Hotelier learned entrepreneurship from the ground up
Don’t be deceived by this photo of a man who appears to be leisurely sipping his coffee. Because he’s been putting in work on the back end for years.
Bashar Wali was 17 years old when he arrived in the United States from Syria, landing in the small town of Central Falls, Rhode Island, on Thanksgiving night 1988. Poor and armed only with a vivid imagination, he found the place a far cry from the United States he had envisioned.
“My United States was Miami Vice and Growing Pains and Three's Company," says Wali today. "I was waiting for the palm trees and Ferraris and hot girls that wanted to share an apartment with me. It was the farthest thing from the truth.”
He says the only redeeming quality he recalls about that night was the cable TV.
Wali arrived on a Thursday, registered for school on Friday morning, took the ESL (English as a second language) test, and set off looking for work on Saturday morning. He enrolled full-time at Johnson & Wales University, studying hotel management and taking odd jobs, from stints at pizza places to gas stations. He landed his first and only full-time job as a bellman at a Sheraton hotel an hour away from his university, earning 7 bucks an hour. Gradually, he worked his way through the hotel industry, working virtually every job from carrying bags to serving in the kitchen to sales.
"I think having done all that gives you somewhat of a better authority to say, I’ve been there, done that,” Wali says. "I didn’t graduate from an Ivy League school, and go into a management-training program. I was a line-level employee doing everything in the industry."
He managed one hotel property and then another, and worked on the corporate side of hotel management before eventually landing with Provenance Hotels, a specialty hotel collection based in Portland. The founder of Provenance Hotels, Gordon Soundland, invited Wali to join as partner, and he’s been co-leading the company for 11 years now. The hotel group expanded into New Orleans in April 2015 with the opening of The Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery, an art-filled converted warehouse on Tchoupitoulas Street in the Warehouse District.
Recently, we talked to Wali to learn what it’s like to start from the bottom, and why being an immigrant has given him a greater appreciation of entrepreneurship.
Q: What motivates you to wake up each morning and do the work you do? Other than loving what you do. What really gets you going to start your day?
The nature of my business, we do so many different things on any given day. We’re all about the people. It’s my time, my guests, and investors and all the different challenges they bring. There is never a dull moment.
And every day there’s a new problem that I’ve never encountered before, which is tremendous because it keeps your brain young and it keeps you on your toes.
If I had to come in and deal with the same problem again and again, then I have a serious problem. You shouldn’t have the same problem again and again. The notion of the challenge and not knowing what the day will bring. And being so dependent on people and different personalities and backgrounds and cultures is truly exciting.
Now when you’re in the middle of it, you’re probably screaming your brains out and huffing in every language possible. But ultimately, when you go home, you’re like, holy cow what a day. And it’s never the same.
Q: What do you think is the hardest part about being an entrepreneur?
It truly is the hours. Because when you’re an entrepreneur, your work is literally never done. Fortunately, for me, I love what I do. It’s not work. But I wonder for many who don’t love what they do. How do they deal with that? But for me, I’m blessed that I love what I do.
When you’re an employee, there is a beginning and an end to your work. But when you’re an entrepreneur, it never ends. There’s no such thing as vacation. There’s no such thing as turning off and disconnecting.
I could be on a beach somewhere, or in a foreign country and be happy to take a call, because I love what I do. It’s hugely important that you love what you do, especially for an entrepreneur, because ultimately it will become the biggest part of your life.
Q: Can you tell me about your lowest, darkest point as an entrepreneur? A moment (or moments) when you thought, what am I doing, why am I doing this and how will I get through this?
The collapse of 2009. Our business being “discretionary spending” ends up being the first to go and the last to come back. So we knew early on that the world is ending, if you will. Being in a heavy people business, not only guests but employees, you know we’re not making widgets, or programming software, we have people that we love and talk to every day that generally tend to be an immigrant population that rely on this for their livelihood.
When the bottom fell out, we got hit hard, and there was no way around it. We tried everything we could, but ultimately, making those layoffs was probably the hardest and darkest moment I’ve had in a very long time. And because I am very close to my employees, I literally know them by name. I know their families, I know their stories. It wasn’t a big boss in an ivory tower dealing with statistics and numbers. It was what’s going to happen to Suzie and her family. It was very personal and it took a big toll on me and my team. But there was no way around it and we knew that, for the benefit of many, some had to be sacrificed and it was heartbreaking. I still remember to this day vividly that it was a very hard decision that we had to make. It was a lot of people across lots of walks of life and lots of location.
Q: How did you ultimately get through that darkness? I imagine that went on for months.
Well, we tried to plan in advance a lot before we went in. We wanted to do it methodically and thoughtfully. And a lot of people didn’t have a soft landing. But it’s kind of like the Band-Aid syndrome. We had to do it, and the entire company goes through the agony. So we had to do it relatively quick, but we planned for it for a long time. And there is no answer. I mean how do you pick? It was very difficult.
We had to go hotel to hotel, and sit people down and talk to them and try to make the landing as soft as possible. It was a matter of survival, and those are really tough decisions that you have to make. And it’s not about my survival, or the company’s survival. It ceases to become about an individual. It’s about a whole lot of others. It was very intense and very personal.
