Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, I’m here with Robin Staten. Robin, thanks so much for joining us today. It’s so good to see you.
Robin Staten: Thank you for having me, Stacy. Thank you.
SSR: So, we always start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?
RS: I grew up on the West Side of Indianapolis, Indiana with five siblings, a single mom, although my dad was very visible in my life, my grandmother and three uncles actually in one household.
SSR: Oh, my Lord.
RS: Yes, a party every day.
SSR: Where were you in the five children?
RS: I am a middle of six in all, and I am a middle child. According to my mom one of her most independent, which makes perfect sense that I would venture out and attend to own an independent boutique hotel. So I guess that all things in divine order.
SSR: All makes sense. And did you always have a love of hospitality or design from a young age or?
RS: Really interesting. Although I was born and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana my family’s from the South. And I always talk about Southern people and their natural ability to embody like hospitality. I think it’s just in their nature, they’re warm and they’re welcoming and how that translates over into the hospitality industry. So I would say, yes informally. But no, none of my family members are owners of hotels at all. Actually, I come from a family that owns construction companies, and that’s now getting off into various entities, but informally, yes. And as far as design I’ve always considered myself to be personally fashionable. I always tell everyone about fourth grade. My mom went into a goodwill and bought me this faux fur coat that I wore, and my sister completely despised it and hated me for wearing to elementary school. But I loved it. And I think early on it was maybe a testament of what later would come down the line. I can’t imagine a fifth grader strolling around in a fur coat. But it was me. And I think there’s this part of my personality.
SSR: How would you describe your style now? Is it still as eclectic and fun?
RS: Oh Absolutely. And it’s funny, I actually wanted initially to be a biomedical engineer, so totally different. I was in an engineering program up until about middle school or so. And so, hospitality is completely opposite of what I thought, like many of us our career, our goal aspirations would be. But yes, I would say that everything that I do right now as far as Tiny Urban Escapes in their hospitality is probably in direct response to myself and being very eclectic and just a lover of fashion and design. And I am one of those aunts who has the house with that no one can touch things, and I just hosted Easter and I was a nervous wreck.
SSR: I have three children. So for me I’d be like, get out.
RS: And I have three! They’re all in college. But at one time they were babies but I’ve pretty much always been who I am to that I would like to say a more evolved individual, but I’ve stayed pretty true to who I am.
SSR: I love it. You have twins, don’t you?
RS: I do. I have twin boys who are crazy, they just turned 22 on March 24th. And they’re at a university here in Indiana. And then I have a 20-year-old daughter that I just went on my first girl’s trip with that I won’t do again until she’s about 25. We went to Vegas. Not until she’s 25. I took my sister and my mom, a company and her best brand and a few of my nieces and it was too much.
SSR: Yeah. Not doing that again. I have twin boys too. They’re only six.
Robin Staten: Oh my gosh. Well, lucky you I consider it a blessing.
SSR: They’re tons of fun. You wanted to have this other idea of what you wanted to be. Did you go to school for that? When did you kind of pivot and figure out that maybe hospitality or was it something before hospitality?
RS: All of my professional career has been in actually higher education. I worked for one of the largest, if not the largest university, in the state of Indiana. And I started working on campus as an undergraduate student. I actually worked my way up into professional roles. And I had wonderful and great mentorship while there. I just recall thinking that there was something more significant that I should be contributing to the world. I had no idea what it was. I had been very comfortable in higher education. It was the only career path that I had known up until I decided to leave, which I was about 36 at the time, and I’m now 40. So yeah, about 36 years old just one day decided there’s something a little bit more significant.
I had been like everybody else completely obsessed with things HGTV and got into kind of researching tiny homes. And honestly just said, ‘You know what? I think this would be pretty cool to a few of these very kind of Airbnb-ish type of concept and rent them out.’ And then as I began to research and fall more in love with hospitality and its true purpose and contributions to communities around the globe, I fell in love with or I think I found my highest calling, which is to be a hotel owner myself. So I would say it was a very unorthodox transition to just take the leap out there. But I believe in following my gut and it’s proven to be right so far.
SSR: So what year did you end up launching Tiny Urban Escapes and how did you get there? It’s easy to have an idea, it’s the hardest thing to act on it and actually make it a reality. So how did you get from that idea to that reality?
