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Meet MMH Alumni: Harsha Chanrai ’14


Harsha Chanrai, MMH’ 14

London, United Kingdom

If Harsha’s picture looks familiar, that is because Harsha was the winner of the 2014 Hospitality Business Plan Competition with her concept, Saira.  I had a wonderful conversation with Harsha who now currently resides in New York, NY and is working hard to get Saira off the ground and running.  I am truly inspired by Harsha’s passion and dedication to hospitality.

Why Hotel School?

I had a passion for all that a hotel embodies: a passion for real estate and design, for people and service, for unique travel experiences and exploring, and ultimately, a passion for the concepts of escapism and fantasy.

It became clear my future was in hospitality, a career that enabled me to combine my passion for interacting with people, my experience and admiration of real estate, my residential marketing skills, and my desire to encourage others to share my curiosity of unexplored corners of the world.   Starting a hotel chain of my own would enable me to create my own brand, to become an entrepreneur and to challenge myself to succeed in an increasingly competitive market. Not only would the MMH provide me with the skills, tools and knowledge to be able to run a successful hotel, it would also allow me to gain an international view of hospitality from the spectrum of nationalities and experiences of the students who come from all over the world. I looked forward to challenging myself in a field in which I was passionate and building lasting relationships with dynamic individuals.  Once the year ended and the time came to put the knowledge and skills to use, I felt reassured that I will continue to have the support of alumni who share a mindset and passion.

Why Cornell?

It is no secret that Cornell is the leading hotel school in the world today and has distinguished itself from many other schools, employing only the top professors and setting the highest standards in the industry.  It is a name I felt confident would be recognized globally both by future partners and investors.  To have completed the MMH program would not only give potential employees, partners and investors trust in my abilities but perhaps equally importantly it would provide me with the confidence and knowledge to succeed in the hospitality industry

What was your concentration and why? 

I chose the self-directed route, focusing on as many entrepreneurship courses as I could take.  I knew I wasn’t going to apply for another job after school and focused on classes that would teach me valuable skills in areas where I was lacking. Entrepreneurial Finance for example was extremely challenging for me, someone who was not a numbers person, but fortunately Professor Fleming was perhaps the only Professor I know to make such a subject not only interesting but simplified and at times even mildly entertaining.  How to Write a Business Plan was a class that unknowingly set the path for the rest of my career and Entrepreneurial Management was a key course in understanding how to grow a business into a sustainable enterprise, how to identify potential valuable opportunities and how to manage ongoing growth once the organization has been established.

Yet a self directed path allowed me to make time for those courses where I could benefit from the renowned teaching of certain Professors, such as Professor Carroll’s style of passionate teaching/acting when learning how to price a hotel.  Professor Chun’s Consumer Behaviour gave me a few hours each week to sit back and think about how people’s minds actually operate, how marketing tools can powerfully trick the consumer, how consumers make decisions and so on. There were so many courses I would have loved to take and while not applying for the “Wine tasting” class was one of the more difficult choices I had to make, I look back at the classes I chose and am so grateful to have learned not only from the material taught but the relationships built with professors who continue to touch base, to check in and to advise me on my entrepreneurial endeavors, whenever I hit a bump in the road.

What’s your best advice for current MMH candidates?

Like Jimmy Dong, I would tell prospective candidates to build relationships with the professors. Not only do they have invaluable contacts in the industry but their experience and advice is something you can keep learning from, after you graduate.  I would tell them not to be overwhelmed by the Summer core classes as I was; when you haven’t been in classes for years and you’re suddenly faced with assignments and endless team projects, it can be daunting. I would tell them, and I’m sure they wouldn’t listen, but to enjoy the Summer, it’s a beautiful place to be – in the Summer. To take it easy, despite all the deliverables, to take the time not to be in the library but to make as many friends as possible.  While it can be so easy to fall into cliques as a teenager as well as an adult, I would tell them to recognize that this isn’t high school, that every classmate in the programme as been selected for a specific and special reason and while naturally we gravitate to those who we feel are similar in some ways, to try and learn and connect from every talented classmate in the programme.  I would tell them to invest in Heat Tech Long Johns from Uniqlo for the winter, I would tell them to explore the entire campus of Cornell, I would tell them to make the most of a year away from the real world, where they’ve been given a second chance to live in this fantasy where you can escape from bills, mortgages and routines, for just a quick minute.

