Harsha Chanrai has transformative childhood memories of visiting Haji Ali Dargah, the iconic floating mosque and tomb in Mumbai. “Homeless people lined up along the coast, and we would bring food to them,” says Chanrai, who is the founder and CEO of nonprofit enterprise Saira Hospitality. “My parents always showed us firsthand what we had that others didn’t. It was humbling in a way that made me start thinking about what I could do.”
Even more inspiring, Chanrai’s father worked with Mother Teresa, and his philanthropic endeavors included setting up primary healthcare, eye care, and safe water facilities in India and Nigeria. These initiatives furthered Chanrai’s own determination to give back.
Long smitten with travel, shaped by stays in properties like the Delano in Miami, the London-reared Chanrai realized while working for the New York real estate firm CORE that she was “interested in the connections with my buyers, the surprise and delight element each time I walked into a new property, and the design of the homes we would view, but never the sale.” So, she shifted to hotels, first handling marketing for Six Senses in Asia.
Wanting to combine the nonprofit and hospitality worlds, Chanrai pursued a graduate degree from the Cornell School of Hotel Administration and developed a business plan that snagged first place at a university competition in 2014. Today, that concept has evolved into Saira, where she organizes customized pop-up hotel schools funded by luxury and lifestyle hospitality partners that are eager to make an impact on their local communities. Students seeking the skills and confidence that will elevate them into entry-level and mid-management hospitality positions, are selected after a rigorous interview process and take part in an intensive eight-week hotel school, which includes a certificate from Cornell University.
In 2015, Chanrai unveiled the pilot program A Place Called Home. Based in Downtown Los Angeles, the initiative eventually led to a pop-up hotel school in Todos Santos, Mexico—in collaboration with Liz Lambert’s Bunkhouse Group on the Hotel San Cristóbal. To date, 175 students have graduated since Saira’s launch.
In fact, many have gone on to work at the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts beach club in Mexico, as well as at properties in the British Virgin Islands, such as Rosewood Little Dix Bay. The passion for hospitality fostered in these roving schools translates to low turnover staff rates, a better bottom line for hotels, and community engagement.
Looking ahead, Chanrai hopes to expand into markets that will empower immigrants and refugees, as well as debut a Saira hotel brand with its profits sustaining a sister nonprofit school. “We want to see our graduates become general managers all over the world,” she says, “setting an example for future generations within the community.”
Photography by Pia Riverola, Nick Simonite, and courtesy of Saira Hospitality