RS: Yeah, so really with a lot of uncertainty, a lot of unfamiliarity in the world of hospitality. So upon officially exiting and not formally because I still have my attachments to higher education. But I decided that if I was going to go into hospitality, I need to know everything about hospitality. So I thought that I was going to go and shadow a few of the hotel managers in Downtown Indianapolis, since we have a good mix of great brands Downtown. And we’re a convention city, so there’s a significant presence of hotels there. I ended up walking into a 374-room hotel and was offered the assistant controller position, so no formal interview or anything.
SSR: That was great. Just go for it.
RS: When I say truly unorthodox, but like I just should wear the crown for it. Not only did they have 374 keys, they had two restaurants that included a bar and they had a Starbucks in there. And so, being assistant controller at a pretty large significant hotel in Downtown Indianapolis, unfamiliar with even the hotel terminology—food and beverage and FF&E—and all of those things and what it meant. I like to call it baptism by fire. It was the best move I could have made by taking the leap and honestly believing in my gut feeling and in myself by just walking into those hotels and I walked out with a job. And I stayed onsite there for a year to soak it. Actually, they are a Starwood/Marriott brand, so I got all of the good training that I thought that I needed. I paid attention in every meeting and every department from sales to customer service from front desk. I stayed there say for about a year. While going through that process, I began to research the conversion of shipping containers and I ran across a wonderful Canadian company called GlassHaus that converted shipping containers and they use all of this glass, and they didn’t do the conversion into hospitality suites. They were just experts in the conversion of containers. I think they specialize in windows and doors and all of those things. And so, I just said, ‘I think this is it. I think that I convert the Canton and Berkeley containers into amazing spaces.’
I began to pitch the idea around Indianapolis at some Speakeasy events with all of the butterflies and nervousness and not knowing half of what I was saying. I just went for it. I got on stage one morning and pitched the idea. And probably within a few months of pitching, I was connected to some local movers and shakers here in Indianapolis. Visit Indy, which is our local tourism bureau. And I would say that was about, I don’t know, September through December or so of 2017. By January 2018, I got up one morning and my phone was exploding, and our Tiny Urban Escapes was featured in The New York Times. That was my first confirmation that I was on to something, and that I was on the right track and I made the right move following what I now know to be kind of my ultimate dream, goal or life ambition, so.
SSR: I love it. Okay, wait back up. Why did you start researching shipping containers?
RS: I just happened to come across, and so when you look at a micro or small spaces, you get one or two things, you get the traditional tiny homes that I took kind of a brief tour of some in Nashville where I knew some were close. And looked into the traditional tiny homes and just didn’t feel like it was the design for Tiny Urban Escapes. So, while doing a lot of research I came across shipping containers. So I just stumbled upon containers, not looking for them, never actually seeing them used for the purpose of hospitality at all. And once I ran across GlassHaus that just converted these steel black boxes and utilized the glass so intimately, I began to—and I’m a true Gemini, so my mind is racing of what these architectural structures honestly would look like in wooded or serene urban spaces and how I could create a hospitality brand from that. It sounds all over the place because it kind of was, and it actually still is but that’s what it is.
SSR: That’s amazing. And then when you were featured in The New York Times, had you already opened or was it just the concept?
RS: Just the concept. I didn’t even have a website up. The New York Times article hit, and my phone was blowing up, and I was just like, ‘What in the world is going on?’ So, I Googled myself and that’s actually how I found out. And I was just like, holy, this is The New York Times. And I was like, I think I need a website if not just a landing page. And so, I received an email from a gentleman that said, ‘Hey, you’re in The New York Times, what in the world are you doing without having a website? Like you are losing out on all this publicity.” You know what I said, ‘Thank you very much, the first week that we open, you’re going to be our first guest and all I’m asking in return is your honest feedback on your stay here.’
RS: And so, he was like, ‘Great!’ Yeah, so constructive criticism can be good. It’s how it’s perceived.
SSR: So you got in The New York Times, you pitched the idea, people loved it, obviously you’re onto something. Now what?
