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Strong, Confident, Smart – with Hospitality in their Heart (Part 1)

Celebrating Women in Hospitality for International Women's Day 2019

To celebrate International Woman’s Day we spoke to some influential women to find out why they chose hospitality and what advice they have for anyone considering a career in the industry.

What stands out more than anything is their passion for hospitality and the people who work with them, inspire them and help them strive to achieve every single day.

We speak to Wendy Bartlett MBE, Sunaina Sethi, Sara Jayne Stanes OBE and Maxine Muir about their careers in hospitality.

:: Wendy Bartlett MBE ::

Wendy Bartlett MBE is executive chairman of independent caterer Bartlett Mitchell, which she launched in 2000 with chairman Ian Mitchell. The firm, alongside sister brand Inn or Out Events, which it acquired in 2014, delivers workplace catering, executive dining, hospitality and event catering as well as reception and concierge services throughout London and south-east England.  Today the company employs more than 800 people across 90 sites.

We asked Wendy what were her inspirations growing up?  Did she have another career path in mind or was hospitality always the goal?

My biggest inspiration was my older sister, Janice, who worked in the London hospitality scene and introduced me to the sector.  I used to ‘volunteer’ help by washing up at the club she worked at. It was really good fun and I got to meet some interesting people.

I never considered any other career. I like people and working in hospitality gave me access to so many different types of personalities. I knew it was where I saw my future.

Was there a ‘light bulb’ moment when you knew that hospitality was where you wanted to focus?

During my ‘O’ levels, I had the opportunity to work weekends with a lady called Mrs Ferneaux who ran Harrington Hall, a boutique accommodation only hotel in Kensington.

I worked on reception and looked after the hotel – I absolutely loved it. I was meeting some brilliant people and helping to organise their stay at the hotel. I realised that I really liked what hospitality stands for; you are ultimately helping people to enjoy themselves and make their day run smoothly.

Mrs Fernaux did tell me that, despite being very good at what I did, I needed to have elocution lessons otherwise I wouldn’t make it in this industry! It was a great learning curve and one that I really took so much from.

We asked Wendy about mentors and the people she aspired to.  Would she advocate finding a mentor to young women entering the industry today?

In my formative years at Sutcliffe, Don Davenport and Mike Oldfield, had absolute faith in me to deliver no matter what the situation.   They were supportive of what I did, even if I went off-piste to find solutions. They always challenged me and gave me the right guidance and support to succeed.

I was very fortunate to work with William Baxter who, when he found out I wanted to start my own business, just told me to get on with it. It was great advice.

Then there is Ian Mitchell – you truly couldn’t ask for a better business partner. He had complete faith in me, which was a massive compliment as he has such high standards. All of these people have been incredibly supportive throughout my career.

We set up a ‘Women Who Inspire’ award last year. This wasn’t to recognise women who are ‘fighting to make it good in a man’s world’; this was to encourage at all levels talented women in our business and give them the confidence and courage to keep pushing. I advocate finding a mentor to anybody. Mentoring is hugely important for career development.

For young women entering the industry, it’s important to look at role models and see that nothing can hold them back, only themselves.

Have you been involved with or used the services of any industry led support organisations and if so which ones and in what capacity?

I’ve mentored through the Institute of Hospitality’s mentoring programme. It’s a well-structured and excellent resource for career development.

I also sit on the board of UK Hospitality. For me, this has been very useful as it offers a breadth of knowledge from across the sector.

Delving a little deeper we wanted to find out the things Wendy loves about the industry, things she finds hard and the most challenging aspects personally in the day to day running of Bartlett Mitchell?

I love the people in this industry the most. Our industry is full of personalities, of many talented and passionate people who really want to make a difference, no matter where they started. This really makes our sector one of the best out there, and I genuinely believe although we work harder, we have much more fun.

In my business, the thing that gives Ian and I most joy is when we can impact somebody’s life in a small way to make it better. Whether it’s a call from somebody thanking us for a birthday call, or whether we have supported somebody who has developed from being a kitchen porter to a chef, these things really make us happy.

The industry does have some challenges. Getting one body to represent the interests of our sector has always been hard. It has made recruitment more difficult and caused some issues around skills and the industries position.

My personal challenges at work are often focused around making sure I am doing what is right for the team. It is really important that any decisions we make as a business is right for our people too. This is always on my mind.

