Between You and Me: Elena Mendez

3 Jun 2019 | by Les Roches


By Nicholas Allen, Class of 1992 Les Roches alumnus

Networking for me is everything. And there’s no better network than Les Roches alumni. I have had access to Presidents of countries, CEOs of fortune 500 companies, Foreign Ministers, Attorney Generals and so many more influencers and decision makers, all directly from alumni contacts. 

Over the next few months, I’m going to catch up with some of my wonderful alumni friends to find out where their lives have taken them since leaving Les Roches. First up is Elena Mendez, who graduated in 1993.

Nicholas Allen (NA): What is your profession and current position?

Elena Mendez (EM): I am one of those odd ones out that has actually remained in hotels. Since graduating I did a number of operational on-property roles (F&B and Rooms mainly), then Sales, PR and eventually brand and loyalty marketing roles at corporate level. I am now SVP Brands for Shangri-La Hotels & Resorts, based in their global office out of Hong Kong.

NA: Who was your first roommate in Les Roches?

EM: The lovely Sophie from Greece.

NA: Where did you grow up?

EM: Where didn’t I grow up? I was born in Kenya, then lived in Portugal, Syria, Spain, Kuwait, Pakistan and then Les Roches in Switzerland. Then Dubai, Belgium and now Hong Kong….P.S. I am still growing up!

NA: Who has made the biggest impact on your professional career?

EM: My dad! He was a wonderful GM (and is just such a great human being – always a strong advocate of doing the right thing and putting people first). I can still sit with him for hours talking hotels… Before we realize it everyone else has left, the Rioja bottle(s) are empty and it’s some ridiculous hour in the early morning way past our bedtime!

I was always moved when we would leave a hotel and see the impact he had on people during his few years there. Whether hotel staff, guests, or local residents, people would be in tears. Made me realize how you can impact so many lives through this industry and how gratifying it is when you do.

His career gave me the opportunity to call hotels my ‘home’ (literally) for 18 years. I would run around the back of house annoying staff (and guests) and that gave me insight into where the real action was happening. It also made me appreciate that even something you take for granted, like a flower arrangement, requires a team and hard work behind it. The hotelier life also introduced us to many incredible parts of the world, where I met some amazing people, and got to experience amazing cultures.

If I had to pick a non-family member I would go for Steven Taylor who is now Chief Brand Officer of Accor. Not only is he great at what he does, but he also has incredible emotional intelligence, which is so key to strong leadership today. And he’s a fun person to work with, which helps.

NA: Who was your favorite teacher?

EM: It’s got to be Nicola La Sala (alias De Niro). I was a disaster at serving people, but somehow he managed to make it all enjoyable with his approachable way of teaching, his positive outlook and his sense of humor (which would catch you off guard). I eventually learnt to serve dishes with the right cutlery, without spilling anything and I can carry up to seven plates in one hand. It’s my best party trick!

NA: What’s your advice for new graduates?

EM: First, pick your battles. Some of the best career advice anyone has given me. Make sure the ones you pick are worth the fight. But do speak up, stand up for what you believe and fight a good battle when that time is right…

Second, emotional intelligence is key to strong leadership. True leadership requires a very different skillset to simply being amazing at what you do or being highly intelligent. You can place the smartest Harvard graduate in a leadership position and they fail, simply because they may have the IQ but not the EQ and communication skills that are critical to inspiring, motivating and engaging people. When you’re gone, people won’t remember you for the amazing end of year revenues you achieved. Or the GOR/EBITDA performance. But they will remember you for helping and supporting them along the way.

Third, recognize your weaknesses. No one is perfect. Pull in support from people who can complement you in those areas or hire people who are different. Think about it. A well-balanced team will make you shine as those weaknesses won’t be so apparent.

Fourth, listen. And learn. As the Dalai Lama said ‘If you talk, you will be repeating what you already know. If you listen, you might learn something new’. No matter what role you are in, you should never stop learning. An open, curious mind is a very powerful thing. It takes courage to stand up and speak. But also to sit down and listen.

Fifth, choose your own path. Some people know exactly what they want to do. Some people don’t and may take time to get there. Don’t worry. You can go sideways, around, over, under and explore things instead of being so linear. There is really no right or wrong. I worked in eight different departments/roles before I decided I wanted to stick to Brand Management. It has given me the ability to ‘connect the dots’ in order to get the best results, and I have a broad overview of the industry. Who knows… I may change again one day!

Last but not least, practice humility and empathy. You are not Mother Theresa, or Martin Luther King, and most of us won’t change the world. So don’t take yourself too seriously. You will be healthier for it at the end of your career if you let things go and laugh them off at times. Trust me!

NA: Who did you have a crush on in Les Roches?

EM: Do you not remember? Nick Kamen of course! I used to play his song ‘I Promise Myself’ over and over and over (and over) again in San Nicks, on the Jukebox. Loved the little twirl thing he does at the end of his video, in those amazing Levi’s….

NA: What is your fondest memory of Les Roches?

EM: Oh…so so many:

  • Running through a meter of snow in our pyjamas with our stewarding outfits on top, (to get to class on time with Toya. Wasn’t a usual habit).
  • The bus rides on the way back from a rugby match and listening to Midnight Oil (what I vaguely remember).
  • San Nicks Friday evenings (and music from Nick Kamen, Sinead O’Connor, B52’s…)
  • Writing humorous poems in class about most of the teachers with Justine (they were borderline illegal). Absolutely hilarious.
  • Doing my kitchen stage at the InterCon in Geneva and working with 40 incredible Chefs (I peeled potatoes for 12 hours a day and still enjoyed it!)
  • Going off on some amazing weekends in Switzerland and beyond (Gruyère, Geneva, Lugano, Lake Como….).
  • Fondue in Petit Paradis with the gang (I put on 10 kilos in Les Roches).
  • Playing Pictionary on a Sunday in Chinois.
  • Listening to David Bowie with Andrea, Teresa, Charlotte, Justine and Toya (the Screaming Blues).
  • I guess overall it’s the people I met who are still some of my closest friends. An amazing bunch.

NA: Do you have any phobias?

EM: Yep. Cockroaches…..They give me shivers and here in Hong Kong you get the gigantic flying ones in the summer as it’s hot and humid. They are the size of horses I tell you!

NA: OK, you can ask me one question. What is it?

EM: You personally? When are you coming to see me?

NA: Hopefully we can build the Global Alumni Committee to enable us to network in Hong Kong ASAP. I will be up there straight away to help develop the brand and alumni culture. Shangri-La Alumni rates and book me in. So very proud of you.

NA: Last question. You have organized a lavish dinner party with no expense spared, you can invite eight people, alive or dead, who are they?

EM: The Basic Ingredients: You need to have a few characters that guarantee a good time even if in a room with four white walls. So that would be my brother and my sister.

The Main Ingredients: A fun group of people with an incredible sense of humor. So numbers three, four, five and six would be: Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Rebel Wilson and Jack Black (with Steve Carrell as a backup in case any of them can’t make it). How could that go wrong?

The Cherry on the Top: The dessert comes with a bit of candy, eye candy – but with substance and humor. So numbers seven and eight would be Bradley Cooper and George Clooney.


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