Empowered leaders: Female forces in hospitality and real estate


IHM selects 22 leaders for International Women's Day 2023

Worldwide: The IHM editorial team [George Sell, editor-in-chief; Paul Stevens, editor, ShortTermRentalz; Eloise Hanson, editor, Boutique Hotel News; Felicity Cousins, assistant editor, Serviced Apartment News; and Isha Borkar, multimedia reporter] select 22 inspirational female leaders in hospitality and real estate to mark International Women’s Day 2023 [8 March]. 

1. Judi Blakeburn, brand director, Another Place, Watergate Bay and Beach Retreats [FC]

With a career spent in hospitality marketing, Blakeburn is an expert on both the sector and the role of marketing in medium-sized businesses, and is a passionate advocate of the importance of brand and marketing at board level. She delivers brand strategy, marketing, sales and guest experience through a cohesive, creative and commercial approach.

Blakeburn relocated to Cornwall in 2000 to join Rick Stein’s Seafood Restaurant before joining the team at Watergate Bay, where she quickly progressed from marketing manager to brand director. In May 2015, she co-founded a collection of hotels – Another Place, independent of Watergate Bay – with the same distinct approach to hospitality and with inspiring locations.

The first, Another Place, The Lake – is on the shores of Ullswater in the Lake District and the second will follow in 2024. Beach Retreats, the group’s self-catering brand, is also expanding and recently completed its first acquisition in Cornwall which this year will be developed to create the brand’s first coastal aparthotel, blending the independence of traditional self-catering with the best of lifestyle hotels.

Blakeburn is a fierce champion of encouraging the next generation into the hospitality sector and nurturing talent. Until its closure in December 2019, she was a trustee of the Cornwall Food Foundation, the charity which owned the social enterprise restaurant, Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen, and delivered the training programme, as well as being a non-executive director of the restaurant.

2. Winnie Chiu, president and executive director, Dorsett Hospitality International [FC] 

Winnie Chiu is the president and executive director of Dorsett Hospitality International. She has a high profile as a respected hotelier, and in 2021, Chiu was included in Tatler’s Asia’s Most Influential List. She was also named one of the 15 Most Powerful Women in Hong Kong in 2018.

Chiu joined her family business, Dorsett Hospitality International, as president and executive director in 2010. Since then, she has grown the business from 11 hotels with 3,600 rooms in three countries to building, developing and managing 61 hotels with more than 11,000 rooms across Hong Kong, Mainland China, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, Australia, United Kingdom and continental Europe.

She has steered the group through the pandemic and provided rooms for quarantine guests and front line medical workers and refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine.

Last year, the group launched its new aparthotel concept, Dao by Dorsett, in Singapore and West London. Four more properties will open this year: a Hong Kong flagship Dorsett Kai Tak; Dorsett Melbourne; Dorsett Canary Wharf; and Dao by Dorsett Hornsey, London.

Chiu has a passion for the arts and is the chairman of Hong Kong Art School and joint vice-president of the Society of the Academy for Performing Arts. She also champions future talent in technology, sponsoring the opening of The Innovation & Technology Co-Creation Centre, where students participate in an annual Innovation Award & Seed Fund Scheme.

3. Louise Duggan, interim head of regeneration, GLA [GS]

Duggan, interim head of regeneration at the Greater London Authority, is instrumental in the way London evolves. With an extensive experience in regeneration, economic development and public sector innovation, her metier is helping deliver complex projects and programmes, which promote economic and civic growth.

At the GLA, she is responsible for investment strategies, area-based regeneration projects and design quality, through to the development and delivery of projects and programmes. As North West area manager, she led the Mayor’s £75 million+ flagship Good Growth Fund, expanding the range of organisations supported to deliver affordable workspace, welcoming community facilities, improved cultural assets and public spaces.

Before joining the GLA in 2012, she worked at the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment [CABE], where she defined and led an innovative Street Design and Placemaking Programme. Prior to that, she worked at the Royal Borough of Kingston Upon Thames as an urban design officer helping to deliver public realm improvements such as Castle Street.

4. Alex Husner and Annie Holcombe, co-hosts, Alex & Annie: The Real Women of Vacation Rentals Podcast [PS]

Emerging as two of the foremost, omnipresent thought leaders in the short-term rental space, Alex Husner and Annie Holcombe joined forces as a charismatic podcasting double act when launching ‘Alex and Annie: The Real Women of Vacation Rentals Podcast’ in 2021.

