Having grown up all around the globe with a father who was an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, Ashli Johnson says she was drawn to hospitality at a young age, intrigued by the “memorable experiences [it] could create.” She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in hospitality, resort, and spa management from the University of West Florida, then a master’s degree in hospitality and tourism management with a focus in hotel investments from Florida International University in Miami.
Now, as the inaugural executive director of the newly launched Marriott-Sorenson Center for Hospitality Leadership—housed within Howard University’s School of Business—Johnson brings nearly 20 years of hospitality leadership, consulting, and academic experience to the role, where she is tasked with building a pipeline of Black executive-level talent and entrepreneurs to shape and lead the future of the industry.
What was your first hospitality-related job?
Ashli Johnson: I was a front-desk agent at a small unflagged hotel in Pensacola, Florida—but in reality, I was also the breakfast attendant, security, and the occasional housekeeper and laundry attendant. [I learned that] every position plays a crucial role in the guest’s experience; every contribution matters.
What are some of your memorable career experiences?
AJ: I learned from the best during my undergraduate and graduate journeys from people like Dr. Candi Clementz [at the University of West Florida], and Diann Newman and Rocco Angelo [from Florida International University], who were champions for me; training hundreds of Washington, DC natives to open the [city’s] Marriott Marquis—creating equitable pathways for employment was truly impactful; transitioning into academia and having the honor of contributing to launching the careers of thousands of students from Virginia State University, Georgetown University, the University of Central Florida, and the University of Houston in addition to fellows of HLT100 and other mentees nationwide; becoming the first African American assistant dean of the Hilton College of Hotel & Restaurant Management at the University of Houston; and my current role at Howard University, where I’m creating a new approach to hospitality education, designed to prepare students for careers as executive level leaders and owners in hospitality.
First work-related reality check?
AJ: Early in my career, [I shared] my professional goal of working in hotel development and acquisitions with the leadership of a company that was planning for rapid expansion. I was told that housekeeping would be a great next step for my career because ‘housekeepers needed someone who looked like them to lead them.’ Somewhere between the disregard for my aspirations and the wild assumption that I could only lead people who look like me, I knew that I could not leave my future in the hands of anyone other than myself.
Most challenging part of your job?
AJ: Helping people develop the courage needed to dismantle systems and ways of thinking that do not contribute to the change we all say we want to actualize.
AJ: Knowing that my contributions are affecting change in the now and in the future toward an equitable reality for the hospitality industry.
Who inspires you?
AJ: My grandparents and great-grandparents were never wealthy, but they were able to build an incredible foundation from nothing. Their ingenuity, grit, and faith informs and inspires my work every day.
How do you define success?
AJ: Fulfilling my life’s purpose with ease, grace, and love while leaving people and places better than when our paths crossed.
Favorite travel destination?
AJ: Beautiful beaches. I find peace and beauty being near vast bodies of water.
What can’t you live without?
AJ: My Daddy. Hands down my favorite human, biggest cheerleader, and most fervent prayer partner. He is the GOAT.
Best piece of advice you’ve been given?
AJ: ‘Do it now.’ Simple words of guidance from my late uncle, Reverend Robert Dale Tanner. Never delay the work that you know you are called to.