Alumni Spotlight: What exactly is a ‘social impact’ hotel?

Senior Pic 3Colleen Wade, a recent graduate from the University of Notre Dame, studied Information Technology Management at the Mendoza College of Business. She was Chief Operating Officer for the Mendoza Student Leadership Association as well as worked as a Social Media Intern here at Irish Impact Social Entrepreneurship Initiative. She is currently working in Tanzania as a social impact and development consultant for the Mailisita Foundation. 

Just off the road to Mount Kilimanjaro sits a three-story salmon pink building. It’s fairly unassuming, with everything beneath the top floor hidden from the roadside view by a small school. There’s a blue sign close to the road directing passersby to the Stella Maris Lodge and Primary School – an interesting combination, you might think. If you ask the receptionist about a reservation, she or he will tell you that for a single room, the rate would be $65 per night including a morning breakfast buffet. Quite a steal by most American standards!IIpost1_04

What you might not find out until you stay the night is that this isn’t any old lodge. It’s a highly successful social enterprise led by Tanzanians.

It all came about because of two brothers living on opposite sides of the world. Brothers both in blood and in religion, Father Augustine Kawishe and Father Val Laini grew up in Mailisita, Tanzania, six miles outside of Moshi and 20 miles from Kilimanjaro International Airport. After finishing their preparations for the priesthood, Father Kawishe became the local parish priest while Father Laini moved to the United States to serve in Libertyville, IL.

In 2006, Father Val brought a group of his parishioners to Mailisita to meet his brother. The HIV/AIDS epidemic had hit the area hard, leaving many children without their parents. In addition to his parish duties, Father Kawishe had started a preschool at the parish center serving about 100 children – many of whom were orphaned or from families otherwise unable to pay for their children’s education. Though grandparents, aunts and uncles had taken in many of the kids, most could not afford to send them to primary school due to the mandatory school fees. Some couldn’t even afford their daily meals.

Father Kawishe dreamed of building a free English primary school for these kids. The parishioners who came with Father Val had a desire to help but they knew this school needed to be sustainable and not rely on foreign donations to survive. For several years after their initial visit, Fr. Val’s parishioners worked with the brothers and the community to determine what business would be most appropriate and could support the school long-term. After constructing detailed financial models and business plans, ultimately the decision was made to build the 25-room Stella Maris Lodge.IIpost1_03

On January 11th, 2010, after years of preparation, 42 kids began class at the Stella Maris Primary School. Father Kawishe’s dream had come true. Just two years later, the Stella Maris Lodge opened for business, providing the key revenue source needed to support the costs of the primary school. All meals, uniforms, books, school supplies, teachers’ salaries and other fees are paid for by the guests who sleep, eat and celebrate at the lodge. Each morning, guests can take a tour of the primary school during the daily morning assembly where they listen to the children sing and pray, meet the headmistress, Mama Shayo, and find out the story behind it all.

I heard about Stella Maris while searching for a social enterprise to intern with for a few months following graduation. After studying and discussing social entrepreneurship for two years, I felt like my education wouldn’t be complete without experiencing the day-to-day reality of working for one. While there were many different options to look into, Stella Maris was different than other social enterprises I had heard about. For starters, it was a hotel. I’d read about eye hospitals, trash collectors and construction companies, but never had I come across a social impact hotel. More importantly, it was a wildly successful hotel. After only being open for two years, the hotel earned back-to-back Trip Advisor Certificates of Excellence in 2014 and 2015 for their consistent five-star reviews. Guests raved about the hotel and its manager, Teddy. Almost every single review mentioned her name.IIpost1_01

What struck me the most was how both financial and human resource sustainability was embedded in the organization. When I had my first phone conversation with co-founder Stan Taylor, one of the parishioners who made the initial trip to Mailisita in 2006, he explained that in 2014, the hotel had generated above and beyond the costs of operating both itself and the primary school. This additional income will be saved to fund the construction of the primary school kitchen and lunchroom. He also said he would have to ask Teddy if she wanted or needed me for the summer before saying yes to my request to volunteer. Discovering that hotel decisions were made by the entrepreneurial and charismatic Tanzanian woman I had read about and not by the U.S. advisors sealed the deal for me. This wouldn’t be simply an opportunity to learn from a social enterprise in action. It would be a chance to discover how one achieved both success and sustainability in three years time. Now that’s something you don’t see everyday.

Find out what elements of the Stella Maris model make it successful and replicable in the second post, coming soon to Irish Impact!

4 responses to “Alumni Spotlight: What exactly is a ‘social impact’ hotel?

  1. Pingback: Alumni Spotlight: How 35 minutes and Passion Fruit Juice helped create a ‘Social Impact’ Hotel | Irish Impact Blog·

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