Their combined years of experience in the industry, ranging from Husner’s 13-year stint at Condo-World Resort Properties to Holcombe’s spells at Expedia Group and BookingPal, enable the pair to discern the story, idea, strategy or decision that led to their guests’ [male or female] ‘A-HA’ moment through lively anecdotes and conversations.

Their burgeoning brand has catapulted them into the limelight and given them a platform to secure high-profile new jobs in the last year [at Casago and Homes & Villas by Marriott Bonvoy], while Husner was recently named on the board of the Vacation Rental Management Association [VRMA].

While they have been influential in driving growth and business development within their own respective organisations, their voices will no doubt shape the direction of the short-term rental industry moving forward.

5. Ufi Ibrahim, CEO, Energy & Environment Alliance [EH]

The Energy & Environment Alliance [EEA] was established in 2020 as a non-profit organisation supporting hospitality businesses to become ESG compliant. Led by Ufi Ibrahim and co-founder Peter Till, the EEA – and particularly Ibrahim – has made astounding strides in driving awareness and knowledge of sustainability within the industry.

As more capital flows into sustainable projects, hoteliers are under increasing pressure to share and provide evidence of their ESG strategies. Future regulatory and government demands will only accelerate the cause, with organisations such as the EEA and others playing a pivotal role in educating best practices and offering the tools to achieve green goals.

In partnership with BREEAM, Ibrahim is also pioneering “the first global, scientifically robust” standard for sustainable building management in the hospitality industry. The accreditation – named BiUH [BREEAM in Use for Hospitality] – will cover energy, water, transport, management, waste, pollution, health and wellbeing, land use and ecology, and materials.

6. Olivia Immesimanaging director, Native Places [FC]

Olivia Immesi has more than 20 years in the hotel business, joining the Native group in May 2021 as managing director. Founded in 1998, the Native brand includes aparthotels and serviced apartments and has a separate arm for build-to-rent [BTR].

She started her career in hotel operations, moving into sales and marketing in Austin, US, where she realised working in hospitality and helping people was the path she wanted to follow.

Immesi was behind the launch of the original Hoxton and Ace Hotel London [the first in the group outside the US] and was director of sales at the Hoxton Hotel for six years before being headhunted to develop and implement sales and marketing strategies at the first Ace Hotel in Europe.

In 2018, Immesi became general manager of The Curtain Hotel and members club in Shoreditch [now a Mondrian Hotel].

In her role as managing director of Native Aparthotels, Immesi has continued to grow the lifestyle brand and oversee operations, people, culture and strategic development across the UK and into Europe.

Immesi is a fierce advocate of “conscious consumption” and is passionate about harnessing existing relationships with the local community and championing diversity within the team as well as being a passionate advocate for flexible working and job share opportunities. She has big plans for sustainability across the company and Native aims to be Net Zero carbon as an operation by 2030.

7. Mandisa Khabotechnical director, development & construction, Greystar [GS]

Greystar technical director, development and construction, Khabo is one of a growing number of women leading the technical side of urban development. After graduating in Housing Professional studies in Sheffield and working in the social housing sector in Yorkshire, she moved to London. This experience gave her an understanding of the importance of affordable housing and the opportunities it gives to those who may have ordinarily struggled to find a place to live and work.

After roles at IQ Student Accommodation and Quintain Estates’ student division, she joined Greystar in 2015 and is part of the capital projects team. She has led projects ranging from renovation of student rooms and amenity spaces to managing large deferred maintenance projects. She has also project managed the construction of modular buildings from inception through to completion.

A keen cyclist in her spare time, Khabo is using her expertise across Greystar’s multi-asset class portfolio, which covers both build-to-rent [BTR] and student housing, all the way from planning to handover.

8. Marina Krasnobrizhayageneral manager, St Regis Riyadh Hotel [EH]

Krasnobrizhaya made headlines last year when she was appointed general manager of The St. Regis Riyadh Hotel. It marked Marriott’s first ever female GM appointment in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia [KSA] – a region where women have historically faced a number of cultural restrictions. Since 2017, the Kingdom has been reforming its laws to support the country’s Vision 2030, and Krasnobrizhaya plays a significant role in achieving those goals.

Firstly, she has become a role model to all aspirational Saudi females. The Kingdom is focused on increasing the proportion of women in the workforce to 30 per cent in the next seven years, with a recent PwC report finding that this could raise the MENA region’s GDP by up to 57 per cent [$2 trillion].

