She is the first woman to hold the vice chair position of the influential trade group Asian American Hotel Owners Association.
Jagruti Panwala, the first woman to hold the vice chair position of the influential trade group Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA), was honored at the American Bazaar Women Entrepreneurs and Leaders Gala, held in Bethesda, MD, just outside of Washington, DC, on November 16.
Panwala, a first generation hotelier who purchased her first independent hotel when she was 22, was presented with the “Woman Leader of the Year” award.
She was one of eight women leaders from different fields honored at the event, which was attended by dozens of prominent Indian American women entrepreneurs and leaders.
Next year, the Warminster, PA, resident will assume charge as the chairwoman of AAHOA, the first time the more than three-decade-old organization will be headed by a woman.
AAHOA is the world’s largest organization representing hotel owners. According to the group, which has a membership of nearly 18,000, every other hotel in the United States is owned by an AAHOA member.
Panwala, who was born in Surat, Gujarat, India, came to the United States in 1988, at the age of 15, along with her parents.
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Soon after she graduated from college, she and her husband, Ahmed Aboul Ezz, purchased their first hotel in Levittown, Pennsylvania. Now the two own and operate several franchises.
After joining AAHOA eight years ago, Panwala quickly rose through its ranks. Initially, she served as the organization’s “Female Director at Large” for six years, before becoming the first elected woman officer in the group’s history.
Speaking at a fireside chat with prominent journalist and India Abroad Executive Editor Aziz Haniffa, Panwala discussed a number of issues ranging from her own experiences growing up in Surat to the changes taking place within AAHOA.
She credited her parents for impressing upon her the importance of hard work. “Thirty years ago, when my parents were raising us, one thing my dad told me was that Jagruti, whether you are a boy or a girl, you have the opportunity in the world, so never be afraid to work hard and follow your passion.”
Panwala said she joined AAHOA after realizing that, as a hotel owner, her business was affected by outside factors. “Being in the hospitality industry I [realized] that there were so many outside influences that were affecting me as a hotel operator and owner in the political side, so many regulations,” she said.
Panwala said that when she joined AAHOA she saw that there very few women members in the organization. “As a woman I know that… there are a lot of women working in the operation [side] but they are not getting recognition because they are not shown as leaders in the organization, leaders in their business,” she said. “I saw that and I decided to join the board. In AAHOA, to join the board, you have to run for elections. I ran for the election, and I won the election in 2011. My position was to increase women’s participation and also get them engaged.”
Panwala said she conducted a number of focus groups and conferences “throughout the country trying to find out what women wanted and needed to thrive and compete in the industry.”
As a result, she said that now 40 percent of AAHOA members are women. “And they’re actively participating,” she said. “They are making decisions.”
In the last AAHOA convention held in National Harbor, MD, there were 862 women delegates. “I know that work for the women of AAHOA is being done,” she said. “It’s not just me — there are a lot of women who are participating to this initiative to make it happen.”
Panwala also spoke about the emergence of second and third generation Indian American leaders within AAHOA.
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She said: “In the beginning, they [children of hotel owners] were treating it like, ‘hey, the hotels are not something for me. I don’t know if I want to clean the rooms like the parents did.’ That was their mentality. Their parents who came to America 30 or 40 years ago, they had to clean the rooms, they had to do housekeeping, they had to do front desk every single day.”
Panwala said soon the younger generations, seeing the assets that were given to them, would see the “bigger picture.”
“They took these assets from parents and [scaled them] and now a lot of our members own Marriotts, own Hiltons and they are building full-service hotels,” she said.
Panwala also credited the newer generation of leaders for the diversification of the AAHOA board and “broadening the horizon” of the organization.
The “thinking” of the first generation was “this is our organization, keep it close, don’t let anybody in, this is us, and that was it,” she said.
“[Now]we have a lot of second- and third-generation men and women in the board,” she said. “Right now, out of 32 board members we have five women on the board also, which was never the case until the second and third generation came.”
Panwala, however, said one “must never forget what our founding members, what our past chairmen have done” in building AAHOA.
The vice chairwoman also addressed the advocacy that the organization is doing on behalf of its members.
“[It] is actually a huge part of what we do,” she said. “[One] of the main reasons I joined the association just as a member was because of the stuffs that were happening, on the laws and regulations side in the hospitality industry.”
Panwala referred to two of the main issues that AAHOA has been lobbying on in the recent past, the ADA lawsuits and the NLRB joint employer. The first one covers lawsuits that hotel owners are facing under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the second involves the National Labor Relations Board’s expansion of joint employer status.
In 2014, Panwala had testified before a House committee on the negative consequences of the expansion. “It affects every single business owner; whether you are a McDonald’s franchisee, or KFC or hotel owner,” she said. “I had an opportunity to testify before the United States Congress and I took that challenge because I said, ‘You know what? These are all the representatives sitting in front of me, who I voted for as an American. So if I have an issue, they need to hear what the issues are.’”
Panwala said AAHOA and its political action committee are not partisan in anyway. “As far as the political action committee we have a very strenuous process. We are giving money to and promoting candidates that are pro business,” she said. “It is as simple as that. As long as they pro business and as long as they fit all the criteria that AAHOA is looking for, and AAHOA is happy to help on their side.”