DEI Advisors Podcast

Donna Quadri-Felitti, Associate Professor, Pennsylvania State University, School of Hospitality Management, interviewed by Dorothy Dowling

July 08, 2024 David Kong
Donna Quadri-Felitti, Associate Professor, Pennsylvania State University, School of Hospitality Management, interviewed by Dorothy Dowling
DEI Advisors Podcast
More Info
DEI Advisors Podcast
Donna Quadri-Felitti, Associate Professor, Pennsylvania State University, School of Hospitality Management, interviewed by Dorothy Dowling
Jul 08, 2024
David Kong

Donna shares her journey in education and hospitality, driven by her passion for empowering others and her extensive experience in foodservice, hospitality sales and marketing, tourism consulting, and hotel asset management.

Show Notes Transcript

Donna shares her journey in education and hospitality, driven by her passion for empowering others and her extensive experience in foodservice, hospitality sales and marketing, tourism consulting, and hotel asset management.

Dorothy Dowling:

Greetings. I am Dorothy Dowling, a principal of DEI Advisors. We are a non profit organization dedicated to personal empowerment. I am delighted to welcome Donna Quadri Felitti, Director and Associate Professor, School of Hospitality Management at the Pennsylvania State University. Donna, it is such an honor to have you with us today.

Donna Quadri-Felitti:

Oh, Dorothy, it's an honor to be with you

Dorothy Dowling:

in

Donna Quadri-Felitti:

any setting, even virtual.

Dorothy Dowling:

Donna. Thank you. I hope we can get right to it because the first question that I'd like to ask you is to share your career journey with us. You've had a very storied career in both the private sector and academic sector at both NYU and Penn State. I'm wondering if you can share your journey with us and how your journey has shaped your role as a director of School of Hospitality at Penn State.

Donna Quadri-Felitti:

Thanks. One of the great things I love about DEI advisors and all of these podcasts is indeed hearing the diversity of journeys. We don't all start in the same place or the same time or come to our love of this business in the same way. And I hope that mine as an educator resonates with a few folks. I started being in the restaurant side in a high school job, in a college job and needing those and wanting to work and having fun, whether it was a summer resort experience or summer camp. Being a server. It was there was something joyful about that work, even though I was a teenager and there was community and I liked it, but I was passionate about education. Education was always important to me. My first degree is in education. And I thought that's how you change the world for the better is educate people and give them a sense of confidence as well as economic security in through education. And so when I went to New York City and the 80s to pursue that degree first at NYU I also continued to need to work and the hospitality industry is phenomenal for allowing people to come in, to exit to have flexible schedules and I just, again, found a place not in my lovely hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania, where I started that journey, but in New York City, in Greenwich Village, doing that very same thing. And so when I finally graduated, it was a really tough economic time as at that time. And I was fortunate to continue a role with Aramark. It wasn't called that then, but the very large Philadelphia based food service institutional food service company. And I was so grateful to have that that gig at the time. And it really helped. I found the satisfaction around the work and around the hospitality industry. It made me feel good. I felt like I was doing service of some kind of importance, helping a company that had multiple facets of business, both campus dining and hospital feeding, which I also did at some, at one point in Mount Sinai, New York. And, I just learned and I got to learn a lot more about business part of that. And that's really when, what fueled my love of staying in that industry. Along the way, I had the opportunity to meet people both from, The academic side of our business who were in campus dining, they were in business development, which is sales. And through Aramark, I really said, this is a cool business. I want to be in this business. And I also, at the time, Got involved in my alumni Association at NYU and that's where I met a really meaningful and long serving a mentor of mine was Laila rack and she became the founding dean of the program at NYU and she, Said you need to get your master's. And I said, I think you're right. And so she actually inspired and helped me to do that. When I got my master's degree from NYU, I then went on to the hotel side of the business, had the opportunity to work for Lowe's hotels and development and do some consulting as well. And so I got to see another side of this great, broad, diverse business. And. There was the marketing and branding side of that, which I ended up doing a lot at Aramark as I progressed in my career with them. And I, this nagging thing about education kept coming back and was the thread that and marketing. Or branding came through this thread in my career. And I was fortunate enough to teach as an adjunct at the program that Layla founded. And, Layla said to me, you need to get your PhD. And I went, I think you're right. And it wasn't right away. I went back out into industry and did hotel development consulting. And I even did a startup which I will talk about a little bit later, maybe. But I did. I went back to teach full time and then pursue my PhD, which I think about that sort of journey. It didn't, it wasn't overnight. It certainly took a lot of way, a long time and a long way. But I'm proud of the inspirations along the way and the opportunity to do different things. That's what I think for me in my journey, it is really cool that this business is You can take these transferable skills into different areas. I started with a food service company and ended up doing communications and marketing and sales for them at the end of that. In fact, even did some event planning around business development activities. And then when I went back and got my master's and I went into the branding and the marketing and development side they, they tied together. They dove tail together. They weren't disparate. They weren't really that different, or at least I reflect back on them as not being and then in my Ph. D. Program at Iowa State University, I did tourism marketing and I did something around the experience economy. I used a A framework to study what a rural experience, a wine experience tourism experience would be. And I was fortunate enough to get a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to study that. And so I, I look back on that and I think about how marketing was still a thread that pulled through that journey. At the end of the day, though, being an educator and inspiring other people. To be in this business, I think is the overarching story for me. And so when I was able to go back to NYU full time and teach and do some really neat and innovative things there, which they're still doing. But I got recruited to come to Penn state and that was another challenge and opportunity that I didn't want to miss. In fact, it was really because of Dan Lesser, one of the. your partner in DEI Advisors, one of his other subjects Dan encouraged me and referred me and nominated me for this position. And I am indebted to him. We always say we did each other a mitzvah. I introduced him to his business partner, Evan Weiss, and he introduced me here. And that is also a story of relationships and people that you keep in your life over time in this industry. To me, to be in a place which has a storied history 88 years. Looking at this degree program here, one of the earliest in hospitality, higher education, a doctoral program that's doing research to help move the industry forward, educating the next set of faculty, but also still a strong undergraduate master's program. That's how I got here. A girl from Erie, Pennsylvania, the, the streets of Greenwich Village and then back to a pretty place in Pennsylvania. I, again, reflecting back on that, those threads that you can pull through and the things, finding things that still inspire you. And this industry still inspires me and the power of education still inspires me. So that's how I'm here.

