We connected on a social group of the Taj Hotels employees. The camaraderie is as incredible as the Taj itself. A great organisation that will always remain a part of you as they rightly say, ‘You can take an employee out of the Taj but you can’t take the Taj out of him or her’. The few interactions we had she came across as a very warm person someone who’d want to help. I wanted to meet her and was the opportunity to meet not just her but the entire fraternity at the Taj Reunion. We met face to face for the first time, shared plesantaries and connected more on a regular basis; since then. I was particularly interested to have her inspirational story on the IWH; as it is a platform to share the extraordinary journeys of women who fought odds to achieve success on their own right. She won a pageant recently which honoured beauty with a social purpose. She is a modern lady, a woman of substance. IWH in conversation with Ms. Janet Serrao agarwal, Consultant; Janet Serrao & Associates.
IWH: Tell us something about you, your growing up years, life through school, college etc.
Janet: I came from a Defence family and importance of time and discipline was imbibed from childhood. Having said this I lost my father when I was five and I saw my mother transforming from a young girl to a strong lady taking over responsibilities of three girls. Three girls bonded like friends which was our strong support system and my mother’s vision that her girls would be educated and become officers. With this vision we always wanted to stand first in academics which would help us bag a few scholarships and thus not create a burden of fees on my mother. She gave us the exposure as she wanted all of us to get out of our house and perform all tasks that any boy would probably be expected to do.
I remember I was 10 years of age and I could go the bank, withdraw money and bring it home safe. I would sit in waiting area and dream that one day I’d be an officer and sit in a cabin like that!
The entire Don Bosco’s Priests, Rectors, Principals, Sisters and teachers were the people behind shaping my personality and my overall development at school in Goa. I was always a go getter; accepting challenges and grabbing opportunities- be it in linguistic skills, debates, elocutions, dance, and singing at the state and national levels.
This brought a lot of confidence at a very early age. ‘Education was the key to unlock all the problems’ – was a statement that proved right for us.
I began working early; at the age of 16 years along with college; as i had set it as my goal to pursue further education by myself. With work and college I had to compromise a lot on the college life; yet I tried my best on all extracurricular activities. I had decided by then that the way to get to a good living was to educate myself and get a good job so that we could get back the life we once led and our social status.
A lot of hurdles were there such as to become a Chartered Accountant or Company Secretary without classes or support; it was a major challenge to me. At several stages I felt I didn’t have the strength to move ahead. But a never give up attitude made a constant reminder that a lot will change if I worked hard to educate myself in those 6-8 years.
IWH: What made you select Hospitality as a career? Was it easy making that decision?
Janet: My career in hospitality was a tough choice for me between offer from a top Investment banking in the world, a top consulting firm like Boston Consulting where anyone would die to start his or her career with high remuneration and Hospitality which had so much glamour but less perks and an Indian set up to begin with. But I made a clear choice because as a personality I needed interaction with people and I couldn’t sit at one place.
Hospitality had a charm and a business that could be seen every day. I clearly remember my role was to bring about a change in operations. It was very tough facing very experienced colleagues and suggesting process changes and controls. That’s where networking and people management skills came into play and winning hearts and minds of colleagues and superiors. I enjoyed the process and my job; the industry had an aura on its own. When I look back I or my family never regrets the decision that I took.
IWH: What is your current role?
Janet: Having spent time in this industry, I mastered -strong skills in independent unit functions, start-ups and pre-opening of hotels. This gave me a new direction becoming a specialist in start-ups and formulating business strategies. Various combinations and structured deals gave me exposure to Hotel and restaurant business on the whole. I began doing consultancy.
IWH: How has your hospitality journey been so far? Pros, cons etc.?
Janet: The role so far has been very challenging specially being a 24 by 7. Initially I couldn’t understand why people work round the clock. But the aura around the hotel was so hypnotising that one couldn’t get out of it.
Even if you had a long day everyone is geared up for the next day and for the guest. When that gets into your system you are called a real Hotelier and it took me a few weeks to groove into it. The best part of this journey was exploring and learning right from the shop floor for 15 days as my background was banking and audit earlier. I moved to a few chain of luxury hotels understanding various travel became an integral part of this journey which was yet another learning platform and bringing in the best in me.
The initial days I stood on the shop floor observing the every minute details of restaurants, rooms, systems and processes and there I was prepared to take off …… and it never landed back!
On a very positive note my first entry in hospitality I also had my first boss Mr. Gautam Sethi and Mr. Rajeev Newar who kept me busy with different tasks and analysis that were beyond my day to day finance profile. They gave me the freedom to interact and fly out. I would love exploring scenarios and this interaction brought out the networking skill in me.
I always believe in grabbing opportunity and there were several trainings, meetings with operations which I never denied as my eagerness to learn more as per situations and facing different departmental heads gave me a business perspective that today I am able to discuss and help my family in their business.
I have seen ups and downs in this industry right from the terrorist attack,changes in regulations for FDI , impacts on liquor pricing , changes in taxes , slowdown of the business, new entries of different segments and chains, various changes in star categories shifting customer preferences from 5 star to 3 & 4 star and boutique hotels. Every Challenge faced was a new learning and added on to the bucket of skills.
Various trainings on leadership in earlier years gave me a clear direction on my goals and development points whether it was Debono 6 Thinking Hats, Business Excellence, ISO Auditors training, IT training, Security Training , Emerging Leaders , Leadership Skills and Disc profiling , Cross Exposures, Real estate modelling, Branding.
