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Transcript: How Cultural Competency Helps Your Bottom Line with Seema Jain

Transcript: How to Be a Good Ally to LGBTQ + Colleagues with Isaac Rocha

Gerry Fernandez [00:00:02] Welcome to a Seat at the Table, a podcast dedicated to highlighting the importance of cultural intelligence in the workplace and brought to you by MFHA, the multicultural foodservice and hospitality alliance. We believe inclusive business is a profitable business. So join us as we dive into practical advice on how you can communicate effectively with people from different cultural backgrounds. I’m your host. Gerry Fernandez, founder and president of MFHA.

Gerry Fernandez [00:00:32] Well, welcome to another episode of a seat at the Table. And today we’re going to be talking about cultural competence with my great friend Seema Jain who used to work for Marriott, but now she’s the founder of Sava Global. Welcome to the show, Seema.

Seema Jain [00:00:48] Thank you, Gerry, for the invite. It’s exciting to be here today and an honor to be a guest on your podcast. I’m glad we had the opportunity to have this conversation together. In my last role at Marriott International, I was responsible for developing the tools and resources for Marriott Associates and hotel properties to enhance cultural competencies in order to better serve the company’s broad diversity of guests and customers. I mean, Gerry, who would have thought that with the finance and marketing degree acquisition and business development experience, I would be working in the cultural intelligence space. So if you don’t mind, I’m going to share my story with you. It was 2008 and our hotels were in a tough economic time. I needed to make my sales goals. And so I started researching my competitors and where travelers were staying. I noticed a group of Indian travelers at a nearby hotel and I really wanted them to stay at my Marriott residence on property. So I worked very closely with the general manager to showcase cultural amenities. And within three months, we had exceptional results. Despite having an outdated property and being further away in proximity to the client’s office. We were able to attract new clients as we appealed to their cultural needs. The results were incredible. Occupancy from the Indian clientele increased from 15 percent to 30 percent in just one year. We increased 2000 room nights in just three months. Our revenue soared. Once the company came to the hotel, the others started shifting their business as they started hearing that we offered cultural amenities. We had Indian breakfast. We had Indian newspapers, Indian TV stations. We even hosted a Bollywood night and educated the entire staff on the Indian culture. Of course, the ethnic food was the most appealing item for everyone, including our non Indian guests. Word of mouth is the biggest marketing tool in this culture. You might experience that in your culture as well. Later on, we adapted this approach for our Chinese guests and catered to their cultural needs. And this recipe for success is transferable across many ethnicities. The case study went to corporate, and one year later Marriott created a position on the multicultural team and asked me if I could replicate this success for all the Marriott hotels. Now, mind you, that was 4000 hotels then. When I left my career, we had over 7000.

Gerry Fernandez [00:03:26] OK, OK, OK. You said a whole lot in that opening piece. First, tell me a little bit about your cultural background. Where are you from? Where are you?

Seema Jain [00:03:35] Absolutely. So I’m a first generation Indian American. My parents came here from India in the 1960s. They were here. My father studied in the business school. He was a professor of statistics and accounting. So I was a little influenced by that finance major when my time came. And I realized growing up in this world that I had to adapt to the American culture, yet stay strong with my Indian heritage. And that’s where sometimes things were difficult or clashing. But I always managed to find the best of both worlds.

Gerry Fernandez [00:04:10] So how do you find your way to Marriot?

Gerry Fernandez [00:04:12] Marriot was an interesting story. My parents owned hotels in nineteen ninety eight. They owned two hotels and they thought maybe one day the children would like to take this over. So I decided 14 years ago when I went back to work after raising three children, that I wanted to try and learn about the hospitality industry. Sales seemed pretty glamorous to me and I decided to start my career right here in Chicago at a full service hotel.

 Gerry Fernandez [00:04:39] Great. So Seema, what did Marriott see that other companies didn’t, when it comes to cultural competency and applying it to the business?

Seema Jain [00:04:49] That’s a great question, Gerry. I think that the opportunity came organically when my residents in the story were shared with corporate. And when I presented it to Mr. Apporvaghandi in 2011, he had just taken a new role as V.P. of multicultural affairs. And my story was a perfect extension to his work. That story went viral in our company. And that was how my job was created at Marriott.

Gerry Fernandez [00:05:16] Excellent. So tell me a little bit about how this culture day works. I’ve read a lot about it. I’ve actually seen the newsletter that you created and it’s really impressive. How does it work?