Secondly, Krasnobrizhaya serves as a source of inspiration for future female hoteliers. A recent report by Aptamind Partners, supported by the World Travel & Tourism Council [WTTC], found that in the top 23 listed hotel companies, zero per cent of women had progressed into leadership roles [specifically CEO and chairman] since 2019.

And thirdly, hospitality in Saudi Arabia is becoming increasingly competitive – Krasnobrizhaya will be responsible for ensuring that the 83-room St Regis Riyadh performs over and above the slew of luxury hotels in the capital.

9. Deborah Labi, founder, The Guest Innspector & The Techsplained Series [PS]

Through a host of initiatives, Deborah Labi has cemented her reputation as one of the most versatile, creative-minded entrepreneurs across the hospitality landscape.

Initially starting out as a property manager in Australia, Labi is a genuine advocate for women in business, sustainable tourism and pioneering businesses, and the short-term rental industry by extension.

Adept at spotting opportunities in the market, Labi shines a spotlight on everyone from progressive tech startups in her Guest Innspector and Techsplained series to forward-thinking, sustainability influencers in her Green Path Podcast with an engaging, snappy format.

A prolific speaker and discussion moderator at industry events, she has frequently shown her philanthropic nature too by launching mental health service Your Coucou and The Advocacy Appeal – an awareness and fundraising initiative to strengthen the short-term rental industry voice in Europe, as well as supporting conferences including The Book Direct Show.

10. Laura MasonCEO, Legal & General Capital [GS]

Mason, CEO of Legal & General Capital, the insurance giant’s alternative asset business, is tasked with creating assets for both the L&G Retirement business and third-party clients in order to achieve improved risk-adjusted returns for shareholders.

The living sector plays a major part in this strategy, and in 2022, Legal & General Capital helped fund more than 17,000 new homes across a range of tenures last year. Its investments ranged across affordable housing, build-to-rent [traditional and suburban], modular housing, open market sale, and key worker homes.

Mason’s goal is to generate up to £600 million in profit from alternative assets by 2025, and emphasises that recycling pension funds and savings into construction projects helps to create jobs, housing and vital infrastructure.

She holds a degree and a PhD in engineering science [neural networks and signal processing] from the University of Oxford and is the chair of L&G’s Global Diversity and Inclusion council as well as a member of L&G’s executive committee. A qualified actuary, prior to joining L&G, she spent eight years at Towers Watson as a consultant to major UK life insurers.

11. Aditi Mohapatravice president, global social impact and sustainability, Expedia Group[PS] 

Aditi Mohapatra’s track record is certainly enviable. Prior to arriving at Expedia Group in mid-2021, Mohapatra held positions in sustainability reporting, corporate governance and socially responsible investing at Calvert Investments and BSR [Business for Social Responsibility], and those experiences are serving her well in her current role.

As vice president, global social impact and sustainability, Mohapatra continues to direct research, advocacy and policy work related to gender, diversity and corporate governance.

She was also instrumental in the launch of Expedia’s Open World™ Accelerator programme in September, which focuses on empowering startups and small and medium-sized enterprises [SMEs] that are working to increase access for underserved travellers. 12 startups have already joined its first cohort, including Handiscover, Becoming rentABLE and misterb&b, and the selection is based on criteria such as scalability of tech, product differentiation and current market opportunities.

Mohapatra’s standing and influence in the short-term rental and wider hospitality industries only look set to grow further, particularly at a time when travel choices are being scrutinised on an unprecedented scale and more sustainable solutions are being sought.

12. Olaide Obohdirector, Socius [GS]

Real estate is about people, says Oboh, director at Socius. With a background in marketing and communications, she has held roles at the Crown Prosecution Service, Hackney Homes and the Silvertown Partnership. She also led the external relations for East Village, the new neighbourhood on the Olympic Park in Stratford.

She joined First Base in 2011 and leads on establishing and nurturing relationships with public and private sector partners. A qualified project manager, her varied experience makes her current role very broad – leading on communications and culture for all projects, developing strategic relationships to help embed the company into new locations and building crucial contacts with brands and emerging industries to play a part in developments.

In late 2021, First Base separated into two independent, separately-run companies. A new company, Socius Development Limited was formed, focusing on mixed-use, urban regeneration developments was formed, with Oboh joining the executive team as director. It has a £1.5 billion development pipeline across major UK towns and cities including Bristol, Brighton, Cambridge, Milton Keynes and London, and Oboh will play a key role in determining and shaping the social impact of these projects.

