Interview by Yash Panchal
Mr. Dilip Puri is the Founder & CEO of Indian School of Hospitality, which is an institution of higher education focused on delivering exceptional hospitality and culinary education. He has an undergraduate degree in economics from Delhi University and completed his post-graduation at the Oberoi Centre for Learning & Development.
Formerly the Managing Director of Starwood Hotels and Resorts South Asia, Dilip has over three decades of experience in the hospitality industry and has worked with brands such as Oberoi, Taj, IHG, and Starwood in India, Australia, and Africa. Prior to joining Starwood, Mr. Puri set up Duet India Hotels, India’s first private equity-backed hospitality development company and served as CEO for three years.
Mr. Dilip Puri’s journey in the education sector and the changes noticed by him in the hospitality sector
I started in the industry 35 years ago. That time when I did my post graduation from Oberoi School of Hotel Management, I remember many of my friends telling me “Bawarchi ban ne ja raha hai”. Today, 30 years later, if I look at the changes from when I started in the industry to now, there has been a dramatic transformation. One of our challenges is actually to demystify hospitality education. Traditionally, hotel management was considered to be an underpaid, overworked profession. But today, the education we provide gives graduates a choice of over 20 different careers. It may be industries like retail, real estate, fashion, private equity. Less than 30% of graduates go ahead with the hotel industry. Most of them work with technology. In my career as a hotelier, I saw that hospitality is something which is in almost every service business. Every business that has a front end, there is hospitality leading right through. In our education, a big part of what we believe is in creating entrepreneurs in these young people.
I expect that 4 years from now, these students will be able to start their own business. 10 years ago, nobody knew what Flipkart and Amazon would be after 10 years, but today they rule our world. Hospitality has changed rapidly and shall continue to change rapidly over the years. Over the years, I have seen that the ability of education has not been able to keep up with those changes, the students are not industry ready. We, on the other hand, have designed our campus in a way that this environment where they learn is the mirror image of where they go and work. The practical experience they get in their curriculum allows them to get a hands-on experience and that’s what the industry requires, otherwise most of the companies take on a graduate and put him/her through a 2-year management training program. Our education should provide our students jump-start those 2 years. Companies say it reduces their cost since the 2-year program is an extensive training that adds on to the cost of the organization. I believe that the perception of hotel management needs to change and I urge people to think of hospitality management as beyond just hotel management.
Challenges of transforming higher education in India
I was a corporate hotelier for 30 years of my career, and I recognized that the shift from being a professional in the corporate world to turn into an entrepreneur is not easy, especially at my age. When you are young, you can take more risks. I had envisaged being in hospitality from a very long time. And through experiences,
I have realized that the gap in India is not the quality of our industry, it is the quality of our education
That is when I began thinking of ISH as my plan B, but I had the time and courage to convert it into Plan A. I did not know when that would happen but sometimes things happen for a reason. 2 years ago, Marriott and Starwood merged as companies and that allowed me to make the change and make that big leap towards entrepreneurship. More than that, it also allowed me to put in a significant amount of capital of my own into this venture.
But the two challenges any new venture faces are capital and people. If you have access to capital, the challenge is to tend to manage it yourself. Challenges are always there. Finding people in academics to facilitate learning the way we want it to is tough. There is a traditional way in which higher education is practiced in India which is a teacher-centric approach. Our entire model of education is based out of a learner-centric approach. We don’t call ourselves teachers here. We call ourselves facilitators. The whole idea is that the student has access to knowledge which otherwise the teacher provides. Today, that teacher is being replaced by Google baba. So, as facilitators, we guide them to where the knowledge is. The trick is how to use that knowledge and convert it into competency and skills. And in doing that, the other challenge is to create a mindset in these students. They are 18-year-old fresh adults and more than academic knowledge, the requirement is to shape their personalities and mindset. The education should never be for your first job; it should be for lifelong. This is the way I believe we can transform higher education in India.
Plans to bridge the gap between demand and supply of skilled manpower in the Hospitality Industry
To be clear, we are at this point a higher education institution. Our students, when they graduate, will not be getting into the entry-level skilled jobs. They are being provided education to be leaders and managers. Our philosophy is that academic skills are important but life skills are more important. We are not preparing them for their first job but for their lifetime. If I take my own example, I am inspired because when I went to the Oberoi School, I don’t remember a lot of academic knowledge, but what I learned there as soft skills has made me successful. Our soft skills last with us a lifetime. But unfortunately, in India, soft skills are not paid much attention as compared to Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics. We, at ISH, think otherwise and focus on soft skills just as much as theoretical ones.
Mr. Puri on how ISH stands apart from other Hotel Management Institutes
When you look at our campus philosophy, the kind of technology and the ability to have students to learn in different ways are relevant and real-time. I am a facilitator here too and I have gone through a program myself, I find that we are delivering, my class is called introduction to the hospitality business. It is the foundation to first-semester module. Traditionally, the topics covered under subjects like this would be - What are the govt. classification of hotels? I invite an industry leader who is a subject matter expert of what I am talking. We have given them the theory and we pull out a case there. For example, we took a case of Marriott-Starwood merger and its impact not globally but its impact in India. Imagine the learning that the students get, the entire bio frame is still that there must be academic learning but the way we are doing it is to develop a mindset in these people.
