Susan Muhwezi is the Senior Presidential Advisor on AGOA & Trade in Uganda, President of Uganda Hotel Owner’s Association (May 2014) and owner of a boutique motel.
Susan demonstrates her conscious-contribution™ as an entrepreneur, association president, and presidential advisor in Uganda.
Words of Wisdom: “If you reach for perfection, you will reach excellence. Learn from others. Give what is best of you.”
Expertise – From Service to Associations
What you will learn:
1. How to build a service business with limited resources.
2. How to recruit outside cities.
3. What to implement to improve service.
Conscious-Contribution™ – Taking on a Government role
What you will learn:
1. How a Board position can assist business development.
2. How having an international perspective helps build local small business.
Leadership Lessons – How to engage a team
What you will learn:
1. How to engage staff.
2. Challenges of owning your success and failure.
3. Using your core competency in leading all opportunities.
Susan Muhwezi is the Senior Presidential Advisor on AGO & Trade in Uganda, and owner of a boutique motel
Susan Muhwezi is the Senior Presidential Advisor on AGOA and Trade related matters for the Government of The Republic of Uganda. She is Vice Chairperson of Uganda Hotels Owner’s Assoctaion, Chairperson Uganda Women’s Effort to save orphans and Chair Person Women League (Western Region).
She previously served on the executive of Uganda Tourism Board. In 2003 the United States Coalition of AGOA Supporters (USA) in recognition of the exemplary leadership and work presented her with an Award in advancing AGOA. Amongst much other involvement she also owns two hotels.
First woman Senior Presidental Advisor on AGOA and Trade related matters for the government (AGOA: African Growth and Opportunity Act trade trade.gov/agoa/)
Hotel website: www.agipmotelmbarara.com/
Susan Muhwezi is the Senior Presidential Advisor on AGOA & Trade in Uganda, President of Uganda Hotel Owner’s Association (May 2014) and owner of a boutique motel
Note: The key messages in the interview have been transcribed and slightly edited for legibility and succinctness. More information is provided in the video version www.wisdomexchangetv.com. We welcome comments on the Wisdom Exchange TV website.
What was the catalyst to get into the hotel business?
It started like many things do. I had a dream. I used to travel with my husband, he is a Member of Parliament, and he was doing his political campaign. We would drive about 300 km to go to a country home. We drove by a boutique hotel that was very run down. It was originally a motel owned by a petro station, which was owned by an Italian company. So when they left, it was taken over by someone else. Every time we went by I told my husband: “I wish I could own this hotel.” It started as a dream. They weren’t selling. Then they listed it. My husband helped me acquire it.
I wanted to make it a small hotel with character. Because it was on the road, it was more of a stop over hotel. So I wanted to provide good accommodation and good food for people who were travelling. I didn’t have enough money. I wasn’t working then. Only my husband was supporting the family. I had small children. So where do you turn?
You turn to the bank. You need collateral to go to the bank. My mother was always a businesswoman so she educated us and supported us. I got a title from her, I put it in the bank, got some money, and then developed this hotel.
Remember, the hotel was at quite a distance. It is a three hour drive from where I live. So what do I need? I needed a good team of people to manage it. My first objective was to find a good manager. I wanted someone honest, so I got someone from South Africa.
We opened with very little funds. But before I knew it, we were thriving because we opened with good standards, quality and employed good people.
You mentioned a couple very important messages. You focused on some of the obstacles of starting a new business or hotel:
- Funding and not having collateral.
- Finding a trustworthy manager.
What are some of the other obstacles when starting this sort of business?
Because the hotel business is based on service, you need good waitresses, housekeeping and a good chef. In our country it is hard to find good service. We don’t have training schools in Uganda. Because Uganda was unstable for many years we don’t have the education system to support these services. We don’t have them like my neighbouring country Kenya. In Kenya they have a service school called Utalii (www.utalii.co.ke/).
It is very hard to get manpower. You need to be different and respond to the customer.
Also getting a loan was a huge challenge. There is not much time to build the business. You get a loan and they immediately start charging you interest. So you need to build the business fast. You have to be there. I was on the road all the time trying to get it up and running so we could start making money.
Did you feel you needed to be there every day?
Yes, to ensure everyone was honest. I needed to ensure they were doing the right job, that everything would turn out the way I wanted. I had to be there during the initial renovations and building.
To purchase a state of the art kitchen, I had to travel outside my country. At the beginning you have to be in your business.
