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Women in Hospitality: Michelle Young

In recent years, women have become more prominent as leaders in the hospitality and technology industries, working hard to make a name for themselves and break the glass ceiling. I sat down with senior vice president of sales at Sertifi, Michelle Young, to learn about her journey to the top. 

Mimi McNulty: Good morning, Michelle! Thank you for taking the time to meet with me today.

Michelle Young: Good morning! Thank you for having me.

MM: Where does your story start?

MY: I grew up in central Illinois in a town of 12,000. My grandmother was a chef at the nearby country club, which gave me a love for good food very early on. When I was eleven, I got my first job detasseling corn for DeKalb, but as soon as I could get my worker’s permit, I started working in restaurants. First as a dishwasher, then a short order cook. By the time I went away to Junior College I was running the kitchen.

MM: Where did you go to school and what did you study?

MY: I went to Lincoln Land Community College and then transferred to business school at Illinois State University to get my Bachelors degree, majoring in Marketing with a minor in Business Administration.

MM: What drove you?

MY: I grew up in a working-class household and was the first person in my family to go to college. I knew I would need to find creative ways to get myself to college, so I focused on sports and scholarships.

In high school, I joined the track team and was the slowest runner, so they had me run the 2-mile race. I was lapped in every single race except for the last race of the season. The cross-country coach approached me at the end of the track season and encouraged me to run every day during the summer and join cross country the following year. He said he liked my determination. I did run all summer, and I ended up running 500 miles. The following year I ran cross country and track and broke both the 1-mile and the 2-mile school records. This experience taught me that I could accomplish anything I set my mind to. I loved being part of a team and working with a coach. I think I have carried that mentality into my hospitality career.

MM: You are such a hustler, Michelle! Literally!

MY: Well, thank you.

MM: Tell me a bit more about your career. What inspired you to go into sales?

MY: As a senior at Illinois State, I saw this ad in the school paper for the Walt Disney World internship program. I applied for the culinary track but was accepted into their sales and marketing internship program. I loved learning about all the aspects of Disney’s business, and this was where I hatched my master plan to combine a career in sales within the hospitality industry. After I graduated college and moved to Chicago, my first professional sales job was at Panasonic, in their point-of-sale division. I sold cash register systems and drive-thru headsets to McDonalds for five years. I covered 12 Midwestern states, demonstrating our technology solutions. I even had a company car, a Dodge Caravan. At 26, I was living large!

MM: Where did you go from there?

MY: Through a networking opportunity with another Panasonic sales rep, I was referred to Sulcus Hospitality, where I continued my career in technology sales. During my tenure, Sulcus was acquired by SoftBrands and then Infor. So many acquisitions, just like our industry. I continued to expand my technology solution sales experience by selling property management and central reservations systems, as well as point-of-sale systems to hotels and restaurants. I spent five years at SoftBrands and then moved to Springer Miller Systems (SMS) for 10 years. SMS was focused on Luxury and Resort hospitality management solutions – everything from checking guests in to managing their activities while on property. At SMS, I worked closely with Host User Group (HUG) and managed and mentored the global sales team. During my time at SMS I made lifelong connections with both customers and team members.

MM: What led you to Sertifi?

MY: Prior to coming to Sertifi, I had worked for Joe Flynn, Sertifi’s current chief revenue officer, at SoftBrands. I had met John Stojka, Sertifi’s co-CEO, at the Springer Miller HUG Conferences. I really resonated with the Sertifi story, how he and Nick saw a need and then built Sertifi based on the need for digital authorizations, signatures, and payments in the hospitality industry.

MM: What about Sertifi stood out to you compared to other solutions you had sold in the past?

MY: Sertifi’s reputation and customer satisfaction is what led me to Sertifi. Whenever I talked to existing customers, they were always like “We love Sertifi!” After I joined the company, I realized that the product was easy to onboard at the property level and required little support after that.

MM: What does being a woman in business mean to you?

MY: Being a woman in this industry is interesting because when I started there were not many women in leadership roles. At Panasonic, I was going to roadshows and regional and international operator meetings demonstrating our products, and the only women that were there were women in sales. Some women worked with their husbands who were restaurant operators or owners, but there were no women who were heading up technology companies or CEO’s in the hospitality industry.

