When you were 17, what did you want to be?
It’s funny because, when I was in high school, I was really heavily into journalism and it’s something I really wanted to do, and I was pushed away from it because it’s such a hard industry and it’s difficult to make a great living. I was part of the school newspaper, and I was the main editorial writer. I also oversaw the layout of the paper, and back then we didn’t have the computer luxury, so it was a lot of doing things manually.
Also, because of the journalism class, I was able to take my first real trip outside of the South. I grew up in a smaller town in Florida called Fort Meyers, on the Gulf of Mexico. I went to New York City in 10th grade, and we attended some classes at Columbia University. It was just super eye-opening for me; it was my first time in a big city, seeing all the diversity. I really vividly remember a lot of things about that trip, because it was important to me and my desire to explore. I guess I always thought I would be in journalism; I never thought I would move into the career path that I did.
How did you decide to attend Florida International University?
It was really dumb luck honestly. I started in my hometown in Fort Meyers, and then I went to college in Miami, so I didn’t go too far. It’s two hours [away], but it’s a totally different world.
I had been accepted to [a few] schools, but I ended up not being prepared financially for that, so I had to stay behind. After I got my associate’s degree, I moved to Miami and I went to Florida International University to finish.
One of my really good friends from middle school who I had grown up with was in Miami and I was feeling really lost, and she really helped me. She loaned me some money and I moved to Miami. The school was in Little Nicaragua, and I moved onto Calle Ocho which is traditionally a very Cuban area. I did not speak any Spanish and at that time no one there spoke any English, so it was a bit of a culture shock for me. It almost felt like I had moved to another country; I felt like a total outsider.
How did you choose your major?
I was going to study psychology and then [FIU] had a really great hospitality program. I had worked in hotels and restaurants most of my younger years, hostessing, waitressing, so I decided to get into the hospitality industry because I loved hotels and I loved to travel. At the time, FIU had the #1 hospitality school in the nation, so it was a really great time to be there and to do that. Our school started the South Beach Wine and Food Festival, which back then was 5 booths in the back of a schoolyard and it’s now this tremendous thing. I was pretty poor when I was in college and everyone in my school worked in a restaurant or a bar, so we lived a pretty cool life with no money.
How did you get from college to where you are now?
In 1997, I got my first hotel job which was actually pretty funny because nobody would hire me because I didn’t have any hospitality experience, even though I had restaurant experience, customer service experience, retail experience. I was working for Ann Taylor then in Dadeland Mall, and the faculty at school said to me, “You need hospitality experience.” I finally got hired by the Embassy Suites by the airport in Hialeah. They called me la gringita because I was the only non-Spanish speaker there.
Within a few months, one of the supervisors quit, so I started doing that. And then the they had an outsourced catering department, and they lost two out of the three people at one time, so I asked them if I could start doing admin for them just because I was interested. And then I just started thinking that I really wanted to do HR. I loved the customer service philosophy and I just thought wow, if we could apply the same principle internally to how we treat our people, why can’t we do that, why can’t our HR person or team have the same customer service skills? Now it’s thing, but back in 1998 or 1999 it wasn’t.
So I got an internship at one of our other hotels and I met the lady who hired me into HR for Starwood [Hotel] at the Sheraton Bal Harbour which was a really amazing hotel in Miami Beach. Starwood, which is not around anymore - it just got bought by Marriot last year, was Sheraton, Westin, St. Regis, Luxury Collection, W, Element, Aloft, like 10 brands. Marriot is keeping the brands, but their culture shifted a lot. It definitely played a role in my decision [to leave the company]. For me, innovation is super important and I like to be in environments where there’s brainstorming, and Marriot is more of an old school company that has their processes in place.
So I started working [for Starwood] as a coordinator, and I was super ambitious and passionate about what I was doing. I ended up working there for six and half years, and I moved up to all the different roles in that place. Then they moved me to a smaller hotel within the company in Ft. Lauderdale to be the main director. And then after a year there, they put me back at my original hotel as the director there, which was a huge job because there were 2 labor unions, 650 employees, and we were closing so we were getting ready to go through contract negotiations with the unions. That was a really good learning experience. My [general manager] was so transparent that sometimes it freaked me out, but it was very effective because people trusted us and they stayed.
Then my company moved me to Atlanta, and I closed down a Sheraton and turned it into a W [Hotel]. I opened up this W Atlanta – Midtown, and it was a really difficult time in my career because our CEO had promised the success of all these W’s in Atlanta. There were four in Atlanta. The only city that had more was New York City, and Atlanta and NYC are not anywhere near the same vibe or size. So the four W’s in Atlanta were not successful, and they ended up merging a lot of the roles and so my position was eliminated after 10 years with the company.
They offered me a role in Park City, Utah which was a great, cute city, but I had never been there, I owned a home, I didn’t want to leave. So I said no. And then we had a team called the New Builds and Transitions team, which had arranged standards on how you takeover a hotel, all these systems. So this team reached out to me and said, “Hey, do you want to work for us as a contractor? You’ll have to travel a lot.” And I said, “Yeah, that sounds amazing.”
I thought I was going to enjoy some unemployment for a while, but I was doing some training writing for Hospitality/HR, and I was studying to get my HR certification. I opened the W South Beach; there was already an HR director there so I just came in and assisted him. Then I spent a month at the Park City Utah hotel, and the person they hired had no experience in our company, so I helped him learn all the systems and the culture.
And then Coca-Cola reached out to me, so I interviewed with them and I ended up moving back to Florida and accepting a position with them as an HR business partner. I was responsible for the bottom 2/3 of Florida and the Keys and the Virgin Islands. That was a really cool job. It was really focused on engagement, and building talent pipelines, so we would have regular assessments of the talent and try to put together plans for their growth.