You mentioned the gap in having a service-focused university in Uganda. I had the pleasure of interviewing Zulfat Mukarubega, founder of RTUC (Rwanda Tourism University). There are now these opportunities to get staff. Where are you getting staff?
There are catering schools in Uganda, but they are not up to the standards of other hospitality focused schools. Even at Makerere University (www.mak.ac.ug/) in Uganda they teach tourism and hospitality. The other challenge is when people finish school they want to work in the city, not in rural areas.
We got people by motivating them, paying them a little more, and showing them the benefits of working for our hotel. There are benefits in working at a smaller hotel. Sometimes in a big hotel you are just a number, but in a small hotel you are more like a family. Problems get addressed better. It is easier to get training because you have a better relationship with your employer. It is also less expensive to live outside the main city.
How did you create the culture of family – and not only that you were making the promise, but also delivering on it?
I said certain things I can do for you. After you work for me for a year I will send you to training in the bigger hotels. Being a member of the Uganda Hotel Owner’s Association, and the vice president for the last two terms, I know most of the owners of the big hotels. That connection helped me get them into training.
How do you maintain the level of service at your boutique hotel?
- By listening to my customer. Having an ear on the ground.
- We have a suggestion box.
- There is a guest book that people sign.
- I’m online.
- I get TripAdvisor. I monitor what people say about the food, the accommodations, and public relations, how they are received at my hotel.
Even though I don’t live in the same town, I get phone calls from people telling me their experience. They may call and say: “The food wasn’t as good today” or “It wasn’t as clean as it should be. I like positive criticism. I like when they say: “The food is beautiful.” But I know I can’t get that good feedback all the time. Some of the people that call are friends, and some are clients. All of it is good information.
Some TripAdvisor feedback can make you or break you. How do you deal with an unfavuorable comment made on the site?
- I pay attention to it.
- I get in touch with the Manager, to see what happened. Sometimes they agree, sometimes they don’t agree with the comment.
- I talk with my public relations / marketing manager who is based Kampala. She follows TripAdvisor to ensure we stay abreast of what is being said.
- I will get on TripAdvisor and then I apologize. I promise we are going to approve upon it. Then I assure we do. As the owner I respond because it caries more weight. This is what I expect. I would love to hear from someone that I know can make a difference. I’m in a competitive world, because I’m a boutique hotel.
You’re the first woman to be Senior Presidental Advisor on AGOA (African Growth and Opportunity Act trade.gov/agoa/) and Trade related matters for the Ugandan Government. How important is that role in the success of your hotels?
It helps me to deal with people. When you are an owner, you have people that look at you at a certain level. But when you are trying to promote people you need to come down to their level. You become a servant leader.
Being part of AGOA I get to meet so many people. This was an area I was passionate about in the hotel, tourism and service industry. Being a person trying to promote products and get them from Uganda to the United States means I have to learn the expectations of the United States. This helps me to increase standards. I am for excellence. This also provides an opportunity to promote your products / service as well.
When I go promote a product, I have to speak beyond being an AGOA advisor. Many people will ask: “What is your business?” I mention our hotel services. In a way I think that has helped in leadership and promotion of product. Tourism and services are products too. It is like developing a leather sandal, you need to know your business.
Do you find you get a lot of international guests at your hotel?
Yes. It is a great location. If you are going to start to build hotel you should ask yourself three questions. The answer is always location, location, location. My hotel is a gateway to many tourism attractions, from gorilla tracking, to the snow peaked Rwenzori Mountains. The international tourist as well as domestic people stay at our hotel
When the President appointed you to the position as Senior Presidental Advisor on AGOA and Trade, why did you want to do it?
I embraced it, and I try to give it my all because I like working with people. The main people that are developing product are women, and I love working with them.
This is a departure from running a hotel. As you mentioned you can learn a lot from your clients coming through the hotel, but is it not a different focus?
It is a different focus. But who stays in a hotel? People. You have both skilled and unskilled manpower. But everyone needs development.
When you market a product for development for AGOA, they are the owners of the companies; people dealing in food processing, leather products, and crafts. You have top leadership. If you really want success you need to learn whom they deal with as owners. So if I visit your company, such as a director of designers, I have to meet the people that produce the product. I get to know their challenges, as well as the owners.
I have been blessed. The directors want me to meet the people they work with. So I meet the women that produce the baskets, and then the director that will sell them in New York. I have met the director of Krochet Kids (www.krochetkids.org) who sells their product to Nordstrom. I have also met the women who are making these krochet hats and bowties. Many of these women have been affected by the war. They were taken by the Lord Resistance Army, as abductees. I have heard their stories. I have heard how this business has helped them overcome the trauma of the war as well as help them educate their children.