Dorothy Dowling:

Thank you for sharing that with us, Donna, and I think we will come back and build some linkage in terms of your career journey with some of the questions that we follow up on. But I do think just the breadth of the exposure that you had in your private sector journey. I know. Powers you in ways that you can connect the dots of your students and bring so much value to them. So thank you for sharing that. I know you talked about how education was a very important part of your commitment in terms of where you wanted to continue to evolve your personal journey. I'm just wondering if there was a personal mantra that drove your personal and career success.

Donna Quadri-Felitti:

I've been thinking about this, and I have so often been asked to give it to students. I was thinking, whoa what's mine? And I wouldn't say a mantra but one of the things that I think has served me well is be as interested as you want to be interesting. Leading with curiosity and learning something new or listening to other people, I think has helped me along the way. And I sometimes counsel students or mentor students that you don't have to be the most interesting person in the room. You don't need necessarily to have the biggest, longest resume. If you can balance. And knit together, you know your own personal interesting story as well as being interested in others. You'll be far better to build relationships that yield so it's not something I think about all the time, but remembering to be interested. To be curious is I think an important mantra for me to remind myself of. So thank you for that question.

Dorothy Dowling:

I do think that ties together with that framing that you've had about marketing and being customer centric and being on this learning journey and being a good listener because I do think that is a very customer oriented and I'm sure a very student oriented approach to how you continue to listen and learn from your students. So thank you for that. I'm wondering if I could talk a little bit And learn more about career champions. I know we have a shared affection and mentor in Layla Rack, Dr. Layla Rack, who obviously was the Dean at NYU for a long time and has her own consulting practice now. But I'm wondering if, I know she was an important mentor. You mentioned Daniel, who we both know as well. Are these folks, the ones that really were your most important mentors in shaping your career journey?

