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“Power Up: Survive and Thrive” spotlights women’s leadership lessons in pandemic times and beyond

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The effects of COVID-19 have been felt throughout hospitality industry. To address these challenges, this summer’s Power Up Women’s Leadership Conference focused on surviving and thriving through the pandemic and whatever new normal comes next. The virtual session on July 8, 2021 featured women leaders whose businesses overcame challenges in the hard-hit industry over the past year.

Stephanie Vitori, president of Cheeseburger Baby, and moderator Brian Van Hook, director of FSBDC at FIU, FIU Business’s Small Business Development Center, discussed Vitori’s development of Cheeseburger Baby and struggles during the pandemic.

“You had to take it day by day. From COVID, we had to pivot. You had to adjust,” said Vitori.

Cheeseburger Baby not only survived COVID – it thrived through hard work and creativity. Vitori lobbied city officials for outdoor seating and flexible hours and set up QR codes for touchless ordering, enabling her to run the business with only a third of her normal staff.

Vitori went further: she reached out to help others. She took unused kitchen equipment and gave it to one bar so it could serve food, meeting the pandemic requirements of food service to stay open. At another bar, she helped set up a Cheeseburger Baby food truck in the parking lot.

Vitori plans to make the business a franchise and hopes to expand to other South Florida locations. Her biggest takeaway: use whatever resources are available for success. For her, this has been SBA loans and advice from the SBDC.

“I’m in for the ride, I love the ride - it does have its ups and downs for sure,” she said.

Kathy Martin, assistant director of career development at FIU’s Chaplin School of Hospitality, moderated a panel of three FIU MBA alumni in the hospitality business. For Olga Gonzalez (MBA ‘10), global business leader at Wild Fork Foods, COVID-19 had a far-reaching impact. It served to expand her firm’s online business and gave her insight into how employees need to diversify.

“What I see also is the need for people to use a different set of skills,” Gonzalez said, adding the pandemic has provided opportunities for industry growth through change, as well as increased productivity and skill refinement.

Kirsten Sachl (MBA ‘16), senior director for communications and public relations at Marriott International, noted that while Marriott lost 90% of its revenue and had no guidelines for dealing with a pandemic, the company was able to innovate and upskill its business associates. For example, the company launched new credit card programs in South Korea and Mexico to partner with banks.

“Internally what we kept saying is ‘We’re building a plane while we’re flying it,’” she said. The pandemic created new technology related roles, which made Marriott’s employees far more versatile than they were before, Sachl noted.

Anne Bousquet (MBA ‘16), CEO and co-founder of Domaine Bousquet Winery and president of Origins Organic, had to adapt to online and e-commerce during the pandemic, creating new business models and new products. Even customers changed: restaurants bought less wine and liquor, but stores bought more as people stayed home and cooked more.

“It has been a shift, so it has not been a total loss,” Bousquet said. “The industry was not prepared, but the industry ended up reacting very fast.”

At the end of the program, the Chaplin school hosted a virtual reception, featuring mixology lessons from the Bartenders’ Guild at FIU.