Bringing passion to fruition and loving it

Sarissa recognized her passion for food & beverage and hospitality early in her career path. While studying International Business at George Washington University, she took a job as a waitress at a trendy restaurant in Washington D.C. She instantly fell in love with the industry and upon graduating choose to pursue a path in F&B, using the knowledge she learned at the University. ​

Sarissa Rodriguez-Schwartz is today the CEO and Co-Founder of SJS Group Hospitality, Singapore and took time to respond to AsiaBizToday and share her journey. Sarissa has the know-how to look at the industry through the shrewd eye of a businesswoman and the experience of working her way through multiple front of house positions. Since arriving in Singapore in 2011, Sarissa has become one of the most influential and recognizable players in Singapore nightlife. Originally brought from New York to open Pangaea Ultra-Lounge at the Marina Bay Sands, Sarissa was instrumental in developing, marketing, and operating what became known as an elite global brand. ​

“If you would have told me 10 years ago that I would have the venues I have now, ranging  from nightlife & entertainment to bars, to restaurants, I would have jumped with joy!  LuLu’s Lounge, Papi’s Tacos, Employees Only, Bang Bang Nightclub, and Pasta Bar have all been successful, knock on wood!  I can’t wait to see what the next 10 years hold,” she says

She has been working in the industry since she was 14 years old.  Her first job was working in an Italian Bakery and she took extra shifts as a hostess, cashier, and whatever she could do throughout high school.  The real money was in bartending, but in America, its illegal to bartend until you are 21 years old.  While she was studying at The George Washington University, she was bartending and cocktail waitressing to pay for expenses, loans, as well as tutoring underprivileged children in urban Washington, D.C. area during an after-school programme  (which was a requirement of her loans ).

Recalling those days, Sarissa says that 98% of her peers not only did not have to work, but had the means to party. She was serving them every night, and that was the time she realized that she’d rather be on her side than on theirs!

What are the current activities that you are involved in?
Most people believe, people in hospitality only work when the doors are open.  The reality is, we actually work during the day mostly!   There are two sides to this business, the on-the- ground hospitality side, and the business side.
I recall when I was working with an agency to onboard an assistant, we were going through what I do, and what could be offloaded to someone.  The woman who runs the agency was in shock and actually said “I cannot believe you do all of this!”

On any given day, my partner and I, depending and what stage our businesses are in, will do everything from concept & business development, human resource & interviews, employment contracts, interior design & fine touches, tastings, menu development & engineering, management meetings, financial reviews, market analysis, CRM analysis, social media & digital direction and strategy, music direction, vendor onboarding, collaborations,
tie-ups, sponsorships and more.

Once the evening comes, its about having a presence and ensuring all is going according to plan.

What was your trigger and motivation to get into this?
Two words- Global Crisis.  I believe I could be a poster child for how that event altered the lives of millennials, their decision-making, career paths, and trust in the status-quo we grew up with.  I always knew I wanted to have a big career and make money in whatever path I took right out of college.  I didn’t have the luxury of jumping around to various creative positions and seeing what fit. I was also never big on academia and knew I couldn’t afford to live more years as a student while racking up more bills for schooling.   Therefore, I chose to acquire a prestigious business degree and do what most people do to make money- work for a big financial firm.

Once the crisis hit, big firms collapsed, and pension funds all but disappeared. I realized the path might not offer the path of stability and income I dreamed of.  I also knew that I didn’t enjoy it very much, and therefore probably wouldn’t excel at that line of work if my heart wasn’t in it.  I decided to throw caution to the wind and not get a typical job right out of college. I wanted to pursue a life in hospitality and no one was going to stop me!

What have been your experiences thus far? 
There are two main pain points that are tough.  The first is the variety of venues that I have, which require very different and specific skill sets, as well as different personalities, from my teams at each venue.   The second is the cultural differences and motivations among the various employees.  Every day is a learning experience, especially as SJS Group grows and seeks more autonomy and responsibility from senior management.  As we go into 2020, roles will increase and a new set of challenges await!  One thing I am always certain of is that as a leader, you have to take 100% responsibility no matter what.

Which are the important factors that keep you going?  
Having a creative outlet is so important, and it’s amazing that my work allows me to do just that.  Then, of course, there is the creating of memories for so many people in the form of celebrations, first dates, and old friends catching up.  I love when people tell me they met their husband or wife at one of my venues, or that they have had an unforgettable experience and night of dancing.  Those are the little things that keep me going!

Have you faced any obstacles in your initiatives? Do you think you have faced specific challenges because of being a woman?  
Absolutely! Now that I have plenty of years under my belt, it’s more of an annoyance than something I look at as an obstacle. I get a lot of questions about who really is the boss, and not believing that I own these venues.  I try to not let comments like that get me down, but it does sting.  Constantly having to prove yourself can get exhausting, but it’s a daily exercise and I believe it’s made me much better.

Where do you usually find inspiration from? 
I find inspiration travelling, speaking to other entrepreneurs, and from my partner who also happens to be my husband. My choice of travel is to the lesser-known areas.  I love to go where locals in that country holiday, where the elders are sitting on benches watching the world go by, and where mom and pop restaurants rule all.  This is where I find my inspiration.  Its back to basics, both in design and hospitality, and it gets my creative juices flowing!

With other entrepreneurs, I am just able to relate to them on a different level. It’s an automatic closeness, and I can pick someone’s brain for hours.  Sharing information, war stories, and obstacles is always on top of my conversation list. My husband is a true visionary, and at any given time he has 25 concepts that could completely work and transform everything.  I am never short of ideas to pluck from his brain for us to work on together to bring to fruition.  It really is a fun process for us.  He always says that once I start to really visualize something, there’s no stopping us!

What’s your proudest moment so far?  
That’s a tough question, but probably the success of LuLu’s Lounge.  I only say that because it’s the most innovative, and it’s a concept I truly believe has pushed the envelope and the industry forward in the most ways. The way we produce and showcase live music & entertainment, our unique music direction, and design is so unique for anywhere in the world.  It has been an amazing journey to see people go from not understanding what it’s all about prior to opening, to now having it set the tone for what they expect in all their experiences globally.


How would you define success ?  
Success to me is having complete control over your own destiny.  It’s about allowing people to help along the way but having the ability and skill to rely on yourself to get you there, no matter what.

What advice do you have for other aspiring Entrepreneurs, especially women?
Just because someone seems confident and certain, does NOT mean they know more than you.