Working in the interior design sector of the hotel industry wasn’t a career path that Jordan Ward knew was even possible as a freshman at Howard University. However, as a program scholar with the Marriott-Sorenson Center for Hospitality Leadership, doors opened and led to her successful career as a project associate at Valley Forge Fabrics Inc. 

Ward plans to one day own her own hotel, an idea sparked by a business leader who visited the center during her time at Howard.

“One lady came to the center and shared that she and her husband owned a hotel, and they were both people of color,” Ward says. “I remember looking at her as she was talking, and I was, like, ‘Why have I never thought of that? I want to own a hotel.’ That is literally the definition of ‘representation matters.’”

The center, located within the School of Business, was created in honor of former Marriott president and CEO Arne M. Sorenson, who died in 2021. The J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation awarded Howard a gift of $20 million for the project.

Ashli Johnson
Ashli Johnson

“Unfortunately, we tend to see the highest concentration of diversity at the lowest levels of this business,” says Ashli Johnson, inaugural executive director. “In order to diversify the executive-level ranks and the owners within hospitality, we knew that we were going to have to be intentional about preparing and developing leaders to step into those roles.”

Students are selected as program scholars through an application process. They represent a wide range of majors, including international business, marketing, accounting, engineering, health care management, interior design, and architecture. 

A certificate in hospitality leadership is being developed, Johnson says, and in the meantime, students focus their discipline on the industry.

“The student will graduate with a degree of their choice, so if you are a finance major, you would graduate from Howard with a degree in finance,” Johnson says. “But the four years that you spent on Howard’s campus, you’re really wrapped in all things hospitality.”

The center offers programming focused on three key areas of the industry: real estate, technology and innovation, and investment. Activities include visits to corporate sites, center-led learning sessions, conference attendance, and networking opportunities with business executives. One way that students connect with industry veterans is through an initiative known as Work from Howard Hospitality, where leaders are invited to work at the center alongside students. In addition, students gain internship experience.

Applications for the program began in August 2022 and the first cohort of 20 students entered last fall. The number of students is expected to at least double in size with each new class. 

The center has already shown signs of success. In that first year, 100 percent of summer internship students and program graduates earned job placements, says Johnson.

Looking back on her experience as a scholar, Ward hopes those involved are aware of just how much their work impacts students’ future careers.

“As a college student, being exposed to industry leaders, to information and trends that are going on, to get ahead of the curve, especially as a person of color, I think that’s super profound, and something I’ll always be proud of and thankful for,” Ward says.

This article was published in our October 2023 issue.