One of the most beloved courses at the Cornell Nolan School of Hotel Administration is the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture Series. A 94-year old tradition, almost every Nolan School student has taken “DDLS.” The course began in 1927, and is a series of lectures given by prominent speakers in business and hospitality.
Almost 100 years later, this description still rings true. Every Friday in the fall semester, industry leaders are invited to campus to give a short presentation to about 350 students. While all Nolan School freshmen are automatically enrolled in the course, the course is also available to students of any age and major.
BRINGING IN THE BIG NAMES
The Dean’s Distinguished Lecture Series provides unparalleled exposure to industry leaders and pioneers. Speaker professions vary widely, from hotel operations and food and beverage to real estate and financial services. Some speakers are alumni of the school, who almost always begin their lecture by pointing out their own past assigned “DDLS” auditorium seat. However, non-alumni speakers also bring fresh perspectives and industry expertise.
During my four years attending DDLS, every lecture has left a lasting impression. During my freshman year, Norwegian investor and CEO of Nordic Choice Hotels, Petter Stordalen, grabbed my attention with his “James Bond” inspired introduction video, complete with flames and a clip of him bungee jumping off a building. The subsequent presentation was no less electric, with his chief piece of advice being to “never run out of cash.” In a dark auditorium, at the end of a long school week, every DDLS student was wide awake listening to Petter.
When I was a sophomore, the Chief Executive Officer of IHG Hotels & Resorts, Keith Barr, structured his presentation as a fireside chat, answering student-submitted questions. The casual nature of the chat provided a change of pace from typical presentations and made the CEO of a renowned global company relatable and approachable.
Even in my junior year, when DDLS was presented virtually, speakers still managed to inspire students with their stories. Meli James, co-founder of Mana Up, an initiative to expand economic opportunity with start-ups in Hawaii, discussed her pivot from a Silicon Valley career to her current entrepreneurial role. Meli explained that following a path that isn’t your own only breeds unhappiness and disconnect, a theme that resonated with students feeling adrift during the pandemic.
Now, as a senior, I am fortunate to be one of two student assistants to Nolan School Dean Kate Walsh. Alongside my fellow Dean’s assistant, Jenniviv Bansah, I lead the DDLS course, meeting and guiding the speakers throughout their short stay at Cornell and organizing all logistics leading up to their arrival.
Every Thursday and Friday, Jenniviv and I greet the speakers at the on-campus hotel, and shuttle them to roundtables, meetings, networking meals, and student classes for 24 non-stop hours. I have been given many great opportunities at the Nolan School, but personally interacting with a distinguished executive every week and getting to know them over the course of a few days is by far the most memorable.
This semester’s lineup of speakers has been nothing short of incredible. Global CEO of JLL’s Hotels and Hospitality group, Gilda Perez-Alvarado, arrived in Ithaca after 10 days in the Middle East touring hotel properties and meeting with partners. Despite this, she was energetic and authentic, inspiring every student with her story of becoming JLL’s Global CEO and a mother in the same year.
While not an alumnus, Elle Scott, founder of SheChef, a women’s advocacy group for the food & beverage industries, communicated the importance of balancing hard work and self-care throughout one’s career. At the end of her lecture, Elle made sure to ask the names of every student who came up to ask her a question, so that she could remember their faces if they emailed her afterward. Elle’s honesty and vulnerability impressed on students the importance of being genuine in one’s personal and professional life.
MAKING IT PERSONAL
The rest of the semester promises to be no less exciting. There are so many executives scheduled to speak, including the CEO and President of Hyatt Hotels, Mark Hoplamazian, and the Director of Football Development and Super Bowl Champion, Kevin Boothe.
I have been fortunate to be so involved with DDLS throughout my time at Cornell. As I reflect back on every speaker I have listened to, it can be difficult to determine the intangible factor that makes a speaker truly memorable.
It is not necessarily the speakers from the most established companies or those who hold the most prestigious titles. It is often not even the speakers who try to present technical industry-specific knowledge. Instead, it is hearing how a speaker achieved their position, how they overcame setbacks, or how they approach new opportunities, is far more impactful.
LEARNING WHAT YOU’LL NEVER FIND IN A TEXTBOOK
In short, I’ve found that the speakers who most resonate with me are the ones who candidly share their story. Through their own personal and authentic stories, these speakers demonstrate that success is not linear. Rather, there are multiple ways to define and achieve it. In what can be a high-pressure academic environment, the impact of that message is powerful.
Navin Dimond, the founder, president, and CEO of the hospitality firm, Stonebridge Companies, exemplified this. With Stonebridge’s portfolio spanning 65 hotels across more than a dozen states, Mr. Dimond is by all definitions, successful. However, in his lecture, he spoke about earning subpar grades in college, and starting his business with no source of capital. What was far more instrumental to his company’s growth was his ambition and determination to succeed. Mr. Dimond demonstrated that attitude, not resume accomplishments and accolades, is what truly sets you apart.
Thus, while all programming at Cornell is educational, the inspiration and mentorship DDLS speakers provide is in many ways far more important than learning how to balance debits and credits or memorize the four components of marketing. Resiliency, hard work, and vision: these are all virtues that could never be tested in a midterm or final paper. And yet despite that, those skills might just be the most important takeaways that Hotelies learn during their time at Cornell.
I am honored to be a Dean’s Assistant this year and present the 94th annual Dean’s Distinguished Lecture Series.
For more information about our current and past speakers, please visit the DDLS website here.
Kyra Roach is a rising senior in the Hotel School and has used her time at Cornell to explore multiple facets of hospitality. She has worked at the Statler Hotel’s Leadership Development Program, interned at Four Seasons, and recently developed a passion for real estate investment and is now pursuing a real estate minor with a concentration in development. During her time at Cornell, she has served as the Student Assistant to the Dean, Executive Vice President for the Cornell Hotel Society-Collegiate Chapter, the Executive Vice President of the Hotel School Ambassadors, and the Executive Chef of the 96th Annual Hotel Ezra Cornell (HEC). Kyra will be working with Chartres Lodging as an Analyst upon graduation in May.
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