One out of 10. Not exactly winning odds in most people’s minds, but for Azim Saju ’94 and his business partner and brother, Navroz Saju, those are the odds that have helped HDG Hotels succeed since 2001.
Saju and his family migrated to the United States from Nairobi, Kenya, when he was six months old. His family is full of different cultures and religions—South Indian and East African, Hindu and Muslim. And they moved around a lot – about every two years. College was the first time Saju was around the same people in the same environment for four straight years.
“Davidson was the time in my life when the United States finally started to feel like home,” he said.
Saju was exposed to the idea of servant leadership under the Davidson influence of President John Kuykendall ’59 and Dean of Students Will Terry ’54.
“As leaders, they were very humble,” said Saju. “They didn’t necessarily have the big personalities that filled a room, but they treated me as well as they would treat a student whose father and grandfather had attended Davidson. They truly embraced me in a way that was very respectful of who I was.”
Treating people respectfully, regardless of their backgrounds, has become a theme for the Saju brothers and their hotel business. Saju and his family have built their company in part by hiring people for whom life hasn’t always been easy and helping them help themselves: developing skills, developing confidence and developing a thriving business.
Saju says one out of every 10 hires turns into a long-term success story, but there’s no such thing as an undertaking of any significance without a healthy dose of risk.
One gentleman came to work for the Saju brothers after doing time in prison. Ten years later, he joins the business partners at some of their industry-wide hotel conferences across the country. Another team member, a single mother, started out as a housekeeper, and she recently celebrated 20 years with the company. She is now a regional manager and an equity partner.
“You’re going to stumble a lot more than you’re going to succeed,” he said, “but when you hit it—when you connect and engage with a person and see the posture start to improve and the self-confidence start to grow—it is well worth the risk. Believe you me – when you put a lot into someone and you want them to do well and for whatever reason it doesn’t work out, it’s heartbreaking. But when a person finds success, it pays you back in spades. Even when you stumble, somewhere there is a win in it.”
Team members are encouraged to improve their lives outside of work through making good lifestyle choices, joining gyms, seeking continuing education – and the company helps them pay for it.
“Continuing education for some of our team members could mean reading a new book or talking to their kids about attending college,” Saju said. “We don’t require that their educational opportunities relate directly to our industry. We want people to grow and learn.”
Davidson helped Saju become what he calls “intellectually agile,” and he says that ability to shift from conversations with team members to conversations with equity partners is better than any single skill.
“In college, I had to shift from thinking about statistics to thinking about humanities to thinking about how the two seemingly unrelated areas are connected, and now, I’m able to shift my thinking and communication based on the group I’m in or the audience I’m speaking to. It comes down to simple people skills—listening and making people feel comfortable.”
One out of 10. It’s a statistic that is positively impacting people and communities.
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