To advocate for progressive change and to make a difference

EP interviewed Tea Colaianni, founder of WiHTL – Women in Hospitality, Travel and Leisure, on why having built up a very successful executive and non-executive career, she decided to take on the challenge to argue for the importance of women and ethnic minorities in leadership. It led to a very open and candid discussion.

In recent years, leadership has been called into question. Forbes has quoted that 63% of employees lack trust in their leadership teams. The Deloitte’s report on millennials has noted that the majority of millennials lack trust in the business ethics of their leadership teams. Leadership has almost become a dirty word when in truth it is both a privilege and a responsibility. To correct the lack of trust noted, it will need those who really do act with genuine, authentic behaviours and possess a genuine mission on which they stand.

Tea Colaianni, founder of WiHTL ( is one such person as she possesses a genuine passion for advocating the importance of women and people from ethnic minorities, from all backgrounds, in leadership across hospitality, travel and leisure. For Tea this is not about being seen to be doing good, she possesses an inner belief that she has a responsibility and duty to make a difference.

The concept of duty has almost become old fashioned. It was JFK who famously remarked “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. Every accomplishment starts with the decision to try. As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest form of appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them”. These words were uttered 60 years ago and arguably, after Covid-19, are as true today as ever. It is also an ethos that does lie at the heart of Tea’s approach and work.

Tea has had a highly successful career. She had been VP Human Resources for Hilton Worldwide. She had been the Group HR Director for Merlin Entertainments and was part of the leadership team to go through an IPO in 2013. Today she holds a selection of NED positions. She has nothing to prove to anyone; so why did she found WiHTL two years ago? After all, diversity can be a difficult arena and she could have risked her reputation and credibility.

“The simple truth is I had a desire to make a difference. I do believe I have a responsibility to be a voice for improvement and change. This is my passion,” commented Tea. “As an industry we are still relatively early in the journey. We do have some way to travel but it is an industry I love and it can be a role model for others. I believe we are making progress. Our work is about advocacy and collaboration. Our job is to make an argument and to help companies think differently. We create a safe space where companies can share, learn from each other and amplify the impact of individual initiatives. We focus on tangible actions for the good of the industry.”

Tea is building a genuine voice in the industry; one which can make a real difference. She has 80 companies involved with WiHTL and over 200 contributed to the annual report produced alongside PWC and The MBS Group. This is no small achievement. Tea is making more progress than many other bodies in the same field and probably because CEOs know she understands the pressures and demands of leadership and that she makes a strong business case.

In an age where progressive thinking is so important and yet can be undermined by some unhelpful narratives at time, Tea is bringing a calm and sensible voice; one which is being listened to and heard. This provides the industry with a genuine opportunity to make real progress.

Tea’s story is an interesting one to watch unfold as arguably she is changing from being a corporate player to being able to stand alone and build a body which has created the basis for the change which is needed. She can be the bridge between leadership teams and the need for more progressive thinking that many do yearn for. This is rare, so what was the motivation which led to the need to found WiHTL?

“The greatest influences on my career have been my parents. My father was a great example for living life with honour and integrity. He placed family first which gave me a strong bedrock. My mother, in contrast, was fiercely independent. She ingrained in me the importance to be myself and to fight for freedom of my own choice.

Between them, they gave me a sense of commitment and determination to do my best, ‘work hard and the results will come’. As for purpose, I have grown into it. For many years as I built my career my two priorities were work and family. I found purpose as I started working with “The Prince’s Trust”. It inspired me and I found a belief that I could contribute. My mother had a passionate belief in the role of women in family and in society. My purpose is to now take this to the next level.
It has not been an easy journey building WiHTL. It has tested my character in so many ways, but I have discovered that I am resourceful and resilient; that I do bounce back from setbacks. I have had to learn how to build from nothing and do a lot with limited resources.

We have such exceptional talent in the industry. Especially now, it is important that everybody feels they have the opportunity to grow and make a difference. There is so much research which makes the case for how inclusion, diversity and belonging lead to stronger business performance and better teams. We are all unique and have different perspectives and leadership teams need to have input from all. A more progressive and collaborative agenda in this respect makes us stronger together. This is not the time to press the pause button, on the contrary this is the time to be even bolder and forge a new commitment to fairness and equality. This is the time for leaders to accelerate their efforts to create inclusive cultures.”