Donna Quadri-Felitti:

I think there's, you pull from a lot of different Areas of your life. I think my mother was probably my biggest inspiration, and I'm sure that, listen to enough of these that a lot of folks reference that. And, My mom as also valued education and wasn't able to avail of it herself for generation college wasn't a given. And so that was really important to her. And she went back later in life to get her degree in marketing, interestingly enough, but she also in her fifties and sixties pioneered in senior sports. And she was a competitive athlete, still holds records in for senior Olympians in Pennsylvania. And She was able to make friends in every generation. She had a triathlon team that was a high school swimmer. Her as a biker at a, 45 year old as a runner, she really believed in, wanted to champion women's rights in a way that I didn't understand because I had other things available to me. And I think she really was my career mentor when I think back about it. And she always said she wanted to live to see a woman president, and she unfortunately passed away in 2021 at the height of COVID. She didn't get to see that, but she believed a lot. And I have also thought that, my best career partner was also my partner. My spouse once asked by a student women's leadership group about. the best, the most important career decision I made. And I said it was who I married. I didn't hesitate. And they said no. This was a professional question, not a personal question. I said it is the most important professional question because I think, if your family, whatever you define that to be, it doesn't support your ambitions, whether it's getting a PhD or whether it's moving to a new place for a career. Or hanging out your own shingle, whatever that might be. I think you're going to have trouble succeeding. So for me, I, those are that, and then there's been some teachers and some partners. that have both challenged as well. Me and, I've worked with, met some of those at NYU, whether it's Bjorn Hansen or Robert Bolland, Bob Bolland, but there's also been pioneers. And mentors of mine that were my students. And I look at Juliette Imhoff, who's the director of development at Ace Hotel. I would, might have been her teacher, but she continues to inspire me in different ways.'cause, we talk about reaching back with a hand but looking back and learning from those folks. So a little maybe different conventional perspective on that. But it's one of the joys of being. In this role, you get to see your former students succeed, and then you can look to them for inspiration. And I think I've come a little bit close to being able to identify some of those folks. And again, looking at a pantheon of people, not just from one generation or one moment in time, or even one job in time. Yeah, that's it was a hard one to answer because there's key individuals, but there's also opportunities. Yeah.

Dorothy Dowling:

I appreciate you sharing so much of how all of these individuals contributed to your life I must share that I have very similar perspective in terms of, I've always said, choose your partner wisely because they define your life. And I believe that very sincerely, Donna, that it is it's partners that allow us to make choices and support some of those choices. But I do think the way you have. have structured, all of the individuals that have contributed to your journey because we're always on this path of growth and many people influence our success and the mentorship of how we come to, grow and learn and approach different kinds of situations in our lives. So thank you about that. I wonder if we could move on and talk a little bit about risk taking because you've taken a few big bets in your life in terms of some of the career decisions you've made. I'm just wondering if you can talk about some of those and how it impacted your growth journey.

Donna Quadri-Felitti:

I was thinking that risk is again, tied up with those life choices of partners and family and, making them. Sometimes they didn't seem like risks at the time, because when does education seem like a risk? It's never a risk. It's an investment. But if you choose to do something full time, or you choose to do it part time, that could be a risk because where's that next investment? Career or where's that next job or the corporate experience that's going to land you or culture company culture, it could be good. It could be bad. I, it's interesting to me that I was looking back on careers and I was thinking, leaving the consulting firm Horwath back in the day, leaving that firm to go with this little startup. And I should say Stephen Adler being also a mentor brilliant technologist and forward thinking innovator ahead of his time and right before the big Dot com. I think Google had been around for a couple of years or something, but Steven was doing this startup and it eventually became a product called Rev Max. And we created the pace reports and that, which is now part of travel clicks, legacy and so forth. But we were doing these incredibly new, really different things, even like one of them off a three 86. Computer desktop. How crazy and Like ancient is that today, but that was a big risk. And Steven challenged me. And I remember one Tuesday at noon or one o'clock coming back from lunch. And he said, okay, here's what I need. And you need to leave now and go think about if you can do this, because that's what a startup is. And if you come here tomorrow morning at nine o'clock, I know you thought about it. What needs to be done. And I was like. Whoa, coming from corporate and coming from consulting and having a master, all this, I was like, wow wow, that was great. And I looked back and there was a time in my life when Layla did the same thing. She's Oh, you're going to this, you got a scholarship and you're going to this conference and it's across the country and you have to, leave Rome, come back to New York and be in Seattle, like within 24 hours, something like that. And I was. About to complain, and she's Okay, next. And I was like, Okay, ship planes moving. And those are the people, the mentors. They're inspired. They're like not waiting for you to hesitate to decide it's a risk. They're saying, make a decision. Think about it now. And so it was in hindsight that I said, wow, was that a risk? And yet in both of those cases, going to the ISHC conference out in Seattle and meeting amazing people, again, inspirations like Lori Rowley and Peggy Berg, who founded Castell Project, which is now part of Forward at AHLA Foundation. sometimes don't even know it's a risk. You just say yes and move on. And so those were risks. I don't know if I had a chance to assess them as risks sometimes because the decisions needed to be made. And not all of those things they, worked out financially maybe or long term careers for everybody. Or even myself, but lifetime mentors and amazing friends who are still in my world today. You might want to balance risk with the right family at the right time. And, um, that's, what's great about this business. You can also jump back into the business. Anytime there's a hospitality job waiting for anybody. But in case the risk doesn't work out,