It really wasn’t my speed, but I learned so much while I was there. I went through an acquisition, which was really interesting, hearing all the market assessments and organizational design. To be honest, I had a good boss, but I had a really bad business partner. I had been going through a lot in my personal life. I was engaged, and we had split up. I told [my boss] about what was happening and she asked me if I would like to go to Ft. Worth because one of our properties/facilities, the Teamsters were trying to unionize it. So I spent 2 months there, and going through a union campaign is one of the most invaluable things you can ever do. This is actually making me miss my career a little bit.
So at the end of that, I stopped in Austin on my way home, and fell madly in love with it, three days. Ironically, one of my girlfriends in Florida said, “Hey, let’s have breakfast.” Ok. So we have breakfast. And she says, “I just wanted to talk to you. I just really feel like you are the type of person that needs to feel a connection with your career, and I don’t want to overstep my boundaries, but I really think you belong back with us (she was still with the company).”
And I had a little bit of a bad taste in my mouth, because after 10 years, I got laid off and I felt like they could have made a better effort. So I jokingly said to her that there was no way I would come back unless the W Austin [was available]. And she said, “Oh, really? Well guess what? That job is open.” It was so crazy serendipitous. The general manager was someone I had known for 10 years, the HR area person was my boss in Miami for 5 years, so I still had really great connections with them. I wanted to be in the travel industry, I’m not interested in manufacturing. I learned a lot, but I wanted to come back home. So I went through the process and ended up getting hired and moved to Austin in January of 2012.
The W had been open for about a year at that point, but the HR director had left soon after opening it, so I really got to craft it into my own. And this was my first opportunity where I felt like I could realize that goal I had, that customer service atmosphere. My GM was an amazing man who was super HR friendly. Every time I said, “Hey, we should do this,” he’d say, “Ok! What do you need? Lets make it happen.”
I spent 5 and a half years there. And then when the Marriot thing happened, it just felt different. The area had really changed, Austin had grown, and it didn’t feel like home anymore. Just to be really honest with you, I always wanted to be a mom and be a wife, and when I hit 41 years old last year, I didn’t want to do that anymore. I know people say it’s still physically possible, but I’m just not there anymore.
And I think that some things happened to me introspectively. Austin is a super liberal city, I worked with a lot of millennials, and I think the whole millennial generation is changing the way we’re thinking about things. Material things became less important to me. And when the takeover of my company happened, the city that I loved was growing and changing so much, it just felt like the time. And if I wasn’t going to be a mom, I always wanted to travel the world.
How did you go from HR to photography?
When I was in Austin, I’d always been interested in the food scene. I just went crazy exploring, and I thrive when I’m in a position to explore and to share that with others. And then I started having friends saying, “You should start a blog. We’re always going to you asking for places and you know it so well.” I started the blog, and I started noticing that my photography wasn’t up to the standard of what I wanted it to look like. So I got a camera, and I started learning how to use it, and I took 12 weeks of school for it. And then just practiced all the time.
And then at W, they said, “Hey, we really like your food and cocktail photography. Would you consider doing it for us?” It was kind of fun for me to break it up a little because HR can be so serious. So I started doing weekly photo shoots for W, and it got me a lot of exposure because whenever they would publicize a picture they would give me photo credit.
And I also learned a lot about social media. For a time, I was the cofounder of this really cool thing in Austin called Kitchen Underground. We would go to a winery or brewery, maybe they were closed on Monday or something, and we’d say, “Hey, can we use your space to do pop-up cooking classes?” So we worked with instructors on how to make tamales, kolaches, pasta, how to use a farm box, all these different things. We did that for 6 to 8 months, and I got to be the social media person and I planned all the events.
So I started getting jobs on the side, and I even kind of put the blog to the side for a while because I was enjoying the photography so much. Independent restaurants and bars and bartenders were reaching out to me. When the Marriot thing came along, it was getting a lot harder to balance those things. So all the pieces being in place I just decided I was going to take this time and try to grow my photography business as well as increase my social media following and do more influencer work, as well as practice my writing skills because it had been a while since I’d done the journalism. It’s kind of funny how everything has sort of come back full-circle. It was always what I wanted to do and people pushed me away from it, and here I am, 20-something years later, back to it because it’s probably what I always loved anyway.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
You need your path in life to teach you everything – if I didn’t work in corporate America for all those years, I probably wouldn’t be able to afford the luxury of being on this trip, taking a break and investing time into my passions without really making much of an income. I still haven’t figured all that out yet, but I can say that in the past month and a half, I’ve learned so many things and I think that by the time I’m done, with the program, I will have learned a million more things that are important.
I’m a really firm believer in the fact that your life path, your journey, the people that you meet along the way, everyone has a purpose and everything you do is leading you to something, and you need that skill. But something that’s really important to me is the fact that being 42, you can do these types of things at any point in your life. One of my first reactions to looking into [We Roam] was, “I’m not 20, I can’t do this.” But then I started asking questions and found out the average age for the program is 33/34, so I thought there must be people my age in the program. It’s not limited to a certain age group.
And the other thing I try to make sure people understand is that nothing in life is free, and that sounds really cliché, but people think that what I’m doing is perfect and every day is sunny (gestures to the pouring rain outside) and I’m laying on the beach, and fanning myself and eating grapes. And it’s just not like that. This is real life and people get sick and it rains and you work and I miss my dog, I miss the stability of having my friends at home, and I miss my little food community. I made the choice to walk away from that for a temporary period to explore the world. People always say to me, “I wish I could do what you’re doing.” Well, you can. People assume that I’m in some special situation, but I gave up things to be here, and they can too.