RS: So then there comes the hard work. I think I definitely put the cart before the horse. I was completely ill-prepared and with regards to funding, with regards to site location and all of these things. And so, I began to go to work and that looked like many different things. And so, at this point I had become familiar with hospitality with working for a hotel entity in Downtown Indianapolis, but not on the ownership side and not on the development side. And I had no idea what all of those things meant. I knew that I wanted to produce the product. After speaking to my husband, I decided to self-finance the first suite. I pulled a team together that specialized in the conversion of shipping containers out of Detroit, Michigan. Because at the time there was not a lot of use of the conversion of shipping containers, even with regards to building codes and zoning and all of those things in Indianapolis, Indiana.
I stumbled upon a group called Three Squared out of Detroit, Michigan. We drove up to Detroit. I basically gave them the blueprint of exactly what I wanted to create. And they took that after I had some renderings done, and they did all of the architectural drawings and everything for me to work with contractors to build out. We’re running through now about two years of time of working through this process and what it looked like for myself. And also at the same time, I’m a mom of three, my kids are heading off to college, they’re graduating high school. So my life waws so chaotic, which pushed me even harder to create a brand that is in direct response, I think, to the chaos I was experiencing in my own home life and needing to escape.
SSR: Can one be parked outside of my apartment in Brooklyn, so if anyone’s looking for me I’m just in my Tiny Urban Escape.
RS: That’s the idea and the goal to just be able to say, ‘I’m outta here,’ but I’m only going around the corner. Approaching my 40th birthday, which was, gosh, I’ll be 41 this year. So last year during the pandemic, on my 40th birthday, I did a formal sip-and-see what the official launch of the first week for Tiny Urban Escapes. And it was amazing, challenging at the same time. I think it was met with a lot of fear, imposter syndrome that we’ve talked about so much. But I was able to pull it off.
SSR: That’s amazing. And when you gave the company in Detroit what you wanted it to be, what did you want it to be? What was the look and the feel inside. Tiny spaces it can be great, but it can also feel tiny. So how did you also want to make it feel like a space where people could spend time in and feel comfortable?
RS: And I am the first to admit, I’m claustrophobic, don’t put me in a small space at all, it won’t go over well. I definitely went to them with a design and a plan to say, listen, I want to make certain that this is a space that brings the outside in. That these are micro spaces, but they don’t feel micro at all that they feel as big as one’s imagination. And how do we create this space? What does it look like? And how do I make it as individual and reflective of not wholly, I think myself like I said, the mini me running around with a fur coat on in fifth grade. But how do I make this a space that inspires individuals that when they come here, they can be as creative as they would like to be. Or a space at the same time that promotes rest and balance.
All of the suites are semi-glass, and that allows for a lot of natural lights to flow in. It makes the space seem much larger than what it actually is. And because we’d have three panels kind of sliding doors, it also allows to bring the outside in. And so, I think that I was very particular about ensuring that the space, although it is micro in size, it didn’t feel that way. And so, I was able, honestly, to kind of just take that description to them and they were on paper able to bring it to life. Now the interior design piece of that is another level of bringing in some fabulous, wonderful ladies out of Chicago, Illinois, Siren Betty, my interior designers for this week to take it to a completely different level and really make it be boutique hotel experience that it is today.
SSR: Tell us a little bit about it for us that we can’t see it because it’s a podcast. Paint us a picture if you would.
RS: I’ll paint you a picture. If I was to walk into Tiny Urban Escapes right now this suite, I like to refer to now as the blossom suite. And so, their principal designer at Siren Betty and their entire team, Nicole is their principal designer. I will say I was very receptive. This isn’t my area of expertise. Please take the reins. And I’ll let you know what I think of it from there. They designed a beautiful space that has an incredible wall mural that it looks like a floral arrangement of a bouquet of flowers. Emerald green rich colors and valor furniture and velvet and all of the golden metals with the fixtures. All of that reflecting off of the glass. And these panels of color and light blending in together is what makes it this really interesting and unique space.
It’s very calming. It can be somewhat to me overwhelming, but I think it’s the initial shock of, oh my gosh, this is a shipping container. Because I left the exterior very true to the traditional shipping containers outside of painting the exterior black. But when you walk up and you enter into this space and it’s completely a dream and something unexpected and with its mini kitchen and its spa-inspired bathrooms, it’s just an element of surprise. That’s very unexpected that you traditionally would not find in the Midwest and you definitely would not find in an urban setting kind of in the middle of nowhere.