Dorothy Dowling:

I do, I, there's a couple of things that I would come back to. One is, I think going through the door. Sometimes is part of that whole risk. That is important for particularly women, because often we hesitate about some of those things, Donna. So I think correct the fact that you just embrace them and went through the door. That's powerful. And I also think that other thread that's that you just spoke about in terms of just embracing all these opportunities as they came your way and having other people that knew it was the right thing for you to do and the trust that you had with them in terms of their mentorship really helped propel your career. So I really thank you for sharing that. I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about professional relationships, because you do have many you have cultivated them very intentionally in your career. You work very actively across many industries, of course, industry organizations, of course, we have a shared commitment to both ISHD. And HSMAI and HLA and Forward many others that you have mentioned, but I'm wondering if you can speak to the audience about how these industry associations have helped you with your career, how they powered it how the relationship engagement has really supported your career development.

Donna Quadri-Felitti:

Oh it truly has. And thank you, Dorothy for framing it that way. I have a strong commitment to professional development and associations, because as I, Say all the time a four year degree or even a master's degree, which you know Is almost becoming imperative today to have to get at the enterprise level of your career four years is not enough You have to learn how to learn and if you are not humble enough or open enough to learn, then you're not going to, your career is going to be short in any industry, particularly ours, which is dynamic. So changing all the time, not just from outside influences and global influences, but even our brand influences and the humans like yourself and David and others who are moving the conversation forward as well. You Relationships are important and you hit on a really important part of that, and that is trust. So many people think you have a mentor you have to have a mentor at some high title, some business card weight. That's going to be important because they're going to lift you up. But the reality is a mentor selects a mentee as well as the other way around. And if there isn't mutual trust or agreement. At least a value of their character and their values. You can't have a sustaining relationship and whether it's mentor or mentee as if something may start, but it also may be people who have different perspectives. So H. S. M. A. I. For me, the commitment from an institutional and an association level to higher education, whether it's through the foundation scholarships, but through its student memberships, and others do this as well. There's other organizations that do this as well. But if you're embracing students if you're college students, or you're embracing even the tourism and travel academies that are empowered in The high school level pro start, which is part of a hospitality management program. Most people think of pro start with the national restaurant association foundation has been culinary, but it is also a hospitality management and startup program as well. That's embedded. Those organizations care about the long tail. They care about the future and that's my business. My business is the future. So in terms of higher ed, so those are the Things matter. But lifelong relationships are about I believe are. Are you willing to invest in my education? Am I willing to invest in your education? Am I willing to help you change and grow? Are you willing to help me change and grow and get better? And I think service sometimes is not appreciated as much as it should be because our professional associations, while there is a financial component to those and they need to be fiscally healthy, they are really in service to the betterment of our industry. And what do I do? And what I believe my industry does. I help people get into the hospitality and hotel industry because it fuels the economy. It helps individuals, families and communities. We lift up people and we lift up communities because of the economic enterprise that allows our businesses to thrive. So we can teach people to do that well. I think we're all better off, but the relationships of yield are those that are built on mutual trust and a commitment to each other's benefit. And so whether it's an association or an ISHC, another one, how do we be better? How do we learn what is going on in the world that we need to respond to positively as an industry? So if I can do that personally. Individuals, families and communities. And if I can help this corporate culture, if I can help a student group be better, then that's the relationship I want to keep because they want me to be better. And I, for me if there's a willingness and an openness to contribute, then that's to the health of the association or the organization or the institution or the health of the person then I'm, that's a commitment I'm going to keep, that's somebody I want to be around. Those are the organizations I want to be around. So that's how I'm, I view them and I make my decisions.