13. Molly O’Keefeprincipal, The Gettys Group Companies [EH]

O’Keefe has recently been promoted to principal at The Gettys Group – a hotel design and development firm. She now holds the most senior role in the company’s team of female leaders and will be responsible for expanding the firm’s global reach.

At its heart, hospitality is a human-centric industry and O’Keefe has been praised by The Gettys’ president, Andrew Fay, to be a “highly respected, relationship-focused leader and a person of great integrity”. She is even known amongst colleagues and peers as “the linker” for her ability to connect individuals together. This skill will be paramount in O’Keefe’s new role as she builds new partnerships and continues to nurture existing ones.

The group’s exposure within the boutique and lifestyle hotel space further accentuates O’Keefe’s value. As head of business development, she will engage the right partners for each project and has expressed the desire to find “creative ways [for clients] to achieve their goals”. With the industry evolving at pace, O’Keefe’s bold vision will be largely welcome – and as someone whose greatest fear is feeling uninspired, her inner drive will lead to innovation.

14. Mimi OliverCEO, WaterWalk [FC]

Mimi Oliver is the chief executive officer for flexible living brand WaterWalk. Her grandfather, Jack DeBoer, was arguably the person who invented the extended stay concept with the founding of Residence Inn, the first all-suite hotel, in Wichita, Kansas, in 1975. He sold the brand to the Marriott Corporation in 1987.

Oliver joined the WaterWalk team in 2016 and has a deep understanding and expertise in the business, having worked across the company in market research, business analytics, operations, sales, development and openings.

Oliver is now responsible for overseeing the operations and management side of WaterWalk, as well as the strategic direction, facilitating company growth. She also takes a lead on sourcing and managing investments [including WaterWalk properties] within the DeBoer family’s holding company, CHI.

Before joining the family business, Oliver worked for Deutsche Bank in London, New York and Düsseldorf on the Commercial Real Estate Credit team. It was here that she realised her passion for hospitality and commercial real estate development. Oliver has overseen the new WaterWalk Gen. 2 flexible living concept where guests can choose to stay or live in apartments and personalise them according to their lifestyle. Oliver aims to double its portfolio in next 18 months and has invested heavily in WaterWalk’s leadership team.

Oliver spoke to Serviced Apartment News on a podcast last year.

15. Justine Palefsky and Tasneem Aminaco-founders, Kindred [PS / IB]

Justine Palefsky and Tasneem Amina are co-founders of Kindred, a home-swapping network that creates a “trusted” community for exchanging homes and allows its members to live a more “travel-rich” lifestyle for a fraction of the cost of booking a vacation rental or hotel.

The pair, who are alumni of residential real estate firm Opendoor, have intriguing backgrounds prior to co-founding their startup. While Amina emigrated to the United States from India at the age of 14 to later work for Yik Yak and Goldman Sachs, Palefsky previously studied cognitive neuroscience at Brown University. Kindred’s recent acquisition of intentional dating app Mango allows the company to build AI-powered matchmaking to efficiently and effectively connect users, giving it an edge over competitors.

The rising stars have since raised more than $22 million in seed and venture round funding, helping owners and renters travel and work flexibly from anywhere around the world.

Kindred is a growing name in an increasingly lucrative hospitality segment. French home exchange platform HomeExchange has just bought Love Home Swap, Holiday Swap has recently secured fresh financial backing, and Golightly, an invite-only vacation rental club for women, went live at the start of 2020.

16. Katariina Reissaarchair, Youth Council, Institute of Hospitality [EH]

Outgoing, passionate, and ambitious, Reissaar has recently been appointed chair of the Youth Council at the Institute of Hospitality. The Youth Council was formed in 2021 to give a voice to students and young professionals early on in their careers. It provides networking and educational opportunities for members to grow in their roles whilst also serving to inform the IoH about the needs of the industry’s dominant age demographic.

As chair of the Youth Council, Reissaar will take on a more active, public role, participating at industry events whilst also planning and hosting Youth Council activities throughout the year. It will be her responsibility to promote careers in the industry and advocate the IoH’s mentoring platform.

And all of this is in addition to her employment with Leonardo Hotels & Resorts, where she serves as front office manager in Birmingham. Reissaar has even enrolled on an accelerate programme to develop her skillsets further in preparation for a deputy general manager position.