SSR: And how did you find Siren Betty? Did you know them beforehand?
RS: I did not believe it or not. I have made the most amazing connections throughout my journey. And I believe it may have been one of my features in Hospitality Design and they said, ‘Oh my gosh, who is this girl? We need to meet her.’ And when I met Nicole, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I think I remember going to their website and saying like, ‘This is a whole team of women. I love this.’ I remember there—and I’ve known them for a few years now—their photo on their website, they all had on all black. It was so empowering, they were so beautiful. And they are some has had tattoos. And I was just like, I love this because I have tattoos too. It’s the simple things for me. I just remember doing my research and saying like, ‘I have to meet these ladies. I have to meet this team.’ And Nicole was gracious enough to make the trip down from Chicago, equally as excited to meet me and to learn all about Tiny Urban Escapes. This was a year and a half prior to actually contracting with them and bringing them on board. At that time, talking to them about the concept of Tiny Urban Escapes and what I wanted to be. So when I was ready with my own personal funding, I went right back to them and said, ‘I’m ready, let’s do this.’ And they did. They delivered.
SSR: That’s amazing. And I love when people find kindred spirits. That’s kind of meant to be. And just for all those listeners, I did not pay her to say that it’s from Hospitality Design magazine, but I love it. And I’ll take it.
RS: Actually. That is not the only connection that has occurred from a feature of either me or Tiny Urban Escapes. So, I love it.
SSR: I love it too. Not to pry too much but funding isn’t easy. So when you decided personally, I mean, were you out there trying to find investors as well. This was yours, you were doing it and you raised capital a different way.
RS: Honestly, initially I didn’t approach investors. I didn’t look at traditional funding. I wasn’t even familiar with what that would look like. I just knew that I had something that I needed to produce for myself first. It’s challenging to be female in hospitality. It’s challenging to be unrelated to hospitality coming from a completely different professional background and be taken seriously. And I knew that if the concept itself was The New York Times-worthy that it was equally as important for me to finish out the task myself by having complete and sole control over at least the first bill. It was really important for me to self-finance. And now that we are absolutely looking to scale and grow, and I have three children in college, yes, we have to look at more traditional ways of funding Tiny Urban Escapes.
Even after the build beginning that process of looking into financing and a capital stack and all of these things and what it’s still a challenging role for, I’m imagining many hotel hoteliers. Not to mention those who are independent, not related to any of the mega brands I should say or global brands. And just are out here really bringing to life something new and innovative that you believe in. And then getting everyone else on board to believe in your product.
SSR: Yeah, for sure. Okay. So couple questions off of that. So you have an all women team as well, like Siren Betty, right? Why was that important to you or did it just happen organically?
RS: Oh, no, it’s strategic. It’s funny, I have three brothers, three uncles. I was always raised around a very strong, dominant man. But I was equally surrounded by very strong, dominant women. Women who were very assertive, who always had a sense of self. My mother, especially my grandmother, always knew exactly who they were. I remember my mom always saying, ‘Sit up straight, look, everybody in the eye.’ And so that, and then wanting to give women an opportunity to grow in their own space, I knew that when I was building out the brand of Tiny Urban Escapes that I wanted it to be flexible or fluid. I wanted it to be very non-traditional, very unorthodox and you don’t see a complete team of females. And you definitely don’t see that that is reflective of who you are and your community, diversity-wise. So it was incredibly important to me to bring along women that I knew would add value to the brand number one. But that they would find their own individual journey while coming alongside myself and Tiny Urban Escapes. So I’m very strategic in my partnership. Not that we exclude men, we welcome all. But I do believe in attempting to create a world of equity if I could be a part of that in some tiny way.
SSR: Love it. And now for the location in Indianapolis, so is it just one suite. What are the grounds look like and is the idea moving forward to just be a suite in one location, or is the idea maybe to grow to have multiple with some communal living? Now that you have one done, what’s kind of the evolution or what are you thinking about?
