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Given the Right Opportunities

Ten years ago I was a stay-at-home mom raising five children. As they grew up and left the nest, I wondered how I would spend my time. I had always been busy supporting my husband’s career, living overseas, volunteering, and serving in the Church, but I had never worked in a paid position while raising my children.

Nine years ago I was offered the incredible opportunity to be in charge of Marriott’s government affairs office.

Debbie Marriott Harrison

I have always loved politics and policy, but I had no résumé to speak of and was terrified to go back to work in a big corporate office. One of my friends said to me, “If you don’t try it, you will always wonder, ‘What if?’”

I took her advice. It was the bravest decision I have ever made and one of the best ones, outside of marrying my fabulous husband and having my wonderful children. It proved to me that you can reinvent yourself, given the right opportunities.

It can be overwhelming to wonder what you are going to do next with your life or how you will make a difference in the world. Today I hope I can help you break it down with some practical advice from my short career at Marriott.

Hiring Friendly

Two months ago my husband and I had the opportunity to visit Haiti for the opening of our new 175-room Marriott hotel in Port-au-Prince. After an hour-long drive through congested roads, we arrived at the gorgeous hotel.

We were greeted by a young man named Lucardo, the front-desk clerk. He had a blinding smile and was so friendly—the perfect person to greet our guests. He accompanied us to our room, and it wasn’t until Lucardo had set down the bags and was turning to leave that we noticed he had only one arm. We found out later that he had lost his limb in an accident when he was six years old. His mother couldn’t take care of him, so he was brought up in an orphanage. I asked Lucardo how he liked working at the hotel. He teared up and said, “This is more than a family to me. I will never leave!”

Providing opportunities and putting people first is at the top of Marriott’s core values. It has been handed down over the years from my grandfather to my father to general managers like Peter Antinoph, who runs the new Haiti hotel.

Peter has been with Marriott for more than thirty years. He has been the general manager in several of our hotels around the world, most recently the Champs-Élysées Marriott in Paris. Peter volunteered to leave Paris and move to Haiti, where he handpicked all 232 associates. Lucardo was his first hire. Peter purposefully went to orphanages, churches, and refugee camps to find the friendliest, most outgoing, and neediest people who would make good employees. At Marriott we believe in hiring friendly and training technical.

Each new hire had his or her own tragic story. Many of them actually bore the physical scars of being buried in the rubble from the 2010 earthquake. It was clear that the staff loved Peter and that he had a deep affection for them. We watched as he cleared dishes, brought out food from the kitchen, and worked alongside each member of his young staff. Peter is a true servant-leader, and he is making a difference in the lives of these young people.

Peter proudly told me that this was the best staff he had ever had in his thirty years at Marriott. When I asked why, he said, “Because they are so happy to have a job and so eager to work!” He told me how pleased he was to be able to provide a salary, a hot meal, and health insurance for these young people. But mostly he was proud to provide hope for a better life.

The Haiti Principle

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere; 25 percent of its population lives on $1.25 a day, and half of the population is illiterate. Most of the people who interviewed for a job at the hotel had not eaten for two days.

When the 2010 earthquake hit Haiti, more than 200,000 people lost their lives. My parents were staying at the Harbor Beach Marriott in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at the time. Most of the staff at the hotel came from Haiti. They were distraught and grieving. My parents wanted to help, so they established a relief fund. Then my dad, working with his Marriott team, had a great idea: “Let’s put a hotel in Haiti.”

Haiti’s problems may seem overwhelming unless you break them down into human terms. Helping a nation starts with helping one person—or, in the case of our Port-au-Prince hotel, 232 people. Because of their new jobs at the hotel, these associates can build exciting lives for themselves, their families, and their communities. I call this multiplier effect the Haiti Principle.

As I was leaving the hotel, I saw our company culture in action. We may never make much money in this beautiful hotel, but the jobs and opportunities it provides are life changing.

So I asked myself, how did the Marriott family, for which this school is named, develop and create a culture that encourages going into an impoverished nation such as Haiti? It all started with humble beginnings.

Root Beer & Tamales

My grandfather J. Willard Marriott was born in 1900 just outside of Ogden, Utah, to a very poor sheepherder. My grandpa was the oldest of eight children, and he had the responsibility of taking the sheep up to the mountains in the summertime to graze. Because of this, he didn’t get more than a seventh-grade education. He worked hard and was so responsible that at the age of fifteen he was entrusted by his father to take all of their sheep on a train by himself to market in San Francisco.

When he was nineteen he went on a mission to New England. On his way home he stopped in Washington, DC, and was so impressed that he vowed to return. He also saw how hot and humid the city was in the summer.

