At 5 years old she started a lemonade stand, at 8, she was selling bracelets and by 18 years old, she had a successful online business. Today at 22, Jessica is working along with her father, Edmundo Aja, President of the Hodelpa hotel chains. One day, she will take over the family business and be called Mrs President! I met Jessica in her native country, Dominican Republic, a couple of weeks ago while on vacation and you will see why I think she is super inspiring!
You told me you started your online business at 18 years old but how old were you when you first decided you wanted a business?
I was 5 years old and I wanted to make a lemonade stand. So my parents agreed and I started selling lemonade in the park. Then, at 8 years old, I ventured in making my own bracelets. They were horrible but my family would buy them probably cause they felt bad (laughs). Also at that age, I opened a booth and gave massages for one peso (5 cents). I was always thinking of a way to generate money.
The funny thing is that I am not a spender at all. I save my money, I have a retirement fund, I have my future kids school fund… I am a freak. I think I have a problem (Laughs)!
At 17–18 years old, my sister and I started our jewelry business. Great way to put in practice what we were learning in school. My sister is the creative one and I am good with numbers. We started very small, selling here and there to friends and their friends. We would travel to the USA and other countries and buy jewelry to resell them back home (Dominican Republic). It got bigger and bigger and that’s when we decided to go online (Instagram @tete.store).
As I went to study abroad, it became clear that I preferred the hotel business, which is the family business, more than the jewelry one so I sold my shares to my sister and I started working full time with my father at Hodelpa*.
What do you like about working in the hotel business?
I like the people, I like to talk to the clients. I like the fact that my job consists of making people happy. I know that sometimes they save for an entire year to come on vacation so I want to make sure that they have a good time. I love to travel myself and when I do, I want to be taken good care of. I am not doing a favour to my clients, they are doing us a favour by choosing our hotels, our country, our people. What I also like about tourism industry is that you are impacting a lot of people. Not just the travellers but the people that work here, their families, etc. You are indirectly impacting the lives of the people we turn to supply us with the food, the construction companies that build the resorts, etc.
And did you know that women in Dominican Republic represent 54% of the work force in the hospitality industry so I am super proud of that! Little by little in this Third World country, women are making more effort to work, to earn money and these are things that empower them and allow them to stand up and raise their voices and say that they don’t need to stay with a man that treats them bad (which happens a lot here) because they are making money of their own.
Now hopefully, we will have more women at the executive level because right now, when I go to meetings, I only see men at the table.
How does it make you feel?
Uncomfortable especially when they don’t take me seriously because of my age and my gender. I often think, “I’m not cute, I am making a point!” I do get super excited when I see high-ranking women in my field and I have a feeling that we will see more and more diversity.
Did you get the #metoo movement here in DR?
Yes, in DR, there is a lot of harassment but it’s not considered as such. In fact, it’s well viewed for men to be macho and compliment women and be flirty… But I hate when they call me sweetheart in a meeting. I always answer, “My name is not Sweetheart it’s Jessica.”
Do you think women are going to stand up more?
I think so … more and more women are asking for equal rights. They are demanding to be treated like others. The fact that women have started to contribute financially to the household has created a shift in our culture.
Your father is hoping that you will carry on the family business. How do you feel about that?
We are four kids in the family and I am the only one that works with my dad. At the beginning I was resisting to work with him because I didn’t want people to see me as “Daddy’s little girl.” I wanted to make it on my own but then I came to realize that I was being stupid. Here I have this great opportunity to work with a talented businessman and to learn from him. I work very hard and I am confident that one day, I will take over the business. My father doesn’t put any pressure on me but it’s my goal. I want to be the President of the company one day and then, take our chain to an international level. Right now, we only have hotels (10) in Dominican Republic. I want to expend. My dad is 67 and even though he is doing a good job, I think that for the next phase, you need youth and energy. That’s where I will come in.
Did you always think big? Does it come from your education?
I think so. My parents have always encouraged me. Think about it, my parents allowed me to make a lemonade stand in a park in a Third World country. It’s not always safe but they wanted to help me reach my goals. They have been supportive all my life. They encourage trial and error.
My dad comes from Cuba. He left at 12. In Cuba they had a lot of money but when they left, they were only allowed to take what they had on their backs and a change of clothes … no money, no jewelry, nothing. They first lived in shelters and then he started working in a supermarket as a bag boy, then started working in a store, then became the manager of the store, then he bought his own store and that’s how he became a leading business man. Because of that, our parents have always made us work regardless of the fact that we grew up in a good environment. We understand the value of money and we do not take it for granted.
What’s your definition of success?
Success is not about money but about having serenity and happiness in what you do. You can make a lot of money but hate what you do so you are successful maybe in other people’s view but not your own. So just being happy and feeling at peace with yourself knowing that you are in the right place at the right time. For me, that is the definition of success.
That’s amazing at 22 to be thinking like this. Do you have any advice for career women out there?
Yes, keep on studying and don’t give up on your dreams. In DR, a lot of women want to get married young, which is fine but when they leave their careers and their work for a man, that’s when I have a problem. I’ve seen it happen often.
It’s also important to empower yourself to make sure that you are respected by men. In this country, men are very handsy even in a professional environment. So to draw a line and to lead by example, you have to be strong and stand up.
Finally, OWN IT. When you walk into a room, a meeting or in a class, you need to own it. No place for insecurity. Be confident. You will get respect.
*Hodelpa is a Dominican chain that owns 10 different hotels.