Seema Jain [00:05:27] Sure. So the Culture Day program was actually created in 2014. It was created in the D.C. market as a few sales managers had approached me and they wanted to learn about Indian weddings. Now, Gerry, I don’t know if you’ve been to an Indian wedding or not. They’re pretty extensive. We have anywhere from four to eight hundred people and it’s over several days. It’s not a one day event. So you can imagine for a hotel, it’s a good piece of business. We wanted to learn about it and we realized that if we could be a little bit more culturally competent in this space, that we could probably win the hearts of these guests and these customers that we’re coming through. So in 2014, I launched that India Culture Day program. And in my initial times, we would take them on a field trip. I would take them to the Indian grocery store. The class I would take them to an Indian restaurant. I wanted to immerse them into the culture. The best way to learn is through experience. And these made great guest engagement, when they can come back to the Indian client and say, hey, by the way, I had a samosa at the restaurant and it gave them a talking point. So that evolved to become 14 cultures over the last six, seven years as we grew. And people had interest. So a market would call me. And the Dallas market, for example, would say, hey, Seema, we’d like to hear more about your Culture Day. But these are the cultures that are very interested in our area. It would be Middle Eastern maybe, or Mexican. So we would design an eight hour curriculum for them. And this program would go through teaching them about business protocols, social protocol, customs, holidays, foods and best practices. Basically, my goal is to give them the cultural confidence so they can work with their guests and be very comfortable. 

Gerry Fernandez [00:07:17] Cultural confidence. Now, I’ve been using cultural intelligence, cultural competence, cultural fluency, cultural dexterity. But that’s the first time I’ve heard cultural confidence. That makes total sense of total sense. So how did you learn about the cultures other than your own? Obviously you grew up in Indian culture, you get that. So, can you list a few more of these 14 cultures?

Seema Jain [00:07:41] So the main ones that we had done when we were at Marriott, popular ones were Chinese culture, Japanese culture. We did things in Jewish, also learning about how to handle a bar mitzvah at Marriott or a Jewish wedding. We also did a lot in the LGBTQ space there as well. So we had 14 cultures and basically it was upon market request when they would come to us and say, hey, we need a need for this. I would do the research, one I would use. You know, we had tools like Culture Wizard or Kiss Bow and Shake Hands books, Optima Insights is another tool that I use and I would do my basic research. But then the best part, Gerri, is going and learning myself. If I want to learn about Muslim guests. I went to the mosque. If I wanted to learn about a bar mitzvah. I went to the synagogue. I did things to help understand the culture so I can relate it to my guests and attendees.

Gerry Fernandez [00:08:41] That’s fascinating. So tell me about one of your most favorite Culture Day stories.

Seema Jain [00:08:46] Oh, my gosh. There’s so many, Gerry. I really had to think. What are some of my favorites? So as you know, as the Culture Day program started back in 2014, I only had seven culture days in that first year. When I left twenty nineteen, we had thirty five culture days. And truthfully, we could have had more, but the bandwidth was me representing 7000. So it’s a little hard to do by myself, but it had definite potential. Well, like I said, we built from one culture to 14. We assisted 15 to 20 million dollars in sales performance by giving our sales teams confidence in signing that contract. We also had nots of media coverage in Washington Post, CBS Evening News, and we traveled all over the world. We’ve been to Canada, Mexico, London, Munich, Paris, Zurich, Dubai, Macao and Tokyo. So where’s my favorite one? I would definitely say in Tokyo I had the best experience there. So in a culture day, we would always engage each session to have music, food, display items so we can immerse the class into the culture. I also bought a kimono out there thinking I could one day tie it on someone to show what it feels like. So in Japan, during an afternoon coffee break, they decided since I was teaching U.S. to the Japanese associates at the Westin in Tokyo, and there was the whole market had come together. They decided to put a USA coffee break. And you’re gonna love this. We had twenty four ounce soda cups, K filled twenty four ounces and oversize muffins, cookies, cheesecake and a lot more sweets. So I guess that is the impression the world has of our supersized culture.

Gerry Fernandez [00:10:31] Twenty-Four ounces.

Seema Jain [00:10:31] Absolutely, and Prova and I were just laughing because we said, wow. Spot on. This is a little bit of an exaggeration, but yes, there is some truth to it.