Like I said our hotel is like a family, and some of them are struggling to educate their children. Some are mothers, young mothers, and some are students going to get married. In a way their situation is not that much different from the people I deal in my role as adviser to AGOA – in both cases you are working with people.
Working with people is the cornerstone to everything you do. What are some of the things you do to connect with people?
1. You need to humble yourself. It is how you approach people in the relationship. When you hold titles it puts a barrier between you and them. You need to smile, it relaxes them. Then tell your story so they can relate to you. Share your struggles then you will connect with them. Share that you too have a family. That you too need to educate your boys and girls. You become human, like them.
When people know you for who you are they will appreciate you, open up to you and they will give the best of themselves.
2. I set out my expectations of my team. For example if you work for me I set out boundaries and expectations. I expect from you honesty, integrity and hard work. If you do this, these are the rewards. Make the lines clear. If people don’t know what is expected of them, they can stay as a non-performer. I am employee and an owner, so I too need to know expectations. I have to give the same respect I expect as an owner as when I’m an employee.
Do you find you need to change your personality style or how you interact with people depending on if you are wearing your owner hat, or employee hat?
Yes you definitely need to change. When you are an owner of a hotel you are a team leader. You call the shots.
When you are employee for government and dealing with people who own their businesses, you are at the same level. You have to address them in a different manner to get what you want. A more collaborative approach needs to be established with the latter.
You are also involved on several boards, which one have you found has been the best investment to advance your business experience?
Being the Vice Chair of the Uganda Hotel Owner’s Association has really enhanced my career. I have a good network and it has empowered me. I’m passionate about business and it helps me set goals for myself. I see around me many people that own larger hotels and this inspires me to also strive to one day own a larger hotel. It has opened opportunity for me. It has opened a door to be part of the African Travel Association for the Uganda Chapter.
How long did it take you from owning the hotel to becoming involved in the association?
It is a requirement if you own a hotel; you become a member of Uganda Hotel Owner’s Association. I didn’t become a member until four years after I started the hotel.
When I joined mostly men where members; they owned all the big hotels. Shortly after someone proposed my name as a Vice Chair, I don’t know if they like my communication skills or what was the motivation, but I was put forward. I was voted in, twice.
The second time I was voted in there was a man competing for the position, but I was called when I was in the UK to see if I would run again. I agreed, and won the position over the other candidate.
What do you think is the biggest advantage for you being on the Board of Directors?
We lobbied to get a waiver on taxes if you were building a hotel. There were not enough hotels in the country. We lobbied the government for tax holidays for those that are starting new hotel or who are improving their hotel.
What advice can you give to others to run for senior position on a board?
The most important question, why are you doing it? Are you doing as a service, or just to benefit you? It is fine to do it for both reasons but when you go in, make sure you are going to make a difference.
It is a challenge to get people to raise their hand and lead in these associations because they often ask themselves: “what is in it for me?” We get asked all the time, why should I pay membership? What am I gaining from that association?
When we got the government to give a tax waiver, our members felt it was important to belong. You had to get a letter from the Uganda Hotel Owner’s Association to recommend to the Minister of Finance for a waiver if you were building a hotel. Now it became easier for them to see the value in the association.
Then you have to make it sustainable, and continue to look for other avenues to add value to attract members to participate in that Association.
It is a lot more difficult for associations that don’t lobby to governments for the benefit of their membership. You also bring up a very important point that you have to continue to look for those opportunities to add value.
There are many. The networking and capacity building itself are worth membership. It is easier to approach banks or funders as a big entity rather than as an individual. You have to continue to work for those avenues. Marketing – we market on the Uganda Hotel Owner’s Association website which is also a benefit.
What did you think is the most significant impact you have made in your career to date?
I have demonstrated to a lot of young people, starting with my three young girls, that you can own a hotel. A woman can create employment. A woman can achieve because of my story.
I have so many young people come up to me and say: “I want to be like you.”
If there was one thing you could attribute your success to, what would it be?
I’m a people person. I’m a motivator. I like talking to people. My mother inspired me because of who she was and what she achieved.
I tend to rally people around me because I’m a good communicator.
What would you say is the most rewarding aspect of your career?
Educating my girls and boys and being a good example to them.
What would be the most challenging aspect of your career?
The position my husband holds. It puts you in the limelight since he is a politician. When you achieve something on your own and it has nothing to do with politics, it some times gets bundled-in that my success is because of his success. I’m struggling like any other person.
