Hospitality Entrepreneur Shares Life Lessons, Secrets of Success

DeNita Turner's advice to hospitality students is simple: "Whatever you do, always be excellent. Be consistent, ask questions and, above all, listen."

Turner, president of Maryland-based consulting firm Image Builders, Inc., and the 6th William R. Tiefel Professorial Chair, is visiting each JWU campus to share her industry insight and professional perspective with hospitality students.

Turner spent the bulk of her career in the corporate sector, working for such blue-chip Fortune 500s as Coca-Cola and Marriott. In 1994, she founded Image Builders, Inc., a Maryland-based consulting firm specializing in group and one-on-one training to help clients enhance their confidence, professional polish and interpersonal effectiveness.

Find an Untapped Niche
The idea for Image Builders was sparked by Turner’s years of managing big teams. Over and over again, Turner kept seeing individuals who lacked the right skills to move forward. She began to see an untapped niche.

DeNita Turner (Image Builders, Inc.) Dean Richard Brush“In a corporate environment, people are expected to be at a certain point of growth at a certain time — but it’s not always realistic. Sometimes you need to accelerate your maturation,” she explained.

In 1994, she founded Image Builders to do just that. Through workshops and one-on-one coaching, Turner's company delivers the “right prescription” to enhance clients’ life skills. Her high-profile client roster includes Howard University, Lucent Technologies, the National Basketball Association and various professional athletic associations.

Turner has a special interest in athletes. “[They] can have an especially tough time transitioning to the spotlight,” she said. “They don’t always have the luxury of maturing naturally.”

Be Ready When Opportunity Knocks
William Tiefel, chairman emeritus of The Ritz-Carlton Company, became an important mentor during Turner’s time at Marriott. “He taught me grace under pressure, and also that great ideas need to go hand-in-hand with good business decisions,” recalled Turner. “A good mentor will tell you about your strengths and your weaknesses — as my mother says, ‘someone who can lift you up and sit you down.’”

Tiefel encouraged Turner when she was looking to leave Marriott to start her own company. “I took a deep breath and told him what I was looking to do. He offered support and Marriott became Image Builders’ first client!”

She laughed. “You know, I actually pitched my idea to him in an elevator. So, make sure to work on those elevator speeches — you never know when opportunity’s going to knock!”

Learn the Business from the Ground Up
Turner grew up in a small town — so small, she says, “I didn’t know what I wanted to be.” A shy and quiet child, she was encouraged by her family to get out and see the world. “I left home at 18 and didn’t look back.”

She began her career in a high-volume hotel in Atlanta but quickly moved to a smaller boutique hotel. “People thought it was a mistake, but my strategy was to gain a foundation in every facet of the business.”

It worked: she soon found herself overseeing brand training for Marriott’s various international brands.

Working in the international sector, she learned a crucial lesson: “People buy from people they like. You have to take the time to understand and respect the culture [where you’re based]. Only then can you understand their needs and make things happen.”

Know Why You're an Asset
During the brief Q-and-A after her talk, Turner’s advice to students was practical and shot through with wry humor. “Someone once came up to me and said, ‘I’m shy.’ I said, ‘Honey, being shy will keep you at home!’” She laughed. “Be strong-minded and comfortable in your own skin. Decide who you are and why you are an asset.”

One student asked, “What’s more important: behavior or knowledge?” Turner thought for a split second. “Behavior. Because I can teach you a skill set. But attitude is innate and harder to teach.”

The Hospitality College’s Dean Brush asked Turner about the challenges she’s faced as an African-American woman entrepreneur. “I’ve learned the difference between being aggressive and being assertive,” she replied. “Speak up, or you’ll be overlooked. But you also want to be personable and welcoming in everything you do.”

She added that soft skills like charisma, personal warmth and good manners are essential to earning peer respect. “You can talk to people into almost anything if you approach them the right way,” she said, laughing. “As my mother says, ‘You catch more flies with honey.’”