It was a team effort. We all had to come together. Everyone from the lowest-line employee to the highest-level manager had a stake in it. We all had to pull together, tighten our belts collectively, including personal sacrifices that many had to make, whether it was pay cuts or freezes. We all resolved to focus on the big picture and the long haul rather than get paralyzed by what was in front of us. We knew it was for the greater good. We knew that if we were able to survive it and get through it, that we would come out better in the end. In fact, I’m sitting today, saying, we know our business is cyclical, we know this is coming. How can we better plan for the next one? Hopefully the next one is a softer landing.
Q: What do you think is the biggest misconception about being an entrepreneur?
I would say the biggest misconception is that it’s a solo endeavor. It’s not about Elon Musk; it’s about the thousands of people around him that make him successful.
I think this notion that it’s all about this one person is a big fallacy. I am literally collaborating everyday with our team, with our partners, with employees, our guests, with our community. I think all you need is vision and the right idea. But otherwise it’s all about the team that’s around you. It’s hard work, and you can’t do it alone and anyone who thinks they can do it alone ultimately is doomed for failure.
Q: Speaking of failure. Another big part of entrepreneurship. Can you tell me about your experience as an entrepreneur, something that you consider a failure, and how you pushed forward?
I think when people talk about this, they often paint a rosier picture about failure. I think the biggest failure entrepreneurs face is finding the work-life balance. It’s very hard work to keep a work-life balance.
I think by definition, there’s no way around it. I wonder if I’m there enough for my family. That’s the one thing I struggle with internally. Am I failing my family in the process? And life’s not about money. Yes, they might have what they need, and I’m providing for them. But that doesn’t give me the sense of fulfillment. Being there for them and being there at every moment that counts. I don’t want my kids to brag about daddy’s business card; I want them to brag about their experiences with me.
I do two things in life, I work and I spend my time with my family. And when I do, I’m 100 percent there. That’s what I view as my personal failure. I don’t know if there’s a way around it, but that’s what keeps me up at night rather than am I going to close this deal, am I delivering those numbers? But I think a moment missed at home is gone forever.
And I don’t want to call it a challenge, because I really think it’s a failure. I wonder if the solution for it is you can be an entrepreneur, or you can have a family. I know that’s a big, broad statement. As I said, your work becomes your life. You're either sacrificing your ability to be a successful entrepreneur, or you're sacrificing your home, and I think creating a balance by definition means you’re giving up a little here, or a little there.
There’s really no such thing as work life balance as entrepreneur.
Spring break, my wife and I split up the kids. I take a week of my life and I take one of my kids and we travel somewhere exotic with little planning to have a sense of adventure. I shut off everything and I am 24/7 attached at the hip to them, and we spend the time together. It doesn’t change how hard it is day in and day out, but I don’t go hang out with the guys and watch football games. Any free moment that I have, I spend with my family.
A long time ago I learned that you could go home and bitch about how hard you work, or you can go home and enjoy every moment, even as few as you may have. And that’s enabled me to have a different perspective on life. So if I’m home for two hours, I’m going to make those the best two hours, rather than sit there and lament about it.
Q: As I’m sure you well know, rejection is a big part of entrepreneurship. How have you dealt with rejection?
If you’re truly living, rejection is a part of life. To be an entrepreneur, we take risks and put ourselves out there more than the average person. I think if you’re not prepared to take rejection, you’ll never make it.
For me, having really started from the bottom up, in an industry where rejection comes in many forms including guests, you deal with a lot of upset people, rejection from consumers. I try to get it early on and learn how to deal with it.
At every level of what you do, you have to be prepared to deal with it. You can’t take it personally, because if you do, you’re dead. You have to believe in your skills and your ability to accomplish. Part of being human is being rejected.
Q: One of the things you mentioned you enjoy doing is problem solving. That’s something that I find common with entrepreneurs. Why do you enjoy it?
Because it challenges your brain and your creative ability to solve problems. Challenging my brain and continuing to stay sharp and focused is what problems are there for. I tell people all the time, I encourage you to make mistakes, but by God, we better learn from those mistakes, or we’re doing something wrong. Problems by definition become education by all of those involved. If there’s a lesson to be learned here, I want you to learn it with me, hands on. If I keep it all in a vacuum, and I close the door and pull the shade down, and figure it out on my own, then I’m not doing what is probably the most important job that I have, which is growing and grooming the people around me. It creates a dynamic that makes it more interesting to solve problems, if you’re standing around with a very diverse group of people together figuring out what the best solution is.
I’m an immigrant, so growing up, entrepreneurship had a different meaning there. It wasn’t about what you knew, but who you knew; it was a corrupt system. A lot of my motivation ends up being through the lens of the American dream. And I’ve learned it here on the ground in this county and I tell people all the time, notwithstanding what any government or party to Congress screws up, the American dream is alive and well. And don’t ever let one person, or party or administration ruin it for you. I think having those experiences and having grown up here as an entrepreneur is eye opening, because you have a perspective from a different country on how great this country really is, and how it allows and embraces that spirit. And if you want to be a successful entrepreneur, capitalize on the system that allows you to do it, and allows you to fail.
What a great county we live in, where failure is celebrated, and you can learn from it, come out of the ashes, and keep barreling on.
Q: Any last words of advice for our readers?
Good things come to those who work for it.
This article originally was posted on The Distillery, a NolaVie content partner.
Summer Suleiman is a health writer and blogger who writes about her experience living healthy (or trying to) in a city best known for its fabulous (unhealthy) food and debauchery. You can read about her journey saying no to po’boys and Sazeracs, and yes to kale and juicing, at www.HealthySummer.me or on Twitter @summersuleiman.