Like many of you, unexpected twists and turns in my life have led me to my purpose.
A Southern upbringing, hospitality management school in Alabama, traveling to over 40 countries, working with people from 30 nationalities and witnessing corporate America at the cut-throat executive level gave me a unique perspective on how we as purpose-driven entrepreneurs, social enterprises and individuals can actually have a shot at truly making an impact on the world around us. This is my story.
It begins on a mega-yacht (yes that’s right), way out in the middle of the ocean.
I had just graduated from the Hospitality Management School at Auburn University in Alabama and I hadn’t really travelled that much before. I was a sheltered, southern girl who also happened to not have a job lined up for myself after graduation during the recession. So, I said yes to an internship on a luxury yacht that my college recommended me for.
I remember the first time I Googled this yacht after I was told I was selected for the program (and to be honest, I said yes not even knowing what this ship was.)
I remember, I clicked on that year’s itinerary, and saw a map with a bright red line squiggling through it — going from Australia up through South East Asia, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean Sea, out through the Strait of Gibraltar, and up to Iceland and Greenland before coming down the East Coast of Canada and the United States.
At that point in time, I couldn’t even comprehend what those destinations would look like and smell like. And I couldn’t understand what the people there would sound like, what their stories would be and how they would impact my life. But I found the courage, packed up my one small suitcase, and flew out to meet the ship.
The ship didn’t even have to leave the dock for the wave of new sounds and smells to hit me. I walked onboard like a wide-eyed puppy.
Elegant marble and exotic hardwoods lined the main plaza. A huge floral arrangement engulfed the middle of it. Posh, but understated furniture was placed along the perimeter, and on the far end, a couple was sitting quietly in the corner as they were served a concoction in champagne flutes. I was immediately energized. This was what I had studied for four years, I thought, to work at the highest level of luxury hospitality!
I remember the HR manager greeting me at the gangway. She kissed me on either cheek, and as a southern American, not knowing what to do, I just stood there stiff as a board. She then escorted me down steel stairs to the crew area in the bowel of the ship. The furnishings were a lot more sterile down there, BUT, the people were not.
I walked down the main corridor, affectionately known as “Boogie Street” and about 50 smiles were focusing in on me. I heard “welcome” and “hello’s” from every direction in every single different accent you could imagine. It was the first sensory overload I would have of many.
For the next several weeks, I would witness a sense of pride in the staff, and an energy that they believed they were working for “the best of the best” and that by affiliation with that great product they were also something to be proud of.
The next twist in my story came quickly.
LAYING NAPKINS ON LAPS
The ship’s restaurant hostess decided to run away from the ship one day while we were in port. The ship was in total shock that their employee “jumped ship” and asked me if I could take over her responsibilities until they found a replacement.
To be honest, it wasn’t what I had in mind for my life-long career, but I said yes, knowing that if I could show my work ethic, it would lead somewhere good.
And that is exactly what happened. After a few weeks of absolutely killing it at smiling, escorting people to their tables, pulling out chairs and laying napkins on their laps, they wanted me as their permanent hostess. This was my foot in the door, and from the ground up I would rise… I would climb that ladder.
But, it wasn’t really that glamorous all of the time: I worked 3 meals a day, 7 days a week for 6 months straight.
I was tired, but I found strength in a phrase I remembered from hospitality school back in Alabama.
A LESSON IN HOSPITALITY
Horst Schulze is the founding father of the “luxury experience” which he crafted during his long tenure at Ritz Carlton Hotels. He helped build the Ritz Carlton empire off the simple value that “We are Ladies and Gentlemen Serving Ladies and Gentlemen.” He taught everyone in his company, from the executive to the dishwasher that serving was an art form — that it was a role of great esteem — and the key to a great culture.
This concept of mutual respect elevated not only the experience for the guests of their hotels, but more importantly it allowed the employees to grab a hold of their identity, their role, and their purpose.
Smiling, welcoming the guests by name and putting napkins on their laps became my art form. I channeled everything I had into it. I found joy in it.
It then organically overflowed from inside of me to Boogie Street. A smile, a greeting by name, remembering the small details of people’s lives, taking time for a caring conversation. There were crew members from every corner of the earth, with unbelievable realities. But, they didn’t need me to fix their problems. In those simple moments, where our paths would cross on Boogie Street or in the mess hall, they just needed someone to show them outrageous care. To smile, to remember their name, to listen to their story.
Giving the best of ourselves to others, allows them to give the best of themselves in return. It is a mutual respect, a level playing field, two humans being two humans. And it yields extraordinary results.
There is a great quote that says,
“We must be silent before we can listen. We must listen before we can learn. We must learn before we can serve. We must serve before we can lead.”
I was eventually promoted into roles of greater responsibility, but not because I was an awesome napkin layer. It was because I was silent, I listened, I learned and I served. It was because I was a lady and gentlemen serving a lady and gentlemen.
A servant’s heart is where impact begins. As social entrepreneurs, we must self-identify with being a servant first. We must find pride and joy in this art form of giving to others.
For all of us, no matter our social missions or our specific innovative business models, the most vital part to making all of it work is what is happening within us. If our hearts are right and there is joy in this simple art form of serving others, great social impact is possible and can leap off from this solid foundation.
Keep good. Keep giving.