RS: Absolutely. So location-wise, I am very strategic to finding areas that are in the intersection of redeveloping. And so, where Tiny Urban Escapes home site is, there’s a lot of developing and redeveloping and gentrification going on. So there’s a mix of diverse individuals. I believe in hospitality and especially Tiny Urban Escapes as a brand being more of a wellness amenity to communities. I’ve referred to it as triage hospitality. I strategically select locations that’s a diverse group of socio-economic individuals can benefit from. And so, yes we will grow this particular site to have four suites there. I always want to maintain a very instrument and when I say exclusive, I’m not excluding anyone, but that the space is designed to be kind of a safe haven for individuals.
I don’t think that as we begin to scale, any one site would ever have more than 10 to 15 full suites at each location. But, yes, at our current site, Siren Betty has designed five additional beautiful suites that we will begin to finish out this summer that will go online and available for individuals to rent. I’m so excited about that as well. They’re all individually themed. I sat down with Siren Betty, and thought about the individual person who may be able to find this space beneficial to them in their lives. So we have one that is referenced as the bold, that I feel like I draw more closely to. One of the free-spirited individual, which means that individual that marches to their own beat, who kind of follows their own drum; they’ve never followed the crowd. And then one particularly design that has more masculine appeal. Again, we don’t ever want to exclude the men.
They’ve done an amazing job bringing my vision to life. That particular space is enclosed. We’re, again, very intentional about design, even with regards to landscaping. It’s enclosed with greengage and foliage and all of these things that sit to really create an urban oasis among the city. It’s in an area that we have a Monon Trail bed actually starts in the center of Downtown Indianapolis and runs all the way North. So we’ll find moms with strollers, bikers, skateboarders. It’s also in very close proximity to an area that’s been completely redeveloped that has now entrepreneur space available for pop-up shops. It’s very close to Mass Ave, which is considered our Arts District here. So again, I’m very strategic about location accessibility for all individuals and making certain that Tiny Urban Escapes are almost like hubs and fused hidden gems in these areas that can benefit the math of individuals.
SSR: Do you have any other cities on your hit list?
RS: Yeah, I’m a Midwest girl in Indianapolis, and I think there are so many second-tier cities very similar to an Indianapolis that can benefit from a Tiny Urban Escapes like Memphis, for instance. We’re about two hours away from Ohio, from Louisville, Kentucky. So definitely populating and scaling within the Midwest and then expanding outward. I’m looking at second-tier markets that again, you wouldn’t traditionally find an urban oasis, you’d have to pack your bag and maybe go to Bali or something like that to get something somewhat similar. But absolutely we have plans to hit those areas even going a little bit further south into Atlanta as well.
SSR: And I love this idea of triaged hospitality. How has this last year even made that more meaningful or even evolve that or your idea of what that means even further?
RS: Lat year was challenging for everyone. So not only were we thrust in a global pandemic. We saw all types of unrest, whether it’s political unrest to some and the killing of unarmed Black men, and you couple that with everyday life and injustices that happen across the country, it can be too much. It can be incredibly overwhelming. And so, for some communities, even the African American community, it is extremely incredibly challenging to get up daily and see the same reoccurring tragedies. And you think of how you can benefit not only your community but how you create a space that speaks to the era that we’re in right now and the calm that is needed and the peace that is needed for so many people. And the space to decompress and to step back from all of this chaos if at all possible.
The last year was incredibly trying, but out of that, I think I was able to stretch myself as a budding hotelier and actually said to grow the product as well and really narrow down its significance and what I wanted our mission and our values to be. When I say triage hospitality, triage by definition is prioritizing the urgency of care or the degree of care. I think self-care is so significant. And when we think of self-care and it’s just taking, sometimes I need like five minutes like we put our toddlers in time out, just to recollect myself. If we take that as a must pass for ourselves, and we can kind of go and reset, I would hope that it would spark time that individuals can go and reflect and then they come back renewed.
And so, how they approach other individuals in their life and how you interact with other individuals in their life can be changed by having a designated space, to check out, to do some self-evaluation and self-reevaluation. And so, Tiny Urban Escapes for me became bigger than what I would have ever imagined it to be. And as far as theoretically where I’d like for it to go and what I hope that it means to the community at large. Like I said, with so much going on last year and I think everybody was over everything. Taking from all of that just all of that chaos and saying, how do you even work through that? And how you continue to push forward and you do that, and I did that, by identifying and honing in on something that was not a product but a necessity.
