People walking on the campus of San Jose State University
Team San Jose is establishing a scholarship at SJSU for third- or fourth-year students pursuing a degree in hospitality, tourism & event management. Photo courtesy of Team San Jose.

As you can see in my bio below, I am currently serving as president and CEO at Team San Jose. Big job, great title and a true honor to guide an amazing team. But my career in the hospitality industry didn’t start out even close to this level of leadership or responsibility.

My career started with towels, specifically with folding towels. I folded lots and lots of towels. I also cleaned hotel rooms, carried luggage, drove guests to Disneyland and emptied trash cans and ash trays.

I got my first job in hospitality because I needed employment and wanted a job with the opportunity to progress. That was 30 years ago. I discovered that serving people, serving my community and contributing to the economic vibrancy of my hometown was important to me. And I realized that the mobility available in this industry served me incredibly well.

“With 80% of entry-level workers eligible for a promotion in less than one year and 50% of hotel general managers starting in an entry-level position, the hotel and lodging industry is full of opportunities for upward mobility,” according to Chip Rogers, president and CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association. “And as an industry of people taking care of people, hotels provide an opportunity to serve others and the local community — an opportunity that other jobs rarely provide.”

As the voice of the hospitality industry in San Jose, Team San Jose’s mission has always been to drive the tourism economy and benefit the residents through a lower tax burden. With this article, I am pleased to announce a new benefit — one that is in addition to our current workforce development initiatives, a supplement to our ongoing partnership with San Jose State University and a way to honor a very important person in our industry.

This month marks the fourth year without Karolyn Kirchgesler — our CEO who passed away after a brave fight with cancer. Karolyn was a great leader for our organization and community. Those of us who worked with her know her passion for hospitality and tourism, her generosity in providing mentorship for the next generation of leaders and her determination to smash through glass ceilings as a woman executive.

In that spirit, I am extremely pleased to announce the establishment of the Team San Jose Kirchgesler Scholarship at San Jose State University. Beginning this fall, the scholarship will award $10,000 annually to a third- or fourth-year student pursuing a degree in hospitality, tourism & event management and who is actively involved in the Women in Business organization at the university.

I need to thank the Team San Jose board of directors for approving the funding for this initiative. These corporate funds are not public funds. It is critical to note that these funds are the monies that the organization receives for meeting and exceeding performance measure targets set by the city. They do not benefit individual employees of Team San Jose and have historically been used for necessary company expenditures that do not fit into either of our city contracts — facility management or destination marketing.

Importantly, these limited funds can be used to develop programs that have a direct alignment with our mission. The highest and best use of these funds remains to invest in workforce development and job creation for our community.

I also must convey a special thanks to Faranak Memarzadeh and the team in the Department of Hospitality, Tourism & Event Management at the Lucas College and Graduate School of Business at San Jose State University and Sonia Wright, senior director of development for the College of Human and Health Sciences. Their kind and generous assistance has been critical in the development and launch of this award.

The hospitality industry allowed, and still offers me, the experience to grow professionally while benefitting others through service, job creation and economic development. It is my greatest hope that this scholarship honors Karolyn and helps foster many future leaders for this great industry and city.

San José Spotlight columnist John LaFortune is the president and CEO of Team San Jose, the nonprofit parent company of Visit San Jose, the city’s official destination marketing organization. Team San Jose also manages the San Jose McEnery Convention Center and entertainment venues including the California Theatre, the Center for Performing Arts, Montgomery Theater and San Jose Civic. Contact John at [email protected].

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