Dorothy Dowling:

And I think that's extraordinarily helpful because, I also share that the value is some of the people that are part of those organizations that continue to mentor and provide guidance. And, sometimes it's life guidance. Sometimes it's career guidance. But the other aspect is just some of the professional information and knowledge sharing that occurs. And many of those are at the forefront of how that business situation is evolving. So it allows us to continue that learning journey. So I like you I look at those associations as powering, not powering. only just knowledge growth, but it is around all of the people leadership skills that sometimes we learn through observation. Sometimes we learn because people give us direct advice, but they actually power a lot of that for us. And I'm wondering if we could unpack that a little bit more because Obviously, you mentioned HSMAI is engaged in terms of supporting student development, but I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about how the industry is really stepping up to support student development and bridge some of those learning opportunities.

Donna Quadri-Felitti:

It's interesting. I wanted to, and I'll answer that, Dorothy, but I also wanted to talk about awards. I know last year, not 2023, you received the silver plate from, the Brenner Award, and rightly so awards that associations give, whether they're innovative and top 25 minds, for instance, in, in HSM AI, we, we recognize and we celebrate excellence. Number one. And but it also sheds a light on being a role model and those awards, they're not just, I think sometimes people think of them as self grandizing and they're really not. They help young people. They help me. I think, wow, that's really innovative. I can learn from that. I didn't know that was happening. Or, wow, that's a really amazing career journey. I want to learn more about a Dorothy Dowling or another honoree. And we sometimes forget Get that we are role models, right? I love when our president Biden says one in three. Americans have their first job in a hospitality experience. What if all of those folks had great managers and fabulous human mentors, right? Wouldn't that be great? We would never lose anyone to another industry or maybe we'd lose a few or less, right? So Industry has an amazing impact and role on our future talent, but not just even the future talent of hospitality and hotel management, but future talent in every industry. We make a difference. So how can we do that better? And industry does. First of all, there's a lot of philanthropy that is driven from industry into scholarships. Thank you. Higher education is expensive. We all need that. Every one of your alma maters and our alma maters need all of that. So thank you for that. That's pretty obvious. Because I think sometimes parents and guidance counselors in high school don't say this is a lucrative business. Hospitality is going to be a really great long term, interesting, satisfying and financially successful career. So going to school and paying for a college education in that ROI. So thank you for that. We need to make sure that the sophistication of our business, which is quality, Getting complicated as we even sit here talking. More complicated. We need to know that those folks are management of the future, are leaders of the future, do know how to navigate that complexity. Nothing like a college education helps you do that. That doesn't mean that you can't be successful on other paths. Without a doubt, you can be. Like I said, in this industry is great. You can leave it and come back and leave it, come back. The diversity of talent is so important. I think what we need to ask Our folks to do our industry leaders to do is talk a little bit more about this diverse path Right the diverse journey, which you are doing in dei advisors So you're saying to our future leaders and employers employees rather that you don't have to start in one way there are lots of different Skills that are needed. It could be in a lot of different places in the business. So if we can talk a little bit more about the different paths and the different roles that we have, we might be able to attract more folks and move away from a fair stereotype that legitimately. So most people experience a hotel job by being a guest. So they don't see all of the goes into making that memorable experience or collecting, your the room reservation fee and all those other fees. We don't see that as guests. So young people don't necessarily know how we can do that. Is we can also help our faculty. We can help our faculty get back out, especially our tenured research faculty. We can help them get back out into the industry, into your operations, into your properties and learn what's new and fresh. So we can do more of that, but I'm at least with the institutions in the organ associations that I'm involved with. I know that there is a big commitment. And I don't think that it has waned even during this last labor shortage. I think it's always been there. I'm just not sure all the time how we've deployed the assets of associations to be in the classroom. To engage in research and with faculty. So I think there is a consciousness or an intentionality today that maybe hadn't been. But I have, I've always seen this commitment of our industry, not only to give back, but to lead through education. I think whether it's MPI and there's so many HFTP. There's many associations who are doing that for sure.