My interest in these were to excel in business and understand the organisation function and move to the goal of becoming a CEO someday.
I never turned back and it travelled through the blood.
There are smiles all around even if have a headache. The long working hours sometimes affect the personal life yet the mesmerising beauty and the tall walls of the hotel make up for it and you want to go back to it.
We call it “even if you are stressed, you are well dressed”.
IWH: Who has been your mentor or a role model? In what way has that person helped you?
Janet: It’s said that take your first criticisms to enable you to grow and learn. Hence the operations team were the ones who brought out the business acumen out of me.
Some made statements that I have just walked into the hotel and what do I know? I would only smile. However to prove this incorrect I learnt the hard way initially.
My mentor was Mr Ramnidhi Wasan (Ex CEO of Citrus Hotels) now managing his own beautiful resort. I got so much exposure to set up new hotels and revamp the existing ones. Also real estate, building hotels as well as working in a small core team handling operations.
The exposure and guidance I got from him to handle multi locations and different set ups, handling critical points and master to manage contingencies. He had an ear to listen and guide. I have thoroughly enjoyed that journey with extensive travel and longest working hours, which transformed me from Finance to Entrepreneur skills. And I saw faith in his eyes and I would breathe work through that phase. I still call him if I need a pep up for few minutes.
IWH: What have been the high points of your career/ life? Highlight at least 3.
Janet: Blessing in disguise the terrorist attack gave me a different perspective of people and the business and rising back after a fall. The organisation strategy changed and managed property and people both.
Moving from a luxury chain like the Taj to Citrus Hotels ,a 3 & 4 star on Pan India basis in the core leadership team was a compromise on luxury and the product however managing multi location properties and different set ups with different state norms and their own challenges gave me a very large perspective of the industry.
The third high point of my career was at Soho House when it came to India giving me an exposure to cross border transactions and investors along with managing a project stage property having several challenges on funding, board of directors, hiring a team, understanding branding requirements.I went through a toll on my health with longest working hours and solely managing a Company in India for a considerable period of time. It was a sink or swim situation and I accepted the challenge.
IWH: What challenges have you faced as a woman in the industry? How did you deal with them?
Janet: Initially at managerial levels I didn’t face any challenges but as I grew into leadership roles, the number of women shrunk and I was the only lady Chief Financial Officer (CFO). Every woman comes with several responsibility at home and office and cannot deny that even in today’s scenario. I had to take a break in career but kept dreaming with my eyes open that I’d make way for it.
I honestly wish I could say that I haven’t faced discrimination at work. Sometimes its blatant and apparent and sometimes subtle. Sometimes men also feel that women are authoritative. Remember the no excuse theory. Do not bring in the feminine factors like house children on the table for discussion and why should one do that when women are also looking for equality. Rather just focus on your confidence, your work and ultimately it’s proved!
There have been times when people have been looking for a male figure .It did not seem to be an attractive preposition at that time for women to be leaders. But I believe that if you are confident and passionate people do respect you for your knowledge.
People also felt that I was too young as a leader and they’d advise how I should do my job. I always believed in,’ Follow your mind and work for the organisation’. At a meeting as I entered with investors they said, “ We would like to meet your boss “ to which I smiled and said, “ Yes that’s me JSA “ I could see the shock and surprise on their faces.
Initially I even focused on my attire to look older however I realised that as I spoke or gave presentations – all eyes were on the work and not on me.
Women are a boon or bane is a common presumptive statement. But a women leader also is caring and that factor does reflect at some point in time. I always believed in giving that space and care to colleagues and teams to bring out the best in them.
I have faced difficulties with long working hours and irregular timings as well. Apart from making a place in the core team, I have worked round the clock and carried work home to balance work and life’s responsibilities.
IWH: If there was anything that you could change about your life or career what would that be?
Janet: Instead of spending my first few years in audit and investment banking, I would have rather joined this industry but it’s never too late to begin with.
IWH: What do you think of IWH?
Janet: One platform that wants to see more women in hospitality across the globe and reach its fullest potential. I believe a women is the women who can empower another women and hence success or failure stories that have moved to success in IWH are a guidance to those wanting to make a place in this industry.
IWH: Your advice to the young professionals and students.
Janet: I remember my boss telling me to have patience because I was young and I’d take it upon me every day to reach my goal. I was the first to say ‘ yes’ and would get ready to do things beyond my normal work. That readiness played a very important role in my progress.
I put in a lot of efforts in my initial years to learn as that was the only time I could learn and had the liberty to say that I was learning. I could make mistakes and be forgiven. However after a point of time I reached leadership roles and I didn’t have any luxury to say that I needed to learn. Work started on from day one.
I have also seen days where after moving to a senior role – I had to handle crisis and perform an executive level job but I was prepared and no one could bully me because I had rolled up my sleeves several times.
My advice hence is put in your best efforts, be alert, learn at young age. At the same time keep your integrity high and don’t forget your values. Remember opportunities come in any form and you have to be alert, to recognise and pick them.
IWH: Anything else you wish to share with our readers?
What an inspirational journey she has had, we are so very proud of her and the fact that we could talk to her touching verious aspects of her life that have been anything less than truly motivating; she makes a great role model. Her life is grit and dertermination personified.