Gerry Fernandez [00:10:42] So what’s the guest reaction to this? You know, so, you know, if I come into work in an environment and I see someone who looks like me, they’d have a similar name to me. They talk like me. I get that. What if I come and see a white male and all of a sudden he’s speaking with great, you know, confidence about the Indian culture? How easy is that to teach people from outside the culture to be confident in this work?

Seema Jain [00:11:05] I think that’s where our program was very successful. We make sure that we broke things down into the foundational aspects. What kept us different from the competition at this point, Gerry, is the fact that it’s not just putting an amenity in the room like slippers or green tea. Maybe for Chinese guests. But it’s really understanding the why that goes behind the culture, understanding what’s important to them. Why does somebody like to negotiate? Why does somebody need relationship building before they sign a contract? So understanding the entire culture helps them become more successful when they are actually then working with the guests. And our guests do sense it. They do feel it. Remember, once upon a time, it was very important that you might know how many pillows you need in your room. You need an early check in, you know, what is it that you need? But nowadays, what really I think intrigues our guests when we ask questions like, do you have any dietary restrictions or do you need a prayer mat or a separate room for praying? It shows that we are speaking to their cultural needs and it makes our guests very happy.

Gerry Fernandez [00:12:12] Let’s take a quick break and we’ll be right back.

Sponsored Message  [00:12:15] Multicultural Foodservice and Hospitality Alliance is focused on advancing racial, ethnic and gender diversity by supporting our member companies to create an inclusive workplace, by providing access to diversity and inclusion, expertize insights, education and connectivity with the restaurant, food service and lodging industry. Your company can gain cultural intelligence and deliver improved business outcomes. When we refer to cultural intelligence, we mean having the knowledge, skills and abilities necessary to effectively and appropriately engage people from different cultural backgrounds to deliver better business results. MFA offers live and virtual training, consulting products, and events at a wonderful membership program. We focus primarily on talent solutions, risk mitigation and strategy development. Third, how your company can gain cultural intelligence by visiting m f h a dot net or email us at info at m f h.a. dot net. Join us. Become a member of the Multicultural FoodService and Hospitality Alliance. We’ll support you on your diversity and inclusion journey. That’s MFH, a dot net.

Gerry Fernandez [00:13:34] Seema, for a variety of reasons, I’ve always felt like hotels get the cultural competence thing better than restaurants. Do you agree with that? And if they do, why? Why do hotels get it better?

Seema Jain [00:13:46] Well, I think honestly, Gerry, hotels do it well. But I have seen in restaurants with my experience, they are getting better. They are definitely getting better. We at Marriott invested in this program, which has helped us understand the guest experience. Right. Our guests stay for many days. Sometimes a restaurant might be a two hour experience. It’s a little bit of duration that could be affecting that as well. Remember when I did the Residents Inn, it’s an extended stay property. People stay 30 days. You have to get to know them when at a restaurant, you’re there two hours. It’s a shorter term commitment to your customer. However, being vegetarian and also aspiring vegan, I look at menus very closely when I go to restaurants and I do see restaurants have changed a lot from my upbringing 30, 40 years ago. That word vegetarian was a very challenging word, as you know, in this industry. It is changing. So we are seeing that restaurants are learning to accommodate. We’re also noticing different things. Tipping is different in the world and cultures. Some cultures don’t tip at all. Some do generously. So that is also something that we can teach our hotels and restaurants to be prepared for. So how to indicate, though, the language, the body language, all of this can be exactly, you know, replicated into your food industry. But just taking it to a different level. So I think there’s a lot of potential Gerry in the food industry to elevate their game and cultural competency.

Gerry Fernandez [00:15:20] Well, you hit on a really good one. This duration. If people are with you for a much longer period of time, you begin to see them develop habits, begin to better understand that versus that window. People who are skeptic might say, isn’t that just a whole lot more work? Is it really worth all of this personally? Is it a lot more work? And then secondly, what’s the payoff?

Seema Jain [00:15:40] Sure. Absolutely. Well, as I proved in my own case study and in many success stories that came through later on, I think that when our teams and whether it’s Marryat or any other company out there invest in their people on this one day type of educational program, it gives a lot of aha moments to our team members where they’re like, oh, now it makes sense why this person does this right. They’re putting the pieces together. They’re feeling more comfortable in the space and they get so excited when they learn how they can apply it in their everyday business. They get excited. It makes us excited. We write it up in our stories to share and inspire our other associates on thinking with the global mindset and how to take care of the guests. So, yes, there is some work to be done, but it’s ROI. Like in any business, you invest in cultural competency. Not only will it help your bottom line results, it can increase your employee engagement and increase your customer satisfaction.