SSR: It’s just amazing. I mean just the new type of wellness. That new type of being, and in you offering something that people need so much, so we need to make more of them. There are not many Black hoteliers, there’s not enough. There should be more. And so, you as a female Black hotelier, what do you think that means. For the industry, I think means so much and for others to see you to see what you’re doing, to see your perseverance, your innovation, your changing of jobs, changing of careers. I mean, just what you’ve done already it could be an inspiration or just a nugget for someone thinking about an idea or hospitality.
RS: Yeah. So interesting. You never know, I think I did not imagine ever being thrust at the forefront if I am there. And I’m not even halfway there yet. Yeah, I’m starting now, but I say that and also say that even I have to give myself credit for the courageousness to be Black females daring, with the audacity to enter into a world believing you can rival brands that have been around for generations. And even innovative enough to say, ‘You know what, I think that I’m capable.’ And then moving to a place that says, ‘I know that I’m more than capable.’ And not only in that, how do I make certain that I give access to opportunity to anyone that not only looks like me, but also beyond that, women in general—some young girls somewhere even if it’s not hospitality. It takes a lot of courage, and I credit everything to how I was raised the environment I was raised in and how I grew up being raised by a single mom.
But again, I’ll always have to give credit to my dad. He was always there. My father was actually murdered. It’s crazy. And if that is a testament to the environment, I grew up in having to be resilient, having to have those life tragedies. Seeing the Daunte Wright and George Floyd, and all of these things are occurring that should not be natural or normal are in some communities and definitely in the African American community. It creates a different type of beast. It has created one that in myself that I dared enough to believe that I could pull off a hospitality brand that I will make a global powerhouse.
SSR: I love it. How old were you, do you mind me asking when your father was murdered?
RS: He was murdered 10 days after my high school graduation. So he made it to my high school graduation. He was all jazzed up, very handsome man. About 10 days later in the summer of ‘98 he was put in a double homicide about a street over from where I was sleeping. I woke up to the news that my father had been murdered. We had a very beautiful relationship with him. And so, I truly believe in giving a person their flowers while they’re here. He believed in that as well. And so, my time with him was very impactful and I still feel like he just kind of strolled alongside me encouraging me. I think he would be very proud.
SSR: How do you at that age pick yourself up? I mean, what got you through it?
RS: I think so family is very important. I come from a very close family. I oftentimes say we’re too close because we’re always in each other’s business. We speak for each other, even we speak on behalf of like, if there’s spousal stuff going on, and everything. We come from a very strong close-knit family. I remember my grandmother always saying, ‘There’s only one thing certain in this life and that’s death.’ If those are things that you’ve seen most of your life even before reaching the age of adulthood, you can become somewhat numb to those things, but I don’t ever want to be numb. I took that tragedy and made certain that I contribute in significant ways for the neighborhood and the community that I grew up in. I make certain that in most of my conversations, I always referenced the area that I grew up in, letting some girl know that you can come from that space and thrive. That there can be something beautiful on the other side of that. And that it actually can build—it’s unfortunate, but it can build a very resilient, strong individual. And again, one daring enough to honestly believe in myself.
SSR: Amazing. You’re just an inspiration. Where do you find inspiration now, what do you look at how are you constantly finding new ideas or just especially through the pandemic, which as we know was tough to begin with. But where do you find new and exciting things or inspiration to keep you going?