As I moved through my career, I really started to see more women grow into leadership roles. In the last 10 years, that growth has been explosive. For example, Monika Nerger, CIO of Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, has always been somebody I have looked up to. I met her as she moved into her CIO role as they were our customer at SMS. I have learned a lot from her about the importance of being committed to your professional development and growth. Monika was inducted into the HTFP International Hospitality Technology Hall of Fame in 2017.

Sherry Marek from Datavision is another woman in the hospitality industry who has inspired me. At Springer Miller, our products were integrated to the Datavision solution. Working with Sherry and watching her and Sudharshan grow with their business and interact with their customers provided me with great insight around delivering an extraordinary customer experience. They continually partnered with their customers to solve business problems. Sherry was inducted into the HTFP International Technology Hall of Fame this year.

It’s been validating to see more and more women promoted into CIO positions. I had worked with Katie Lee when she was at Loews and Sonesta, and she has recently moved to AKA Hotels + Hotel Residences as their CIO. She knows technology! Another trailblazing woman in our industry is Keryn McNamara, senior vice president of hotel technology at Aimbridge. She continues to lead and participate in groups like ForWard (AHLA) and Women Leading Travel & Hospitality to ensure that women can continue to grow their experience and careers.

There are so many other women I could mention. My career growth is a result of all those who believed in me and helped me out along the way, directly or indirectly.

MM: What do you attribute the growth of women in leadership over the last 10 years?

MY: I think we continue to break through the glass ceiling through our continued success in a variety of leadership roles. Given the opportunity, we prove ourselves. Companies are seeing the value of balanced leadership between men and women. Many women now support their families as the primary wage earner. Our focus has changed in that we are focused on our careers as much as our families. There are tradeoffs there for sure, especially for those of us who are parents.

Some interesting stats: women now lead 10% of the Fortune 500 companies. Overall, in the US as of 2023 women hold just over 31% of CEO positions. Both men and women bring our unique leadership skills to our organizations. I do feel woman are being more recognized for their talents. It’s more than putting a woman in a role for the sake of diversity; it’s about understanding the value of what she is bringing to the table and from there, finding a balance between men and women in leadership roles. Also, as men retire, more women are moving into leadership roles. Throughout my career I have been fortunate to have my male bosses mentor me and promote me into more senior leadership roles.

MM: What makes this job worthwhile?

MY: Two things. The first is relationships. Developing relationships with customers that have become lifelong friends has been amazing. The relationships I have built in my 30 years in the hospitality industry have made my career so fulfilling. Even when I haven’t seen a customer in several years, when I see them at HITEC or a conference, it’s like no time as has passed. There's a level of respect and camaraderie there and the feeling that we would pick each other up and support each other, no matter what we needed. It’s those types of relationships that I look at and say, “I'm so happy that this hasn't just been a job for me.” It's about connecting with people, which is really what I love and who I am.

The second thing that's equally as important, and maybe more so, is being able to watch all the people I've worked with grow in their careers and their lives. Theresa (Ellsworth), our vice president of regional sales, and I worked together for 10 years at Springer Miller, and now she's here at Sertifi. I've seen Theresa get married, have a son, and be promoted so many times throughout her career. Theresa and I have inspired each other to keep setting higher goals throughout our careers.

In the hospitality industry, everyone understands that we are delivering an experience and that thought process flows over into our everyday interactions. Whether we're selling technology or consulting, working in a hotel, a restaurant, at a corporate brand, or a hotel group management company, we are all about delivering a great guest experience. Our industry feels very genuine and authentic to me. I love that. Connections – for me it's all about the connections.

MM: This chat has been lovely. You have given us so much to think about. Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with me today and for sharing your life lessons.

MY: Anytime! 

To learn more from the Sertifi team, check out our employee spotlight page here.

About the author

Mimi McNulty

Mimi McNulty is a Marketing Generalist at Sertifi. While she makes a point to have a pulse on all things Sertifi, Mimi is responsible for the company's social media channels, event coordination, and blog. She also assists with content creation, creative marketing, content strategy, and internal marketing ventures. Mimi is a communication enthusiast with a passion for storytelling and media relations.