Wonder Women is a blog series that lets me introduce you to amazing businesswomen doing remarkable work. Meet Judy Paul, president of Washington Square Hotel and North Square restaurant, located at 103 Waverly Place in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York City. Judy is a founding partner of The Village Trip, a new annual festival honoring the history and heritage of Greenwich Village from September 27–30, 2018.
Judy and I are both members of Vistage, an executive coaching organization. Our Vistage group includes 18 business owners who meet monthly for professional development in Judy’s lovely boutique hotel where we enjoy food from her highly Zagat-rated restaurant, the ambience of the vibrant neighborhood, and camaraderie. An energetic and resourceful leader, Judy has turned her passion for people, food and the Village into an incredible career that has enriched everyone in her local community and international network. When I spoke to Judy for this blog, I learned how she found the courage to go from the bunny hills to the black diamonds – not only on the ski slopes in her beloved Vail, but also in her business.
Q: What was your first job and what did you learn from it?
A: Post-college, I worked at the hotel, which my parents owned at the time. However, I realized quickly that I couldn’t just go into the family business and think my life was going to be all settled. I needed to prove to myself that I could have a career. I had studied biopsychology in college because I was interested in healthcare. I attended Colombia University, which had a joint master’s program with business and public health, and I earned my MBA. Then, I became a hospital administrator at Mt. Sinai supervising their adolescent clinic, and it was a tough gig. From there, I went on to work for a special organization the State created to monitor the New York City’s agencies. I was hired to monitor the City’s Health and Hospital Corporation. That was a great experience; I learned a lot about the City’s hospital system and also about the NYC Economic Development Corporation. Then I went to Wall Street to work for a municipal bond insurance agency in their healthcare group as a hospital analyst. I went around the country, analyzing hospitals to see if they were good credit risks for insuring their debt. That was an eye opener, traveling the country. I visited every nearly state because of that job.
But, what was always lurking behind my career was my interest in food. My father knew that and he was looking for a way to bring me back into the family business. So after nine years of building my own career, my father suggested I return to the family business and open a restaurant in the hotel. It was the right time.
Q: How did you combine your interest in food with the hotel business?
A: My father wanted to add a breakfast room to the hotel to accommodate guests. I suggested that if he was going to add a kitchen to offer hotel guests breakfast, we might as well open a full-service restaurant. It was always about making really good food and creating a social place where I could serve what I want and be involved with the community. My food interest came from when I was young. I just always loved food.
Q: How did you become interested in food?
A: Julia Child. When my mom and I started to watch her show on TV that opened up our world to food. My mother had been this very disinterested cook, like what are you burning for dinner tonight? She couldn’t care less. There was virtually no interest on her part. But we started watching Julia Child on the local Channel 13 and that was it. Our lives were changed! We bought her cookbook and started making all her recipes and we always cooked together. I just loved being in the kitchen.
Q: How do you balance your love of food with your interest in maintaining an active, healthy lifestyle?
A: I wouldn’t be able to go to work if I didn’t work out each morning. It calms me down; it is a form of mediation. It has also pushed me in ways that I would’ve never anticipated. For example, I wanted to learn to ski, but I was petrified. It took me forever to get off the bunny hill. One day I said, “What the hell?” and took the lift to a more difficult trail. I knew I wanted to become a better skier so I just set my mind and I kept at it and eventually I did get better, but the fear was enormous. Getting past that fear has been a very important life lesson.
Q: When you talk about overcoming fears, did you have fears about joining the family business after having built your own career for nine years?
A: I did. I was very nervous. I just knew a lot of family businesses could go wrong. Was it the right thing for me? So I did some soul searching and went to a career counselor. We went through some testing to see if I was suited for it. It turned out after the testing and the analysis that I should give it a try.
Q: When you made the choice to join the family business, you were giving up another part of your career. Did you put boundaries on that trial period?
A: Yes. I tried to use whatever I had learned from being in a more corporate environment to bring it to our business. That was really hard because in a small business a lot gets done shooting from the hip and dysfunction is very common. Once I got started, the restaurant was so hard to get off the ground that it took all my energy. I put everything in it and never thought about giving up. It had to work.
Q: How did you teach yourself the restaurant business?
A: By doing. We did hire a consultant to help us initially. She helped with staffing and also through the City’s permit process. Her advice was good to get us started, however, everybody that she hired was a disaster. I had to learn quickly to just say, “Okay, we need to fix so many things, including the chef after the first two months.” I really learned by just trying, doing and correcting.
Q: The restaurant has been in business for over 25 years. That in itself is a huge achievement because in New York City restaurants come and go. To what do you attribute your secret sauce of success?
A: I had always positioned it to not be a super-trendy place where we would get the initial press and blow up big and then just fall so quickly. I really wanted to become a neighborhood institution and I felt like that was needed. Anyone could just open and then crash and burn. Just to stick with it and figure out what doesn’t work and make these corrections as you go forward. I’m still learning!
A: My father started to step back and understood that I was interested in not just the restaurant, but also in the hotel. I think that he and my mother had to see that in me. Initially, getting the restaurant off the ground was my total focus. Once it became less of a burden, I had time to get involved in the hotel. They saw that my interest was sincere and I definitely loved the business. My father was very good about handing off responsibility — he didn’t hold on. We each had our own distinct responsibilities. In family businesses, if you start stepping on each other’s toes, the drama will pop up.
Q: What was it that made you fall in love with the entire business?
A: It was mine. It was mine to make and create. And after working for somebody else, whether it was Wall Street or the government, this was mine. I could make it into whatever my vision was. That was an amazing feeling.
Q: How do we help women who think they may want to be entrepreneurs have the courage to get off the bunny hill?
A: If you follow your passion, if you know what that is, you will land very solidly where you want to go. You will direct yourself. You may not get there instantly, there might be bumps in the road, but you will find your way there. It is a very organic situation if you truly follow what you’re passionate about. Now to know what your passion is — that is not necessarily easy. If you don’t know, I would say keep trying, keep going with your instinct of what you want to pursue. Do a lot of networking, talk to a lot of people, listen, see how you feel about what they’re describing. Does it feel good to you? Is it something you’d consider for yourself? And if you find something you love, find a mentor to help you on your journey. Find someone who can coach you and guide you through the steps as quickly as possible. The other thing is to have some patience. You may not get to where you want as quickly as you want, but you will get there. You just need to take the right steps and keep moving forward.
Q: What is the one daily practice that keeps you energized?
A: Working out! And I am trying to incorporate Headspace (meditation). But, working out is the first thing I do and that energizes me. I couldn’t imagine not doing it. It centers me, it makes me calmer and I need that.
Q: What could we do to support the growth of other women in their career paths?
A: One of the things I’ve found very useful personally was joining the New York Women’s Culinary Alliance. So, if you can find an organization, especially one for women that could be very helpful for mentoring and networking. It’s invaluable.
Q: What’s the most exciting challenge that you have in front of you today?
A: The Village Trip! We are excited about being a part of creating a brand-new music, arts and culture festival to celebrate Greenwich Village and its importance in American arts for more than 100 years. We have legendary musicians, contemporary performers and the cooperation of the community. It’s going to be an amazing experience!