You do have many roles. You are an owner, board member, Senior Presidential Advisor on AGOA, mother and a politician’s wife.
Being a politician’s wife can really lay a stress on your life. Sometimes it is hard to put a separation between your roles. Your achievement sometimes gets locked-up in his politics. His decisions have a trickle down effect on to you. Sometimes people don’t look at you as a woman working hard just like they are. They look at you as a politician’s wife who gets opportunities because your husband is a member of Parliament or a minister. Sometimes as a politician you are popular and sometimes you are not. You have to struggle to keep a float at those low times. I communicate that I’m doing certain things, but the reality is I have the same challenges and barriers as many owners do or any other woman that is not married to someone who is in politics.
What exactly does your husband do?
He was a minister for many years. He liberated the country. He was in the bush for five years with the current President (Yoweri Museveni). Then he was in security organization, a member of parliament.
I am how I am regardless of his position.
Have you ever conducted an initiative that just did not work?
I opened the Uganda Travel Association chapter, but it didn’t take off. Part of the reason is because there is already an association in Uganda in the tourism industry. It was also a new market, which included Canada and United States. Uganda traditionally focused on Europe and the UK. People were asking the same question? “What is in it for us?” It did not work. I’m still struggling with it, but it hasn’t been a success.
Would you do anything differently?
I’m trying to figure that out. I’m thinking of how this opportunity of being in Canada now perhaps can be a gateway to an opportunity I haven’t thought about.
I do know more North Americans are going to Africa.
Edgeness Insight (An enhanced version of yourself discovered when you push the edge of your comfort zone). What is something that you are uncomfortable doing, but you need to continue to do, in order to make you as successful as you are?
Borrowing money from banks. That causes me pressure. Sometimes you have no choice but to borrow from a bank. You have deadlines. You know that wherever you are going to invest in, it must bring you the return so you can service your loan. It gives me sleepless nights.
The fact that I borrow bothers me. The loan in Uganda has very high interest rates. They can take your property if you don’t pay on time. You have to make sure you pay it on time. It definitely makes you feel like you are living on the edge. You need it, but I wish I didn’t.
Is there one thing you would do differently in the pursuit of your success?
What does success mean to you?
Satisfaction at what you are doing. You are moving from point A to point B while making a difference.
How would you define leadership?
I’m a born again Christian, and the best leadership I read is in the bible. It is Jesus based being a servant. I’m learning to be a servant. Most leaders are bosses.
What pieces of leadership advice would you provide to others who are leading a team or project?
- Do unto others as you want done unto you. Be a servant leader.
- Be a team leader. Work with the people. Don’t command from above. Encourage and work with them. Motivate people.
What would you like your leadership legacy to be?
My children. I believe leadership begins at home. My mother inspired me. I want to inspire my children.
What was the best advice you ever received?
It was from my mother. Be honest, have integrity and know God.
What advice would you give to your 10yr. old daughter?
Follow your heart. Do what you are passionate about. Many parents want our children to succeed at something you failed to succeed at. I was telling my children what to do, but I learnt to find out what is important to them and what they are passionate about. I fought with my youngest daughter, she wanted to study English and get into publishing. I told her that is not a career.
What happened to you to realize that you should support what ever she is passionate about?
When I was growing up I loved the hospitality industry. I wanted to be an airhostess. I loved travelling. My mother told me to be a teacher. I ended up doing a degree in education. I did not love teaching. She told me teachers get married. Travelling was not common. I also wanted to be a lawyer as I was a good communicator, debater. My mother told me no, you won’t get a good husband. Teachers are nice people. They get married. Now that I am doing something that I’m passionate about, I’m excited.
This helped me to change my perception of what my daughter wants to do. You need to pursue what you are passionate about.
What advice do you wish you received at 10yrs old?
Do what you are passionate about.
What is next for you?
I want to own a big hotel. I also would like to have a boutique hotel in every town.
I want ‘Susan Towers’ that is a skyscraper.
Also to see my children successful in their careers, in their families and to have grandchildren.
Words of Wisdom
What Words of Wisdom do you have for African women
- Don’t underrate yourself.
- You have the power to think big.
- Dream big.
- Have a vision. Be persistent.
- Collaborate. Don’t be competitive. Work together.
- Mentor each other. Help the young generation.
- It is not outside you, the power is within you..
- If you reach for perfection, you will reach excellence.
- Learn from others. Give what is best of you.