When he returned home to Utah, he had $4 in his pocket and knew he needed an education. One of his teachers, Aron Tracey, had become the new president of Weber Academy, the precursor to Weber State University. Aron saw potential in my grandpa, helping him make up his school work and giving him a job on campus.

After a couple of years Grandpa Bill transferred to the University of Utah, where he met my grandma Alice Sheets. The day after graduation they got married and jumped into their Ford Model T and started their eleven-day journey to Washington, DC. There were no highways back then—only dirt roads. With a marriage license and a franchise agreement in hand, they opened a nine-stool A&W root-beer stand in the spring of 1927. Each frosty mug of root beer cost one nickel, and business was brisk in the hot DC summer.

When the weather got cold, my grandparents worried they would go out of business

Page Breakunless they put hot food items on the menu. My grandmother had majored in Spanish at the University of Utah, so she knocked on the Mexican embassy’s door and charmed the chef. He taught her how to make hot tamales and chili, which she put on the menu. There wasn’t a kitchen in that first stand, so my grandma cooked the food in her apartment and walked it over every day. I’m still trying to figure out how root beer, chili, and tamales went together.

Eventually hot dogs and hamburgers were added to the menu, and a new restaurant, called the Hot Shoppes, was born. My grandma was the first cook and the first accountant. She collected the nickels in a paper bag, walked them back to her apartment, and recorded them in her ledger every night.

Core Values

My grandparents built their restaurant business one sticky nickel at a time—and on the precipice of the Great Depression. They worked hard and were resilient, innovative, and positive. They put their trust in the Lord and took care of their employees.

My grandfather hung a sign over the kitchen door in each restaurant that said, “If you take good care of the employees, they will take good care of the customers, and the customers will come back again and again.”

Grandpa believed in taking such good care of his people that he hired a doctor and a surgeon to be on staff long before there was employer health insurance.

Because they had grown up in such humble circumstances, my grandparents believed in giving back to the community and ignited a “spirit to serve” that is still alive today. During World War II my grandparents would open up their commissary trucks to feed the soldiers and the poor who were coming to DC. Because he was given an opportunity by his teacher, Grandpa wanted to give his employees opportunities to better their lives and the community.

Allie and Bill passed down to my father and his brother, Dick, these virtues of hard work, perseverance, and doing good. The values of putting people first, acting with integrity, serving our world, embracing change, and pursuing excellence are the five core values of our company culture. We believe that our culture gives us our competitive advantage.

We opened our first hotel in 1957—thirty years after that first root-beer stand was established. Now we have 4,100 hotels in more than eighty countries. Culture varies in every country, but our core values are at the foundation of our company culture. They should never change.


My grandfather was the entrepreneur, but my dad grew the company into what it is today. All along the way the most important values were about giving people opportunities to grow and progress. My dad believes that our people, not the buildings, are our most important assets. My father is now eighty-three years old and still visits 200 hotels a year, holds monthly staff meetings, and works fifty to sixty hours a week. He calls this retirement.

When I ask him what keeps him going and what makes him passionate about the business, he says it is all about giving people opportunities and watching them improve their lives.

As true servant-leaders, my grandparents and father have been able to build a business and culture that truly cares about each associate. Now there are 350,000 people around the world wearing a Marriott name badge every day. About half of them work for franchise companies and the other half work for our managed properties. From the housekeeper to the CEO, each is made to feel like a part of the Marriott family.

When you go out into the world, look for places to work that will give you an opportunity. Sometimes you have to seize or make your own. Choose a place to work that has values similar to yours. You will be a leader in your community, church, and workplace. If there is not a positive culture in any of these places, lead the way and create one.

Find opportunities to excel and make a difference wherever you are. If you choose, as I did, to stay home and raise a family, stay active in the community with meaningful projects and church callings. I underestimated what an important training ground church activities can be. My callings helped prepare me for every aspect of my job.

Most important, give someone else an opportunity. As you go out into the world, remember the Haiti Principle and follow the examples of our general manager Peter, my grandparents, and my father. You will be able to lift your family, your community, and your workplace with an attitude of seizing and giving opportunities.

“Choose a place to work that has values similar to yours. You will be a leader in your community, church, and workplace. If there is not a positive culture in any of these places, lead the way and create one.”


Address by Debbie Marriott Harrison
Photography by Bradley Slade

About the Speaker
Deborah Marriott Harrison is the global officer of culture and business councils at Marriott International. In this role she oversees strategy for the company’s seventy-six worldwide business councils and works with associates, owners, and franchisees to protect Marriott’s culture and legacy. Previously she was the senior vice president of government affairs for the company. A BYU graduate, Harrison serves on the boards of the Marriott Foundation for People with Disabilities, the J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation, and the DC College Access Program. This text is taken from remarks she gave at convocation on 24 April 2015.

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