Marriott International published a note.
Marriott’s “First Lady”
Debbie Marriott Harrison writes about her grandmother, Alice S. Marriott.
No one in my life has been a more inspiring female champion and positive change-agent than my grandmother, Alice Sheets Marriott. “Allie” was a woman of firsts and her story continues to pave the way for women striving to make an impact as businesswomen and true partners.
Cold Shoppe to Hot Shoppe
At an early age, Allie was industrious. She had to be because her father had died in the 1918 flu epidemic. While her mother was working at a children’s hospital, Allie tutored students after school, cooked all of the meals for her family, and took care of the house. A brilliant student, she attended the University of Utah at age 15 and graduated with honors in Spanish by age 19. With very few women attending college at this time, she was head of her class and ahead of her time.
She married my grandfather the day after college graduation. Grandpa was seven years older and they were head over heels for each other. I saw it in person decades later when I was around them, but I’ve also had the privilege of reading about their commitment to each other in love letters that have been preserved in the family. The day after they got married, they jumped in their Model T Ford and started the eleven-day journey across the country to Washington, D.C. There were no highways back then, just dirt roads and dreams.
When they got to D.C., they opened an A&W root beer stand. When the weather was hot, business was great, selling root beer for a just a nickel. But when the weather cooled, Allie became fearful that frosted mugs weren’t going to be a draw. So, she knocked on the Mexican embassy door and using her best Spanish, charmed the chef into teaching her how to make hot tamales and chili.
There was no kitchen in the root beer stand, so she cooked the Mexican cuisine in their tiny apartment and carried it over to the restaurant every day. Customers loved her cooking, so they added hamburgers and hot dogs to the menu and expanded their newly named Hot Shoppe. Our First Lady was our first cook and brand marketer.
At the time, A&W didn’t allow hot food to be served, so they got an exception. Then, in a stroke of brilliance, they cut through the road/sidewalk curb and offered curbside service. My grandparents were true entrepreneurs and together, they were unstoppable.
They worked hard to build their little restaurant chain and they did it against all odds during the Great Depression. At the end of each day, Allie would put all the sticky nickels they’d earned in a brown bag, walk them back to the apartment and enter them in a ledger, effectively making her Marriott’s first CFO.
From Chef to Decorator and Beyond
In 1957, they opened their first hotel and Allie became the first decorator. She would go on to decorate several more venues hanging drapes and putting up pictures. In 1964, Marriott became a corporation and she was one of our first board members and the only woman. Along the way, Allie was a major force behind every important decision in the company.
My grandparents also gained stature in the community. They were close to President Eisenhower and were invited to many White House dinners. Grandma became involved with the Republican National Committee and was the first female treasurer. She started a Welcome to Washington Club and was a D.C. Committee Representative. This was the start of her involvement with politics and her long relationship with presidents and politicians, including being in charge of prestigious inaugural events.
My grandmother was also a philanthropist. She had an office in the Kennedy Center and was on their founding board. She was a fundraiser extraordinaire and one of Washington’s great hostesses.
Her first love was her family and raising her boys. She was one of the most important people in my dad’s life. When my father started running the company, she would sometimes serve as the referee between him and my grandpa. That was tricky. My grandfather was a product of the depression and was more risk adverse than my father. My grandmother was the peacemaker.
Later in life, she taught me the most important lesson of all when she sacrificed her own health and wellbeing when taking care of my grandfather who had a bad heart. The last fifteen years of her life were marked by ongoing illness and isolation. It was difficult to witness and a wake-up call for me to prioritize my own physical and mental wellbeing as well as make it an integral part of our corporate culture.
Allie was the definition of class, devotion and hard work. When I look at her, I see a groundbreaking woman and admirable role model who defied business expectations. Guided by a strong moral compass, she did what she thought was right and most needed. In doing so, the First Lady of Marriott lived the American Dream and helped build an iconic company that now employs hundreds of thousands of people and affects the lives of millions of families around the world. As the spotlight shines on inspiring women today and every day, she remains a true beacon.