Dorothy Dowling:

And I for sharing that because I think you it's a mutual commitment that you make them because obviously just coming out of HSM commercial week and high tech. Brefny, who is part of your team, obviously has a very visible role in giving back in terms of. Professional knowledge and sharing in those communities. And then, of course, I'm sure she would also say that she gets a lot of learning from some of the individuals that are involved in those organizations. So I do think it's a mutuality of commitment and us thinking about, as you said, the business of the future, because I, like you, I believe that what the hospitality industry does, it gives people opportunity to. I take on roles that they may not get in another industry until much further along in their career. So the learning of owning that particular responsibility and the growth that comes through that it may be part of their hospitality career journey, or it could empower their journey in other ways. But it is just some of the opportunities that the industry presents. And I think your comment about it. Yeah, President Biden saying one in three of us all began in the hospitality industry. I think that's important in terms of the learning that it offers.

Donna Quadri-Felitti:

I think you, you make a great point. The ascendancy in our industry can be a lot more rapid and, but it's also about diversity. I talk about individuals, families, communities, right? If your parents relocate and you want your children to grow up around their grandparents, you can go anywhere in the world and be near your family or away from them if you want. So our business, our industry allows mobility. It allows opportunity. You can be in a luxury resort. You can be in a a group of select service in a corporate park. It can ebb and flow with your own growth, and how we can talk about that with young people and our current employees, we're going to keep them and move them around, I think and looking at it as a whole. Anyway, and it is true, we have to be mutual we have to care about the industry, and I hope industry has to care about the classroom, because we're in this together, for sure.

Dorothy Dowling:

There is absolutely no doubt about it. Donna and I do think just the privilege of, as you said, some of that reverse mentorship that you have received from your students. I think we all appreciate that because I think having their voices in our ears makes us far more able to lead. Other teams, but it also reminds us of, again, some of the customer journeys that we need to be mindful of in terms of generations that are just younger than us with different kinds of perspectives. We're coming up to the end of our interview here, Donna. And I'm just wondering if you had to go back in time and think about that younger Donna that was doing that education degree if there's anything that you would say to her What would that be? Move more often. Okay. Take more risks. Move more often.

Donna Quadri-Felitti:

I think just move more often. I think there's also a recent statistic I saw. It says most Americans live within 70 miles of their parents. Mother or parents? I think I would've perhaps moved more often. And again, I think reflecting on the fact that and that's one great thing about Penn Staters we will go everywhere because there is a bar that will be showing our football games or basketball games or whatever. That is what's great about Penn. There's a nit nation everywhere. But I think that's what I would've done. I'm grateful for the time I spent in New York, which was a long time, and there was. diverse experiences and people that came in and out of that capital city but I'm also happy to have moved to be where I am. And I think sometimes our young people not, yeah, I would have moved more often. There you go.

Dorothy Dowling:

I think that's interesting advice to close out with because I know many of the recruiters say it's much more difficult to get people to relocate for career opportunities. I moved a lot during my career and I found it was the personal growth of change that comes through making those journey decisions. But it also is just some of the career options that come as a result. So I think that's a very interesting piece of advice to close out our interview. Donna, if I may thank you for your words of wisdom for all of the great commitment that you bring to the industry and empowering future generations. I am a great admirer of your eloquence and your passion. So I'm thankful that you did this interview with us today.

Donna Quadri-Felitti:

Really you to say, Dorothy, right back at you as the saying goes I think the work here in DEI allows all of us to reflect back. And for me, it, the moment this moment has been to remind me of how grateful I am for the people of this industry and the opportunity of this industry. And if we pass anything along, I hope it's that.

Dorothy Dowling:

So well said. So thank you. So if I may, I also would like to thank our audience and say, if you've enjoyed this interview with Donna, I hope you will come and visit us on our website, DEI advisors. org, where you'll see webcasts and podcasts from other industry leaders that will empower your knowledge and fuel your spirit. So hope to see you there. Thank you. Thanks Dorothy.