where you want to me. This is what our company is. Come to the table and be yourself and be open with yourself and be open-minded and be willing to grow. Our culture embraces all individuals who want to grow and elevate their careers with Hyatt. You don’t have to worry that you’re female or that you’re a certain age or African-American or Hispanic. You just have to come to the table every day wanting to give your 100 percent and wanting to be fair and open.