Gerry Fernandez [00:16:40] So let me ask you another question. From our view, cultural intelligence, being culturally competent is becoming a necessity for business success. Do you share that same view? And if so, why?

Seema Jain [00:16:52] Hundred percent. I share it. I was just talking to my daughter, who is a sophomore at Indiana University, and she’s in the Kelley Business School. And she said, Mom, my class today is the session she is taking. The semester is how to do business in China. These kids are starting to learn at a much younger age. And that’s why I’m starting to work with some of the universities to see if I can put a presentation or be a guest speaker in their business schools. So going to my alumni, which is Miami University, starting with them and building on different ones, because I think it is critical that they start with the global mindset at a young age, hopefully before college, hopefully even before. But I do tell and I’ve always done this with my children, engage them at home, watch a movie of a different culture, read a book that enlightens you on a different culture. Those don’t really cost too much money. So if you can’t travel the world because of finances or for some other reason, you can start with the library and start diversifying your reading list to engage more global reading books.

Gerry Fernandez [00:18:03] Excellent. You were furloughed from Marriott. And sometimes when one door closes, another one opens. Now you have your own consultancy. Tell me about Sava

Seema Jain [00:18:13] So, yes, that is correct, Jerry. After 14 amazing years at Marriott, I decided to begin a new adventure. I was very grateful for everything that I learned at that company and every opportunity that they gave me. But now I’m looking forward to sharing my passion and my knowledge through my new company, Sava Global, where we can help you grow your business through cultural understanding. So my customized services will include maybe some of the cultural presentations like I did at Marriott webinars, presentation, speaking engagements or consultations. My acumen of the business world and cultural intelligence have really given me the opportunity to demonstrate how cultural competency can lead to business results. And I think this is an essential topic in a world that is becoming increasingly attuned to the importance of inclusion and diversity, cultural competence. Not only can it impact your financial results, but it increases your employee engagement and customer service and saving our global will help your organization lead with a global mindset. And I don’t know if you saw Gerry, but I did have a video debut last week on Linked In. It’s a bit long, but it gives you an overview of our company and that’s where we are going to start.

Gerry Fernandez [00:19:32] Well, you know, I really enjoyed looking at the video and I’m really it worked out so serendipitous that you were available. And I needed to get someone to fill this opportunity. And, you know, I was trying to build one of these things on my own when I found out that Marriot had already built it. So I realized I’m not going to be easy to beat Marriot. How did you choose the name Sava? What does that mean?

Seema Jain [00:19:55] Sure. So Sava, which you said beautifully, by the way, it’s actually a Sanskrit word and it describes the act of selfless service. So the word really resonates with me in all facets of my life. When in April 2020, COVID necessitated my being furloughed from a job that I loved. It also gave me an amazing opportunity to take care of my parents for extended periods of time, enabling me to do greater Sava for them. The pandemic brought many silver linings to me in my life. So I’m not only grateful for helping my parents as my mother, as a caregiver to my father, but also coaching friends with self care and wellness and helping underserved communities. My professional work has allowed me to encourage people to be more open minded when learning about other cultures and to respect those differences. So this was an opportunity for me to merge my career objectives with my personal passions. And I inspired Sava Global, a company which now honors the fresh and essential perspective to build unity through understanding cultures. So when I see my company name every day, it acts as a reminder to always do sava in the three pillars of my life. Family and friends, community and career. And that is how Sava Global was born.

Gerry Fernandez [00:21:19] Well, building your cultural competency, cultural intelligence, as we call it, around MFHA is important. How do you suggest that our listeners get started? If you really haven’t spent much time thinking of how you can engage cultures better to either give better customer service or increase your sales. How do people get started. If they don’t, especially if they don’t have a Marriott culture day like you had when you were still with the company?

Seema Jain [00:21:47] Absolutely. I mean, sure, I would welcome them to reach out to me. I am active on LinkedIn and they can start with the phone call. I am happy to talk to them, to see their needs, where they are in their company, what they’re doing, what they’d like to see, and maybe just start with that conversation to just inspire them to think how cultural competency can be an extension of their inclusion diversity teams, how we can help in sales. There’s so many ways that we can help. So I want them to be able to be comfortable to just start thinking out of the box like we did at Marriott and created a whole culture day program. But maybe there’s something that we can do for that organization as well.

