A Career of Serving — Building Brands of Purpose and Investing in Causes — in conversation with Michael O’Keith Smith

A people-centric approach to business and work culture brings growth, learning, and a sense of purpose to everyone involved. Promoting such a culture and putting people at the center of every project urges them to be more engaged and productive.

We’re in conversation with Michael O’Keith Smith, a positive change-maker and charismatic community leader with over 40 years in the hospitality industry. Michael has practiced a human-centric approach throughout his career and shares some of his experiences and how they have prepared him for his next chapter.

Michael, you’ve risen through the ranks of a global brand, and spent your entire professional career serving, building, and rebuilding. Very successful, committed, and highly involved. Can you talk to us about how that long-standing and successful career has prepared you for your next chapter, serving on boards?

“I started my career as a servant — not just a servant for the hospitality industry, but a servant for the greater community. I realized at an early point that I had a platform to be able to do good. Whether I was in Boston, Washington D.C., or (especially) New Orleans, this platform has allowed me to be able to build consensus, to be a difference-maker, and to pull people together in an effort to do what’s right for the community.

“Whenever I’ve asked people of different hotels, companies, or organizations for favors or collaboration, they’ve never turned me down. Why? When I ask for something, I am asking for the benefit of a cause, not on behalf of myself. The innate sentimental nature humans have invites them to support causes they believe in; at the same time, organizations supporting just causes or companies with a strong purpose allow themselves to do at least twice more business in their market share. Consumers also want to do good and support organizations with just causes or purposeful philosophies, fostering brand loyalty based on these ideas.

“This cyclical nature of doing good sticks. My team and I have revisited people who we’ve sold a cause to in 2015 — in 2022, they’re still supporting it. They’ve seen the mission do good, they feel passionate about it, and they know it’s the right thing to do, so they’re going to continue participating in it.

“As an example — after the inception of the Food Network, I was perturbed by the fact that there weren’t many African American individuals involved. So, what did I do about it? I partnered with several high-profile African American chefs or celebrity chefs from around the world and began the “Taste of Heritage” event, inviting 150 people at $300 a person. Despite my worries about its success, airlines, food companies, and wine companies all endorsed it — because everything was being donated by the individuals and organizations involved, I was able to use the profit to fund nearly 10 youths’ education at the Culinary Institute of America and fund their development as chefs. Every year we’ve put it on, it has sold out.

“Another example is our “Miracle on Christmas Street”. One November in Washington, DC, a woman asked me if I had any tablecloths, mattresses, or other household needs that she could use at her shelter. After seeing the shelter, I came back to the hotel and came up with this program. The woman identified 25 families that especially needed help, and we provided them a Thanksgiving dinner and took them to Burlington Coat Factory for their cold-weather needs — on the 10th of December, we came back to deliver Christmas trees, lights, cookies, apple cider, and furniture to the families. The next year, we did it again with 50 families — more and more people wanted to participate in this, and the event kept growing. We brought it to Virginia and Boston, too, and expanded the program to supply more gifts for children and families in need.

“From a business standpoint — the compassion and care of people with a strong purpose has allowed them to differentiate themselves from others. Organizations that invest in values that spread compassion and that are led by these individuals are differentiated in their competitive set to win greater market share. Looking at firms that are giving back and creating missions that emphasize compassion and care is enlightening to the general public, because they are then able to identify that your organization is not only profit-centered, but purpose-centered. All these experiences together have prepared me for my next goal.”

Thanks for sharing, Michael.

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