RS: I try to be as authentic and it’s funny, I announced like ping that word sometimes because some people say authentic and I’m like, ‘That’s not authentic. That’s as fabricated as it can be.’ I find inspiration honestly, especially with regards to the brand, I have always been a person of significant reflection. I believe in reflecting on life. I think it was necessary for me to be able to get to a space mentally, considering my life narrative or experience that I find the small and simple things in life to be the most beautiful. I worked very hard in my early years. I married young. I had my children at 19 and I woke up one day and everybody’s in college. And I’m an empty nester and I’m only 40 and it doesn’t make sense to me sometimes. I think having this very, again, unorthodox life has allowed me to have these pockets of, I would call it spontaneous bouts of innovation that I can look at. I can travel home to Tennessee and find inspiration by passing by the cotton fields and remembering that I’m only a generation away from sharecroppers and how hard they must’ve worked. That then pushes me to say, all right, I’m going to work even harder. And what does that look like for me? And what does that look like for Tiny Urban Escapes. But not only for Tiny Urban Escapes, how does that benefit somebody else? And what does that look like? And so, I’m always thinking, and I think my mother will attest to this. I’ve always been her child out of the six that has always thought of everyone else. I remember not asking for things because the other children would ask for things. And I knew that my mother had six children, so she was always sneaking me little things. I like to believe that Tiny Urban Escapes is the same little things she used to sneak to me. That little personal thing that belongs to that person and it’s theirs. I find inspiration and motivation in believing that I can give a necessity—an asset to someone that hopefully could be day changing, month changing, or life changing.
SSR: That’s amazing. What have you loved most about this process about diving into hospitality, about creating these spaces? Is it the design? Is it the development aspect? Is it the fact that you just opened? I mean, what’s been the best part of the process?
RS: I think what’s been the best is representation. It’s been the most amazing thing to not only female, but African-American female to see representation. And so, if you’re unfamiliar with the road of hospitality, which our numbers speak for itself. If we’re at less than 1 percent, it’s like a kid on Christmas to see the growing, slowly, but growing efforts of individuals that look like me that even that do not look like me, that embrace myself as, again, African American female completely unrelated to hospitality as well. That has been kind of the greatest joy. Then knowing that again there’s multiple universities across the country that have hospitality programs. When you think of young girls or females in hospitality, the rankings and they’re that whether they’re starting at housekeeping or front desk or what that looks like. And so, to be able to create a brand, one day I was just like, ‘Oh gosh, I’m a developer.’ Having these surprise moments, myself, but also I would say the amazing partnership that I’ve been able to garner from just working on and running through this journey called Tiny Urban Escapes. Just being able to contribute back at a much larger scale than I could’ve ever imagined by creating a space of benefit and purpose to a community.
SSR: Is there anything that you’ve taken from your higher education career and brought it over to here, a lesson learned from that? And you’re still in the space in a way, correct?
RS: Still in the space. All things honestly. You think about higher education and I work for one of the largest urban institutions in Downtown Indianapolis. They have about 30,000 students, maybe three large campuses, several satellite campuses. I started in undergraduate admissions. That in essence is welcoming individuals into the university and then retaining those individuals. When you think of hospitality in a form of welcoming your guests and loyalty, how do you get them to come back and stay and be repeat guests on your site. As I began to work my way up in hospitality moving in diversity, equity, and inclusion. At that time at the university, that division did not exist. I was fortunate enough to work on a team of amazing individuals to create out the division of diversity, equity, and inclusion. When I think of my role in hospitality and its impact on diversity, equity, and inclusion to me, it was almost like a perfect marriage. It just translates right over. I probably wouldn’t imagine when I first began my role in higher education that you would have a skillset and a life experience that would mirror and blend right into hospitality, but it definitely is a natural fit.
SSR: That’s awesome. I never thought of it that way. And maybe this was when you got here, you got your first job in a hotel, or maybe in a travel or whatever it may be, even as a kid, has there been a memorable experience in a hotel space? Something you saw that changed you or inspired you?
RS: Do you know what it’s interesting because it wouldn’t necessarily be a hotel space, but my family travel home, we call Tennessee home. And my family owns a considerable amount of land there, and they all actually live like in jogging distance to each other. They have multiple homes on this land. I remember from the time I was old enough to travel, we did our family reunions there. And we get up and get prepared to travel south. And everyone knew who was hosting every family member that was hosting family from the North, from Indianapolis knew to have their homes prepared. I just left Tennessee maybe a month ago. My aunt to this day still has your fresh linen and towels, and they’re all rolled up and your bed is perfectly made, and food is waiting for you. You can smell the country bacon. The feeling of complete relaxation while being there. The carefree days that I still feel, it reminds me of my youth every single time I return home to Tennessee. It’s a required trip for me multiple times a year. And so, not that is a particular hotel, I’ve stayed in many, but the most significant impact I think that I felt the most comfort and influenced by hospitality was honestly an innate spirit of hospitality that came from my own family.