We are just trying to put these ideas in students and they will by themselves start to think this through. Our students do all kinds of projects because we are a hospitality/culinary-centric institution, so hypothetically the subject is about creating your own restaurant. So, they are still learning the theory and the process involved. But as they ideate, the incubator helps them to understand the process that when you are an entrepreneur and you have an idea and you have to go all the way to monetize it, what all you have to do for that. They will be given access to technology, research on how do you make a plan, how does an investor think of it? If they do this correctly, they will have that mindset of entrepreneurship, and that’s what you have to create in these students. To me, that’s the graduate profile that I want to in build in these students.
Strategy for targeting students who will be fit for the curriculum at ISH
We are very new, our first session started on 1st of August, but for us, the profile of the student is more important than the marks. It is not a matter to us if the student has scored 90% in boards or 40% in boards. Our assessment criteria are based on the fact if the student would benefit from our education? Is this student someone we think we would be able to create into a private profile we envisage? And that’s done through a combination of things. We have a selection base. Students do a psychometric test, students do group discussions, there are interviews with our faculty and based on that, we become certain as to which student is going to be our target student. There are students who have their families in the hospitality business so they know they are going back. There are students who say they want to open up their own restaurant.
Our assessment criteria are based on the benefits that the education can offer to the student and the benefit of having that student for ISH. You have to have a passion and attitude and if we don’t sense that we can get it out of you, it would mean we shall be wasting each other’s time. The quality of students at this stage is far more important to ISH than the number of students. We are not in a hurry to get large numbers. We are more keen to get the quality because, at the end of the day, these are the students that are going to be our brand ambassadors.
Thoughts on an ideal school environment
Our students have a lot of fun while learning and this is the most essential parameter
From the faculty’s point of view, from the first years’ curriculum, the students from both culinary arts and hospitality management essentially learn hospitality subjects. Then students go for their first 6 months of internship which is pretty much operational. The idea is that they should be able to transmit and see how their learning of 1st year comes out in real situations/experiences. After that when they come back, the curriculum starts transforming more into a business curriculum, where they learn more advanced things and start gaining hands-on subjects like marketing and strategy, finance, organizational behavior. They start working under bigger business projects.
At that time, there will be the best in the class faculty that come and take modules because you can’t create expertise around a set traditional curriculum. There are marketing professors teaching at best business schools, a lot of academics that move to consult but are academics. So, we would bring the best of this expertise for our students. The idea is to find the right expertise. You don’t have to employ everybody. Today, there are professionals who have got subject matter expertise, that’s how our faculty philosophy is. Everybody should be the best in class.
Placement opportunities in store for students in the coming years
If you would visit our website, you would find that the advisory board of ISH has every hotel company’s CEO as a member. Placement is certainly the least of our problems, especially for the first year students. I think it is going to be a problem of plenty. But if you look at the YouTube videos of some of the industry leaders, chairman of hotels, heads of renowned hospitality brands, they can’t wait to get our students to join their organizations. These students will have a choice of easily around 5-10 best jobs in the industry but that is not the point. I think education should never be a means to a particular edge.
In India, the problem is that we think education is equal to the job. And that is a traditional thing, which fortunately is changing. I meet a lot of parents and I find many more parents are more liberal in their thinking, one reason is that the generation of their children are often more knowledgeable than their parents as they have access to more knowledge. Some parents take placements as an ROI to the sum invested in their children’s education. To me, the ROI is not truly relevant in the undergraduate education.
To a student, undergrad education is more foundational. It should be all about allowing them to make their choice but just to answer your question, because the industry’s demand is such that our curriculum best caters to, placements are never going to be a struggle for us. But the question is what choices will the students have in front of them, 4 years from now. We encourage our students to believe and not to think about which industry they are in, because there could be several more choices a few years down the line. It is really about if the education of the present time will give them sufficient choices to make in the coming years.
Establishing a friendly relation with the students
I teach them. That is the best way to stay connected, and when I decided to do this, I at that point thought to myself that I was successful as a Hotelier because I knew the business of hotels. But moving to an education entrepreneur, I really didn’t know education. And I asked myself what is the way can I know education the best, and the best way to know education is by teaching. I asked my partners if I can also undergo the Qualified Learning Facilitator Program, that all our academic faculties have to necessarily undergo.
The idea for me to do it was to learn, but as I did that intensive program, I found a new passion coming in me and saying that I do know how to communicate well, and I relate well to people, but now I have got the tools and techniques to be able to deliver that effectively to the young people. The passion to teach is such that now there is not a better high for me after I teach.
My ability to engage with students, to share knowledge and extract knowledge, develop the mindsets that I talked about, that’s how I stay connected.
Goals in mind for the coming years
In terms of our plans, we certainly have plans to expand. We plan to have a campus in the South. We’d like to have campuses in markets where we know this concept would work, countries like Sri Lanka, Nepal, other tourism-driven countries. Then, we would certainly want to do more in Culinary education. Right now, we have certificate/short-term programs for students who want to put their hands over the culinary art because everybody loves food, and wants to stay connected with food. There are people who want to do it for passion/skill/profession. We are just about to launch our executive education business, which is more like a professional education for the industry. As we see ISH grow, my vision is to take it to be a private university in the future.