When she started her career with a prominent luxury hotel brand near her home city of Kolkata, hotelier and social entrepreneur Sunandita Das did not expect that the work would test her mentally, physically and emotionally.
“My hands and feet would swell up, and bleed through my socks,” Das recollects. “Even when my apartment was around the corner, I couldn’t manage to get home for months. I’d sleep on the locker room floor two or three hours, freshen up and go back to work.”
Those long hours, broken calluses and strong will built up her resilience in the industry. Her 20-year career has spanned the globe, from the United States and Canada to Europe and parts of Australia. She has opened seven hotels, managed operations of Fortune 500 luxury hotels & Michelin-star restaurants.
She observed that no matter where she was, people looked down on housekeepers and cleaners. Many of the hotel and cleaning industry’s workers represent minority communities, identify as female, and speak little to no English. In Canada, where Das moved in 2012, 30% of the workforce are recent immigrants.
An immigrant herself, Das saw an opportunity to be a powerful advocate for the community and build a brand that could raise industry standards globally for this labor-intensive work and provide high-quality services.
“The industry needs upliftment.” she says. “I can be one of the meaningful companies in this industry representing a larger mass of minority communities.”
In 2017, Das chose to leave her life of luxury in pursuit of this mission. She started by submitting more than 200 bids for cleaning contracts in the first six months—and only received rejections.
Her savings dwindling, forcing Das to move into a shared accommodation for the first time in her adult life. She had to rethink her strategy to make this business work—fast. She realized she needed a different perspective entirely.
“I decided to apply for the cleaning jobs instead of contracts,” she says. “Let me be a cleaner and find out why I’m not getting the contracts. Maybe there’s something I don’t know.”
Her plan was straightforward. She would apply for as many jobs as she could at small and large companies servicing hotels, condos, senior care facilities, and even construction sites. She would try to get interviews with as many corporate decision makers as she could.
Nearly 20 years after Das had put in her grueling 18–20-hour days to launch her career in hoteling, she was doing it again all over Toronto.
On May 31, 2018, six months into her plan, Das received an email offering her yet another cleaning job. A quick search revealed that the sender was the decision maker at the company. The company was looking to enter the Ontario market to service hotels—the same brands she had worked for.
Das declined the offer because she felt it would underutilize her resources and expertise as a hotelier. She could add value to his business if he agreed to let her subcontract with him.
Her pitch worked. Within 24 hours, Urbane Luxury Services was officially incorporated as a business. Another six months later, Das had contracts with six luxury brand hotels and a targeted strategy to hire newcomers to Canada, refugees, younger professionals, and minority groups who have a harder time finding jobs.
Networking with the intention to add value to, rather than win business, says Das, is the key to building relationships and opening doors down the road. WEConnect International has served as an effective platform for her to do both.
“My networking has improved with the WEConnect International forum,” she says. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. It’s a readily available resource for you where people are there. All you have to do is reach out.”
Das takes this commitment seriously. She identities as a first-generation immigrant and minority have inspired a plethora of high-caliber diversity and inclusion policies, a mentoring program, training opportunities, and even English and French classes for her employees. The wellness benefits that ULS offers are the most important to Das because of her own “near-death experience.”
In 2019, ULS encountered a series of challenges, from lost contracts and revenue to a workforce poached by a much larger competitor. Facing mounting debt and business failure, Das slipped into homelessness and experienced severe depression. She ended up at the Gerstein Centre Rehab Centre, a premiere treatment facility in Ontario.
The combination of Das’ professional experiences, personal struggles and competitive personality are reflected in how ULS is raising the standards for the cleaning industry in mindfulness, inclusivity and career advancement. They will launch a more robust wellness program this year for employees and customers and clients. Das is exploring ways for the company to become a certified sponsoring employer for immigrants and preparing to expand out of Ontario and into the United States.
“Our goal is to get the cleaning industry on par with every other white-collar industry,” she says. “We clean because we mean.”
ULS won WEConnect International’s 2021 Rise to the Challenge Facilities Management Award.