What’s your best advice for current MMH students?

Don’t be surprised when you face challenges, when people in the real world don’t react or respond the way you had hoped they would. Don’t compare yourself to what your friends are doing post MMH, everyone has a different path and different dreams.  Use the alumni database, its shockingly effective and the alumni often respond.  Use your degree, it’s a ticket to doing what you really want in life, but don’t overestimate it, its not a free ride and while you graduated and worked hard-ish to do so, nothing really falls into your lap the way you hope it will so you have to keep working, keep pushing, keep motivating yourself.  If you find yourself stuck, look back on your application essay on lazy Sunday mornings and think back to what you wanted to do pre-Cornell and what you can do post-MMH.  It wasn’t a cheap degree by any means, so by using it to open doors, applying what you learned, connecting with alumni, its value over the years continues to grow.

What is your most memorable MMH moment?

It’s so tough, I couldn’t pick just one.  It’s hard not relive the moment when they announced SAIRA in first place in the business plan competition and laugh at the shock and pride on friend’s faces.  And as memorable as Ithaca was, memorable moments included skipping classes to go skiing, forcing ourselves to take tequila shots before compulsory Monday night salsa, renting lake houses with 15 of your favourite people, the excitement you could feel in the drives down to the city. Spending a week in Miami “consulting” for the Intercontinental, wine tasting and getting “Spring Break” tattoos in Mendoza, conducting “pool site visits” in Sri Lanka, finding ourselves on a float in the middle of a Caribbean parade when supposedly visiting Four Seasons HQ in Toronto.  I guess for me the memorable MMH moments were in escaping Ithaca..

What are you doing now?

I’d hate to jinx it but I’m coming close to closing my first deal with a hospitality partner for SAIRA, a hotel brand I believe which loves the story, the vision and the business model and will commit to hiring SAIRA graduates in their hotels.   Essentially SAIRA is an academy which provides high quality, hospitality training to local less privileged youth, at the same time meeting the needs of hotel operators who are sourcing highly trained, local hospitality professionals.  With the ongoing support of Cornell’s faculty, students and alumni, SAIRA can promise high quality hospitality teaching, free of charge for those who perhaps couldn’t afford to go to hotel school or school at all.  As I pitch every day to hotels looking for more and more partners, I’m also working on building my website, branding, acquiring legal non profit status, crowd funding, a curriculum and pitching to donors to get the start up capital we need once and for all. I believe in that way SAIRA is changing the way that non profits run, by implementing revenue drivers which means that this will be the only time we need to raise money in SAIRA’s lifetime.  No one can question a non profit’s intentions, but both Cornell and my father taught me that to succeed, non profits need to run as a business runs, with two bottom lines.  It needs to have profits feeding back into it as it expands as well as providing a social return on investment to its initial donors.  While it’s definitely not as easy as I had hoped, I remind myself everyday that I’m trying to challenge the status quo, to create a school where students will have a guaranteed employment with our partner hotels as soon as they enroll at SAIRA, where employers work side by side with the school to ensure the students are being taught skills they really need to learn, where non profits run as businesses, but better.  Ultimately, SAIRA aims to disrupt the traditional hospitality routes to sourcing employees by training less privileged locals together with hotel operators to create loyal, passionate, confident and ambitious employees who understand the career path that could lie ahead of them.

Check out Harsha presenting Saira at the 2014 Hospitality Business Plan Competition below:

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