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RLJ Lodging Trust president and CEO Leslie Hale Visits Kogod School of Business as Part of Alan Meltzer CEO Speaker Series

Hotel industry executive talks about her path to the C-suite and promotes opportunities during campus visit.


RLJ Lodging Trust president and CEO Leslie Hale with Kogod School of Business dean David Marchick.


If you regularly stay in Marriott, Hilton, or Hyatt hotels in major US cities, there’s a good chance that—at some point—you’ve found yourself sleeping at a property operating under the guidance of Leslie Hale.

As president and CEO of the leading real estate investment company RLJ Lodging Trust, she leads a company that owns 97 hotels and some 21,000 hotel rooms nationwide.

RLJ’s properties operate as many of the biggest names in the hospitality industry, from Courtyard by Marriott to Marriott and from Hilton to Hilton Garden Inn.

But it wasn’t just her position at the helm of a multi-billion dollar company that took center stage during her remarks on the AU campus as part of the Alan Meltzer CEO Speaker Series on March 19.

“Your leadership is impressive. But your story is really compelling,” said Kogod Dean David Marchick, who moderated the fireside chat in front of students, faculty, alumni, and distinguished guests.

An Entrepreneurial Mindset 

The granddaughter of a sharecropper, Hale’s parents engrained an entrepreneurial mindset into their children from an early age, she told the AU audience.

After all, Hale’s parents were entrepreneurs themselves, having started a daycare business in their Los Angeles hometown—one her father still leads today.

“I grew up in a family where hard work was important,” Hale said.

Ingenuity, hard work, and those sorts of things were embedded in our family for a long time.”


Leslie Hale

President and CEO, RLJ Lodging Trust

The first in her family to attend college, Hale found a passion for finance while attending Howard University in DC, where she would go on to graduate summa cum laude (Today, she serves as a university Trustee).

“I absolutely, unequivocally fell in love with the concept of being able to take a dollar and make it into two,” Hale explained.

She followed this passion to Harvard Business School, where she earned her MBA and was a Goldman Sachs and Toigo Fellow.

Early in her career, she gained valuable investment banking experience at Goldman Sachs and learned to navigate the complex world of corporate transactions across an array of industries at G.E. In the process, Hale also gained valuable communications experience, learning to—in her words—“communicate a billion dollar transaction on one sheet of paper.”

Climbing the Executive Ladder

Eventually, her desire to migrate from advising to the inside of a company's decision-making curve brought her to RLJ, where she’s made her way up the executive track over the better part of the past two decades.

She became the company’s chief financial officer in 2007 and chief operating officer in 2016. She was appointed to her current president and chief executive officer post in 2018.

Today, Hale also serves on the board of Delta Airlines and the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond’s Baltimore Branch.

Promoting Diversity and Opportunities

As noted by the Washington Post in a 2018 article, Hale’s promotion to CEO in 2018 was historic. This promotion made her the first chief executive of a publicly traded real estate investment trust.

“I am humbled and honored to be the first, but I have no interest in being the only,” Hale said in an interview with the Post’s Thomas Heath, who was in the audience for the March 19 discussion.

Still, Marchick pointed out, there remains a stark reality today.

“Six years later, you’re still the only,” he noted. “And actually, there are fewer black female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies today than there were six years ago. Why is that?” Marchick posed.

“There’s clearly a pipeline issue,” Hale responded. “Getting enough people in the pipeline to be able to ascend.”

What does that mean on a practical level?

“Everybody contributes to the success of an organization. But not every role in an organization will lead to you being able to be CEO,” Hale explained. “Oftentimes, women and minorities are encouraged to take support roles. These are important roles, but they’re not necessarily on the path that will lead you to the c-suite.”

For RLJ’s part, the company has found success in cultivating a diverse staff, starting at the top.Women make up 50 percent of the company’s workforce. Minorities do as well, Hale noted. Half of its board of directors consists of minorities, she said. 

She said it’s a result of organic growth combined with deliberate efforts to put the right people in the position to succeed and ascend.

“People often say, what do women and minorities need to be successful? They don’t need anything differently than what [JP Morgan Chase CEO] Jamie Dimon got,” Hale told the audience.

You’ve got to start at the top of having a perspective of giving them access to opportunity, sponsoring them while they’re in that role, and coaching them along the way."


Leslie Hale

President and CEO, RLJ Lodging Trust

“I think, and I believe, it is genuinely that simple," she said.

Of course, being a CEO isn’t easy, as Hale pointed out to the audience and the small group of students she met with during an intimate roundtable discussion ahead of the main event, which included members of the student body overseeing Kogod’s Student Managed Investment Fund, which has close to $900,000 in assets and allows students to gain practical investment experience.

“It is extraordinarily lonely,” she cautioned about her post. Internally, people watch everything you do; they watch every word you use. If you use an ‘and’ or a ‘but,’ it means something to them. The people component is something you have to learn on the job. It’s not something people can tell you about.”