Hannah Yang ’18 was fortunate to speak with Gary Mendell ‘79, the founder, Chairman, and CEO of Shatterproof, a non-profit organization dedicated to ending the stigma against addiction and helping those who suffer recover from it. Gary is also the founder of HEI Hotels and Resorts, a multi-billion dollar company that oversees a portfolio of 70 hotels.
Can you tell us about your current day-to-day involvements with HEI Hotels and Resorts, as well as Shatterproof?
I still own HEI Hotels and Resorts, but I work full-time on Shatterproof.
You are an entrepreneur – having founded a hotel operator company as well as a non-profit. How did HEI first get started?
I was in the restaurant business when my brother Steve (SHA ’82) and I got together and saw that a lot of companies have been investing across the range. We decided that it will be good for us to focus on one specific area. There were two options – taking the restaurant business and building it up to a national chain, or focus on hotel investing. My brother was an analyst at that time and was familiar with many hotels, and we decided to go into hotel investing.
How do you translate the same principles used to lead a hotel company to running a non-profit?
There is a lot of cross-over. A hotel company is like other decentralized companies, with its multi-unit businesses. You work with things like creating a vision, developing a business plan, attracting extremely high caliber talent, and leading people.
Have you translated your work at Shatterproof to HEI in some way?
Basically every year we (Shatterproof) have events all over the country, not just with HEI, but the entire hotel industry. We have had events where people rappel off a building, and fundraisers – not just fundraising, but plenty of people getting together to end the stigma of addiction, to get people talking about it as opposed to the silence on addiction. Approximately 40 companies in the hotel industry have been involved in our events all across the country, where people have been rappelling off buildings. We hold a big one at ALIS (Americas Lodging Investment Summit) every year, the hotel conference in LA, and 5Ks and walk-a-thons. Again, they are not only fundraisers, but plenty of people coming together to end the silence on addiction.
What is something you are most proud of in your work at Shatterproof?
It is hard to say one thing, but I’d say that I am most proud of the people I meet whose lives that have been saved by the work that we do.
What is something you were most proud of in 2017?
In 2017, I am most proud of the launch of our task force to fundamentally and systemically change and improve the quality of treatment to those getting treated for addiction.
Do you think the work you have done in addiction can be extended to mental illnesses and other lesser known illnesses?
Absolutely. Once we build it up for addiction, we will move into mental health.
At Cornell and other colleges around the country, many struggle with mental illnesses, yet we don’t talk about it enough. Many don’t know how to systemically help others or even get help for themselves.
You are exactly right, that’s why we are doing this, to get people talking about it, to get rid of the shame and the stigma that anybody with mental health or issues with substances, drugs, or alcohol would face. They should not be ashamed, it is not their fault, there is nothing wrong with it but they don’t get treated like with other diseases.
What is the most memorable thing for you at Cornell?
The friendships that I developed there, both in the hotel school and my fraternity, and I continue to maintain them.
What is one thing that you would like to tell all Hotelies?
I think it is what we were just talking about – that those who struggle with addiction to substances, or mental health issues, those are diseases like any other. There should be no shame and stigma with anyone who struggles with either or both of these diseases. It will be wonderful if those in the hotel school, those in college, or coming out of college can lead an effort around our country, to get people talking about it, and get rid of what I believe is a social injustice of our time. Young people, and people in college, have the power to change that. They can be leaders, and they can change that.
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The Cornell Hotel Society Executive Board thanks the Cornell Hotel Society – Collegiate Chapter for initiating and conducting the “Conversations with Alumni” project.