Gerry Fernandez [00:22:26] What can companies do right now to get ready if they think they know they’re going to need to do some education and get what they need to do to prepare themselves to begin to offer a cultural competency based customer service initiative or to offer some type of training?

Seema Jain [00:22:44] Sure. I mean, one simple thing they could do is even build a task force together that represents different ethnicities, different generations of what we are missing in our company. I was speaking to a cousin yesterday in Arizona and she mentioned that, you know, Diwali, which is a big Indian holiday, kind of like your Christmas, is coming up November 14th. And she wants to make sure that the company she works for recognizes that. So if you pull a team of people together to build a task force to see what is needed, what they would like to see. That’s your best sounding board. And then go from there.

Gerry Fernandez [00:23:22] Excellent. Excellent. You know, if this were an awkward time COVID 19 and the anti-racism movement, how much do you think cultural competence could contribute to helping us resolve those two issues in our America?

Seema Jain [00:23:37] I think that’s a great question, Gerry, and the one thing I will tell you is that COVID 19 absolutely has changed our world. We know that we are working differently today. We are traveling differently today. We are educating differently. We grieve differently. And interestingly, the bowing traditions of the Asian cultures seem to be more appropriate than handshakes or high fives in our social distancing world. Right. We’re also now wearing masks, which makes it a challenge to read facial expressions. We rely more on the verbal cues and body gestures, which are often different across cultures. So that is where I think we’re going to learn to work together to make our country come back to harmony and unity.

Gerry Fernandez [00:24:25] Well, that’s that’s a really good call out. The whole thought that you can’t see our faces as well when you have a mask. But understanding how body cues make sends a message across cultures. So how do people, especially during COVID 19. And a lot of the issues around race, racism, it’s really difficult for people to have the conversation. And we’ve been trying to support our members and helping them through. How does somebody get started with one of these difficult conversations across ethnicity or race or culture? How do you think the approach that you took at Marriot can help people get that conversation started?

Seema Jain [00:25:06] Sure. I think the one thing that I always made sure that my class members’ attendees understood is that when we do things with authenticity. People enjoy our conversations. So I want to ask someone something about their culture because I don’t know. When I ask with my heart, most people are very forgiving, even if it’s maybe not appropriate. It’s how we ask somebody and if they can see that we’re truly being genuine and authentic. It usually generates a very meaningful conversation.

Gerry Fernandez [00:25:39] Give me a couple of examples. How did we- I’m not sure what someone’s ethnicity is. I think I know, but I’m not sure how I would ask someone in a way that would be authentic?

Seema Jain [00:25:50] I mean, I’m very comfortable and maybe it’s because I am from India and I am of a different background. And a lot of times I love talking to people back in the day before COVID, I would sit at airports, observe people all the time, see different groups of people, whoever was sitting by me on the plane. We have a conversation. I think, like I said, if they see that you’re genuine, you can ask them, you know. So where are you from or where’s your family originally from? You know, you seem to have an accent. It sounds like it’s from here am i right? I think if you do it with your whole heart. People enjoyed the conversation. If you do it in a condescending way, no one’s going to enjoy the conversation. So I think I’ve always been lucky that every conversation I have has been very meaningful. And people see it in a very optimistic way because they know I’m genuinely trying to learn.

Gerry Fernandez [00:26:37] So one more question. America’s divided as we know. We’re approaching the fall when we have our elections, et cetera, et cetera. What gives you hope?

Seema Jain [00:26:48] I love that question, Jerry. Sava Global gives me hope. If we can help others respect differences in cultures, appreciate similarities, just one person at a time. We can bring harmony and unity back into our world. Investing in cultural competency for your teams will not only improve financial results, employ engagement in customer service, but it will really help each of us become better human beings.

Gerry Fernandez [00:27:18] Well, that’s about as good as good as it gets. Seema, thank you so much for joining me today. I wish you nothing but the best in your new venture, and I have no doubt that you and I will work again. So thank you so much for joining me today.

Seema Jain [00:27:32] Thank you, Gerry. I appreciate the opportunity. I look forward to working with you and MFHA.

Gerry Fernandez [00:27:40] That’s our show for today. Special thanks to our listeners. And thank you for taking a seat at the table with us today. If you found our show to be valuable, please share with your network and leave us a five star review on Apple podcast or wherever you get your podcast. As that helps more people find the show. You can also subscribe for free so that you never miss an episode. A seat at the table is brought to you by the Multicultural FoodService and Hospitality Alliance, and it’s produced by Dante32.

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