SSR: As a newcomer in this space. How have you seen hospitality evolve or is there something you wish hospitality would do more of, or maybe that’s why you’re doing Tiny Urban Escapes but from your perspective what should hospitality be doing more of?
RS: In all things that we’re always evolving, but I think that there’s some tradition and there’s comfort in tradition. And we kind of operate a lot of times if it’s not broken, let’s not touch it. It’s been amazing to see areas of hospitality emerge that are sustainable, that are green, that are eco-friendly, that are allowing these nontraditional newcomers to have a platform to exist. What I would want to see hands down is more representation, more equity across the board when it comes to financing. It is incredibly challenging, not only the actual process of financing but information sharing. I think that this is what a trillion-plus dollar industry there’s enough to go around, I’m sure. I’ve met some incredible individuals that don’t mind sharing information, and I don’t know that I would be where I am today. If I didn’t have access to that information.
I think that hospitality in itself has evolved, but it has done so very slowly. We, as human beings involve much quicker and we have to be able to respond to the needs. No one expected a pandemic at all. I think that changed our lives forever. Even though everybody’s rushing to get back outside, I think people are taking a second look at their lives and how they’re contributing to the world and the people around them. And especially so many people, my heart goes out to, my family didn’t lose anyone due to COVID, but many people did. I think that it has challenged us to really step back and reflect. We were so busy head down at our phones and just to look up sometimes. I think that the hospitality world should be at the forefront of responding to those needs of individuals beyond just a room to stay. Honestly considering the care of individuals and how that can penetrate out into communities. We have less chaos going on in the country. We just need to kind of step up and do our part on a much larger scale than offering bits.
SSR: Totally agree. What do you think the hospitality industry can do or should do to become more inclusive and diverse and give more opportunities to those that haven’t always necessarily had the opportunities?
RS: It’s simple, but it’s not simple. I would say put us at the table. And if not, be open to individuals who want to create their own table. To design programs around or initiatives around the support of underrepresented population in hospitality. Not only African Americans, but largely Hispanic population that are the source and backbones and frameworks of so many hotels. It’s important that the people that are our driving forces be represented at all levels in hospitality. So I think we can be very intentional around creating access to opportunity being very particular about creating diversity positions within hospitality. Damon Lawrence is amazing. He’s tapping into a market that I’m so excited about. African American dollars are often overlooked, and we contribute so much in so many areas. I think that being very intentional, but authentically intentional about initiatives, programming, positioning, financing, all of those things that can easily be done.
SSR: We always end this podcast with the title of the podcast. What has been your greatest lesson learned?
RS: My greatest lesson learned throughout this incredible journey would be, honestly, to not give into my own fears. There have been so many times I have thought about, I wouldn’t say necessarily walking away, but pivoting and trying to figure out, is this for me? If this doesn’t work out, what’s next for me? But this is my niche, and so there’s always this voice—my affirmations are behind me, there are bright pink Post-It notes all over this room, that I remind myself daily who I am, what I’ve already contributed. I feel like if I can raise twins and a daughter and starting as a married mom at 19, and push them off to college, that is my most significant accomplishment, so what do I have to fear with trying to establish a hospitality entity that will one day be global? That has been my biggest lesson learned—to shut off the voice in my head sometimes, the negative one, but also to embrace it and say it’s okay to be afraid and it’s okay to be fearful, because there’s so many things that, just by nature of who I am as an African American female, I’ve not had access to. But to challenge myself, to connect myself to those that can help grow me, that will challenge me, and to not be fearful of asking questions that may sound silly to some but are very important to me. It’s something that is funny; you teach your kids that, so they have to sometimes remind me. They send me my text pep talks, probably once every few weeks, and they call me Mom Dukes, but they remind me that, what I’m doing, they’re incredibly proud of. I think that has been my greatest legacy is to try to shut down those fears and remind myself exactly who I am and what I came to do.
SSR: Amazing. And I love that you say that’s going to be a global powerhouse, because I can’t wait to see what you do with it.
RS: Thank you. Thank you.
SSR: Thank you so much.