Finally… what advice would Wendy give her younger self?

Exactly what my big sister told me – “Believe in yourself and be yourself. You can do anything.”

​Twenty years ago, some people may have questioned the fact that a woman was launching a business in an industry dominated by men. But being female never held me back. It actually helped me as I offered something different. I’ve always encouraged individuality in people. Having your own thoughts and views will only ever help you succeed. I never let my gender define me and the men I worked with never saw it that way either.

I love my career and I love the industry. I wouldn’t change anything!

:: Sunaina Sethi::

Next we chatted with Sunaina Sethi, Operations Director and Wine Buyer for JKS Restaurants. In 2012 Sunaina was named by Zagat as one of their ’30 under 30’ up-and-coming young stars of London’s food scene, and in 2016 Sunaina was voted Imbibe’s Restaurant Personality of the Year.

What started as a one-Michelin-starred restaurant – Trishna in London – has grown into a mini empire popular with guides, critics and customers alike. JKS Restaurants (named after Jyotin, Karam and Sunaina Sethi, the three siblings behind it) has two Michelin-starred restaurants of its own (Trishna, plus Gymkhana in Mayfair), as well as two sites in London under its casual Sri Lankan street food brand Hoppers.

We asked Sunaina did hospitality play a part in her childhood and what her career goals were?

My early memories are of family dinners, lots of entertaining, great food and being encouraged to try everything, to experience new tastes.  Sunday nights were all about family dining together and when my parents entertained at home I was ‘front of house’, passing around the drinks and taking coats.  I feel very lucky to have had opportunities from a very early age to travel and be exposed to different cultures but hospitality wasn’t in my sights as a career option.

I studied German and Management Studies and a career in banking beckoned and although I loved German I just didn’t click with banking.  After my internship with HSBC on my return to the UK my brothers asked me to help out at their restaurant as a stopgap even though I’d never worked in a restaurant.

Was there a ‘Light bulb’ moment? 

Yes! It happened on day three or four of working in the restaurant. I’d been filling out job applications and realised that hospitality was where I wanted to be.  The applications went in the bin and I joined the team at Trishna.  I loved it.  It was like hosting a dinner party every night and exciting working with the team.   It also felt a bit like cheating as drinking wine for research was part of the job.

Are there any people in the industry who inspire you?

My brothers and family are a source of inspiration every single day and their belief and trust in me and my abilities is empowering.

Sandia Chang is someone in the industry who inspired me when we first met at Simon Rogan’s pop up restaurant where I was working.  Sandia has incredible knowledge and experience and I learnt so much about wine from her.  Over the years she has continued to inspire me and it is a pleasure working in partnership with Sandia now.

Again in the wine world Jancis Robinson’s knowledge has always stimulated me to learn more Danny Meyer’s ‘Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business’ is a must read for anyone working in service industries and hospitality.

Do you network and are there any organisations or groups you would recommend?

In London ‘Women in Wine’ is a great group to be part of.  Their aim is to inspire, educate and engage women working in London’s wine industry and it’s a great forum that provides women with a strong network to positively impact their professional development.

I’ve also been involved with LOR (Ladies of Restaurants), which was set up to support women of the hospitality industry.  Its all about discussion and ways we can help each other; whether that’s making introductions, assisting someone looking for a new job, or just meeting to have a glass of wine.

It’s a diverse group with L.O.R’s coming from all sectors of the industry including front of house, back of house, marketing, PR and wine.

Things you love, things you don’t and the day-to-day challenges?

I love that no two days are the same and the opportunities I have to meet so many different people. People are fascinating and aspects of my role that I enjoy are learning and developing, changing the face of hospitality, mentoring, training and supporting the team.  Being proactive, staying ahead and growing our team in a dynamic industry are exciting elements for me.

That said there are days when all of the above can be challenging; staff retention, training and development are so important and getting it right is fundamental to any successful business.

Working with my family means there is no down time because every conversation eventually comes round to the business and that’s great because it means it’s still fresh and exciting.

Read more in part 2 of our International Women’s Day celebrations, taking a look at  Sara Jayne Stanes OBE and Maxine Muir’s careers in hospitality.

Plus read our tips on Growing and Retaining Women in the Hospitality Industry