17. Katherine Russellhead of BTR, John Lewis Partnership [GS]

Russell, head of build-to-rent [BTR] at John Lewis Partnership, is heading up what is probably the most keenly observed entrant to the UK’s BTR sector. With a degree in land management and following spells at Fuller Peiser, Atisreal & BNP Paribas, Russell moved into the world of retail property at John Lewis as property manager, followed by asset management and becoming head of John Lewis Property in 2016. She is now tasked with delivering 10,000 BTR units over the next 10 years – 7,000 of which will be on sites in the existing John Lewis property portfolio.

Moving into the rental homes market is part of the company’s long-term plan for 40 per cent of profits to come from outside of retail by 2030, and with her knowledge of the company’s entire estate, she is well placed to identify the ideal sites for BTR conversion.

The first three sites include building units above two Waitrose outlets in Bromley and West Ealing in Greater London, and replacing a vacant John Lewis warehouse in Mill Lane, Reading. To kickstart the BTR venture, Russell has overseen the formation of a £500 million JV with investment giant abrdn to deliver around 1,000 BTR homes.

18. Kelly Sawdonhotels and lodging partner, Sortis Holdings [EH]

In January this year, Sawdon led Sortis Holdings’ acquisition of Ace Group International and its operating arm Atelier Ace for $85 million. The news sparked conversation for a number of reasons.

To begin with, the deal comprises a portfolio of 12 hotels – 10 of which fall under the renowned Ace Hotel brand. $85 million seems a pretty small amount to pay for an established hotel group [including brand, management company and intellectual property]; the deal clearly demonstrates Sawdon’s negotiation skills.

Even if the price of the all-cash purchase reflects negative leverage, Sawdon has first-hand knowledge of the brand which will pay dividends when growing the portfolio. Between 2007 and 2020, she served as chief brand officer for Ace Hotel Group and Atelier Ace – experience which will help to scale the Ace concept tactfully.

Combined with a marketing background overseeing the development and management of projects for Nike, Uniqlo, Target, Microsoft and more, Sawdon will be central to the success of Ace Hotel Group moving forwards with Sortis.

19. Stacey St. John, founder, STR Global Enterprises, and contributor, Hospitable Hosts [PS / IB]

While owning and managing her own multi-million short-term rental investment portfolio, Stacey St. John is a firm champion of women’s rights and has founded both the Female Short-Term Rental Investors Facebook group and The Short-Term Rental Society, a member-based online community for hosts and vendors. A contributing author to Hospitable Hosts, St. John sets out to educate new rentalpreneurs on making money from hosting and scaling their own portfolios.

Having worked for a global consulting firm, she fell into the real estate game by accident, and in just over a year, she had renovated eight beachfront properties and achieved a 100 per cent cash-on-cash return. She is now channelling her efforts towards delivering education, resources and support for investors as founder of STR Global Enterprises.

St. John now wants to help other women turn their real estate goals into successful businesses without having to sacrifice time with their families, free time, or sanity.

She also appeared on the recent STRz webinar on “New year new solutions: The rise of the rentalpreneur” alongside Mark Simpson [Boostly], Philip Kennard [Futurestay] and Ryan Luke [Luke Capital Group].

20. Snizhana YesaulenkoCEO, The Gresham Aparthotel [FC] 

Snizhana Yesaulenko is CEO of The Gresham Aparthotel in Leicester, which opened in the middle of the pandemic after a multi-million pound renovation. 

Yesaulenko has worked in the construction sector since 2019 and was involved in Gresham’s transformation from the outset, including directing the property’s construction.

The Gresham redevelopment appealed to her and she imparted her knowledge and expertise across the sector, as well as being part of the team focused on regenerating the local area, creating jobs and a redevelopment integral to the Leicester community.

The Victorian property originating in the 1880s is a Grade II listed building and was designed as seven separate buildings that have been joined together over the years so, levelling the floors was incredibly complicated – there were fireplaces and doors halfway up the walls. Yesaulenko took on the challenge, as well as navigating the work during the pandemic and the opening in 2021, and 13 months on The Gresham has become one of the key players in the city. The end of 2022 saw its strongest month to date occupancy-wise.

Originally from Ukraine, in 2022 Yesaulenko helped to raise funds to support field kitchens that were set up in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. The kitchens provide hot meals and food for hospitals, soldiers and civilians who have chosen to stay, or are simply not allowed to leave their country. Over £20k was raised during the campaign which provided over 44,000 hot meals to those in impacted areas.

Prior to her career in hospitality, Yesaulenko worked in the banking and finance sector. Earlier this year, Serviced Apartment News spoke to Yesaulenko in a podcast episode.

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