JWU’s Tiefel Project Examines the Benefits of Hospitality Diversity Programs

Tiefel Project Group Portrait.

For the hospitality industry, diversity and inclusion are more than just hot-button topics — they are core issues affecting employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and the overall public perception of hotels, restaurants, and airlines. Yet, ensuring that equitable policies — both forward-facing and as part of an organization’s internal DNA — are in place and implemented consistently is a tall order. Major stumbles have proven costly to the companies that make them, both in terms of public relations and lost revenue. And social media only amplifies company missteps.

This year’s Tiefel Project brought teams of standout hospitality students from all four JWU campuses to examine this issue from multiple angles. Working with appointed faculty members and an industry mentor, the teams recently showcased their findings to the JWU community.

Marriott International’s Vice President of Multicultural Affairs Apoorva Gandhi served as this year’s Tiefel Project mentor. He regularly Skyped with each group to monitor their progress and offer constructive feedback, as well as professional guidance.

"Diversity needs to be implemented from top to bottom. A full commitment from leadership is paramount.”

“Act with Integrity”
At Schneider Auditorium, Gandhi shared Marriott’s own inclusive guiding principles: “In our company, more than 85 languages are spoken by our associates, so we have diversity and inclusion in our blood,” he explained. “It’s part of our core principles that how we do business is just as important as the business we do. To me, I wouldn’t be able to say to the LGBTQ+ community, ‘We want your business,’ if we did not have equal policies — same-sex partner benefits, transgender reassignment benefits. If we didn’t have those things — and putting all people first — it’s actually inappropriate of us to ask for that spend, and I think diverse communities get that. … We always want to act with integrity.”

Inclusive Teams Outperform
If there was a common theme among the presentations, it was an overarching link between strong companywide inclusive practices and increased revenue (both direct and indirect).

Through his research, North Miami student Jordan Johnson '20 discovered that diverse teams “adapt to change faster, learn faster, and overcome challenges more effectively.” According to his findings, inclusive teams outperform non-inclusive teams by a whopping 80%. But he emphasized that to truly succeed, “diversity needs to be implemented from top to bottom. A full commitment from leadership is paramount.”

Denver students Meredith McLain '19 and Mario Talavera Jr. '19 tackled unconscious bias, a pervasive issue affecting the symbiotic actions of employees, management and guests. They interviewed Linda Campbell, director of training and talent development at Stonebridge Companies, who explained that while discrimination training has always been federally regulated, diversity and inclusion training has not. At Stonebridge, such training is seen as an investment in its employees. The resulting positive feedback loop, according to McLain, leads to “happier guests and happier employees — which are more engaged employees.”

Examining corporate barriers to fully implementing diversity policies, the Charlotte team of Shavashia Grant '19 and DaeMesha Harris '19 concluded, “The initiatives need to be led from the top — the CEO, the president, the founder — and followed through by every employee. Symbolic initiatives led by functions such as Human Resources are unlikely to be successful.”

Lastly, the Providence team, consisting of Colin Brady '19, Brad Dubisz '19, Elizabeth Hamilton '19 and Alana Méndez '19, investigated whether or not there is a “perception gap” between leadership’s perspective on the success of diversity training versus that of employees. To accomplish this, they surveyed hotel managers and associates. “One of the things we learned is that there is no one answer,” noted Dubisz. “Everyone gains something different from diversity training, but everyone grows in some way. And it’s that unique perspective that [employees] are going to bring back and help the hotel company.”

"Everyone gains something different from diversity training, but everyone grows in some way."

For hospitality students, the year-long experience of research and immersion, coupled with the ability to share ideas with an industry thought leader like Apoorva Gandhi, was incredibly rewarding. DaeMesha Harris may have summed it up best when she said, “Because I’ve had this opportunity to research and investigate key organizational barriers in the workplace, I’ll be able to assist my future employers with ensuring that all employees feel at home.”

About the Tiefel Project
In 2004, William “Bill” Tiefel, a longtime Marriott executive and hotel industry icon, established the Tiefel Chair, JWU’s first endowed chair.

As part of Tiefel’s remit, the program brought industry partners directly to JWU classrooms to share their expertise and to mentor hospitality students with a particular interest in hotel management and travel-tourism.

After more than a decade of Tiefel Professors, Tiefel decided it was time to reassess the purpose of the Chair, both to ensure its ongoing relevance as a teaching tool and to keep up with changing technologies and consumer demands. In response, the university proposed the current format and research focus; the revamped Tiefel Project launched in the 2018-19 academic year.


Marriott International’s Vice President of Multicultural Affairs Apoorva Gandhi.

Tiefel Project Jordan Johnson.

Tiefel Project Charlotte Teami.

Tiefel Project Denver group.

Gandhi Providence team.