Stephanie Sonnabend, SM ‘79, runs a multimillion-dollar hotel chain, but her latest business venture is a much smaller operation. Recently Sonnabend, who is the president and CEO of Sonesta International Hotels, was inspired by the youth ambassadors concept, as was her high-school-age son. Last year she launched Youth Micro Credit International (YMCI), an organization for high-school students who raise money for microlending projects in developing countries. One of YMCI’s first projects is providing Guatemalan microentrepreneurs with Internet training so they can sell their handicrafts worldwide.
“For the cost of an iPod or even a nice pair of jeans, you can transform someone’s life in a developing country,” she says. “This is something I can do–and get my own child very enthused about making a difference in the world.”
One of YMCI’s goals is to help young people learn about finance, credit, and loans. “These are subjects high-school students don’t really know about,” Sonnabend says. Her own business education didn’t begin in earnest until she got to grad school. When she earned her undergraduate degree at Harvard, she could take economics but not accounting, and marketing was something done at the grocery store. The MIT Sloan School of Management introduced her to business marketing, helped her look at herself as a leader, and provided an introduction to business technology. “Not that I consider myself a technologist, but I know what questions to ask my IT people, what possibilities exist,” she says.
Sonnabend used these Sloan lessons over the 29 years she has worked her way through the ranks at Sonesta, a family-run business founded by her grandfather. Sonesta operates 27 hotels, resorts, and cruise lines in the United States, St. Maarten, Egypt, Peru, and Brazil. For her business, education, and philanthropic efforts, Sonnabend received the YWCA’s Academy of Women Achievers Award in 2005.
Sonnabend lives in Brookline, MA, with husband Gregory Ciccolo and their son Nicholas, the YMCI activist. Their daughter, Antonia, is in college.
In her community efforts, the big-company CEO echoes the founder of the little organization for students. “My goal in life is to contribute to people’s lives,” Sonnabend says. “Fortunately, I can do this globally and locally through both Sonesta and YMCI.”