Women in Hospitality United, or WiHU, is a female founded organization that’s revolutionizing the hospitality industry. Created by Elizabeth Meltz, Erin Fairbanks and Liz Murray, they strive to challenge industry norms and provide women throughout the country with solutions to combat harassment and sexism. They’ve built a community where women are empowered to talk about the issues that they’ve faced and learn from each another so that they can find ways to make sure future generations of women don’t fall victim to the same cycle of inequality that has plagued this industry.
We were lucky enough to chat with Erin Fairbanks about the mission behind WiHU and what their organization is doing to create change in an industry that’s largely male-dominated. Not only were we impressed by the growth of their organization in such a short period of time but also by Erin’s passion for the work that she does and her commitment to reinventing how both men and women see the workplace.
How did you and your co-founders get into the hospitality industry? Elizabeth, Liz and myself have all made our way through a variety of positions in the industry. Elizabeth and I started as line cooks, her at Aureole and then Del Posto, myself at Savoy and then Gramercy Tavern. I went on to launch Farm Camp at Flying Pigs Farm and then joined Heritage Radio Network as its first Executive Director. Elizabeth created a department of food safety and sustainability for B&B Hospitality and now leads that program for Dig Inn. Liz got her start bartending in Mexico and as an expeditor at Dover and then managed people operations for Gramercy Tavern. She is now the Director of HR and Communications for the Marlow Collective.
How did WiHU start? In the fall of 2017, frustrated and outraged by the rash of #MeToo allegations across the restaurant industry, Elizabeth sent out an email to 100+ women in hospitality. She and I organized a meeting and committed to hosting this group of industry stakeholders who could advance women-lead solutions. WiHU is an opt-in organization. To really be a part of what we’re creating, individuals need to show up and put in the work. We connected with our third co-founder, Liz Murray, at the second WiHU meeting. It was Liz’s strong encouragement that lead to the formalizing of WiHU as a stand-alone entity.
What is the mission behind WiHU? Our mission is multifaceted. We work to build community by creating safer spaces to gather. We look for opportunities to foster leadership and champion the equitable advancement of all people through connection, mentorship, and resource sharing. We empower our members by providing tools, training, advocacy, and support. Collectively our goal is to develop solutions and provide policies that set new standards for equity, accountability, and transparency in the industry.
Why did you feel there was a need for change in the hospitality industry? The #MeToo movement succeeded in shining a light on a long-accepted culture of harassment in the hospitality industry. We learned at the Solution Sprint (our signature event) that the challenge for our industry moving forward would be recognizing that you cannot effectively solve for harassment issues in a vacuum. To achieve true cultural change, the conversations around solutions must include a substantive look at the system’s shortcoming as related to: race, income distribution, access to resources, and power dynamics. We truly feel harassment is a symptom of the greater power imbalances that exist. We are working to dismantle and rebuild a a safer and more equitable industry.
What actions does your organization currently take to create that change? As a new non-profit we are working toward a vision of the future where WiHU training and consulting modules will be recognized as “must haves” for enlightened operators. We see WiHubs operating across the country, in partnership with other local or national groups, providing mentorship resources, creating region-specific best practice solutions, and acting as checks and balances for local hospitality communities.
We see the Solution Sprint happening across geographies, industry verticals, and being used as a mechanism for businesses to advance change. We anticipate a multitude of cross-sector and cross-industry partnerships designed to advance women of all races and orientations as we work toward achieving equity across all aspects of the hospitality industry. We see WiHU as the rocket fuel accelerating this change.
Our aim is to be a fiscally sound, thriving organization operating at a national level to serve the hospitality industry by developing solutions and providing policies that set new standards for equity, accountability, and transparency in the industry.
Our focus areas for 2019 include:
- The launch of a dynamic membership model that provides our community with an online network of supporters and access to tools, trainings and events while growing our national footprint.
- Bringing our signature offering, the Solution Sprint, to conferences across the country to drive community-led solutions.
- Building out our board of directors and advisors and working to lay the strategic and financial framework to ensure the long term success of our work.
Why did this desire for change speak to you personally? I have long been dedicated to equity building through convening and experiential education. My work with WiHU is a natural extension of these efforts and a reflection of my personal north star–a vision of a future where all individuals, regardless of race or gender are able to thrive and bring their whole selves to work. You can learn more about my personal work history here.
What is the most challenging part of your work with WiHU? It’s important to remember that the change we are building toward is something that will happen on a generational timeline. We are in a marathon, not a sprint. And it’s tough because the work feels incredibly urgent. We want to move toward change as quickly as possible but ultimately, to build a truly inclusive organization, we need to focus on listening, moving slowly and trusting the wisdom and insights of our members. I truly believe our industry has the the talent and desire to create the change that we envision.
What is the most rewarding part of your work with WiHU? I love hearing directly from our members about how our work has impacted them. Notes like this one from Chef Meika Johnson in Houston, Texas really keep me going. “ You guys and the connections I’ve made through you guys have been such an inspiration to me. From the bottom of my heart thank you!!❤️”
*WiHU Founders Photo Courtesy of Bridget Shevlin