Icons and Innovators: Cornell Awards Shine Light on Hospitality’s Finest

By: Maria Minsker '13
Photo of an elegant restaurant with a high ceiling and a huge chandelier hanging high above all. The room is filled with people sitting at tables and images of the evening’s honorees are projected onto the stone walls above the room’s columns.

The 15th annual Cornell Hospitality Icon and Innovator Awards at New York City’s Gotham Hall, June 4 (photo by Diane Bondareff)

The Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration hosted the 15th annual Cornell Hospitality Icon and Innovator Awards at New York City’s Gotham Hall on June 4, bringing together some of the hospitality industry’s leading figures and visionary minds to honor this year’s winners. Keith Barr ’92, global hospitality executive and the former CEO of IHG Hotels & Resorts, received the Cornell Hospitality Icon of the Industry Award. Chef José Andrés and Rob Wilder, cofounders of José Andrés Group and World Central Kitchen, received the Cornell Hospitality Innovator of the Industry Award.

photo of Kate Walsh standing at a podium, gesturing, smiling, and speaking.
Kate Walsh, dean of the Nolan Hotel School

Kate Walsh, dean of the Nolan Hotel School, and Andrew Karolyi, Charles Field Knight Dean of the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, kicked the evening off, welcoming the crowd of alumni, sponsors, and honorees to the reception. The event is an important scholarship fundraiser, and Walsh acknowledged that by thanking the event sponsors, saying, “You are helping us prepare our leaders of tomorrow.” She added: “Tonight, however, we honor today’s leaders and those who have a vision to quite simply improve our world.”

Andrew Karolyi, standing at a podium, smiling and speaking.
Andrew Karolyi, Charles Field Knight Dean of the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business

Karolyi opened with a nod to Cornell University’s founder, Ezra Cornell, reading a letter he wrote to his son in 1840, 25 years before founding the university. In the letter, Cornell urged business leaders to establish their character upon a fixed principle: “Do right because it is right, for the sake of right, and nothing else.”

“This mindset is more critical today than ever,” Karolyi said, as he congratulated the evening’s winners.

Leading the way: A steady icon during tumultuous times

Jolyon Bulley, CEO of IHG for the Americas, introduced Hospitality Icon Award honoree Barr, praising his exemplary leadership. He described Barr as a “true global citizen,” noting his diverse career across the Americas, Australasia, China, and Europe. He emphasized Barr’s vision and transformative impact on IHG, saying, “His vision for the future was strong and steadfast.”

Bulley reflected on Barr’s fairness, thoughtfulness, and collaborative nature, highlighting his ability to build trust and make quick decisions. He remarked on Barr’s leadership during the pandemic, describing it as “the hallmark of his leadership.” He cited examples of Barr’s smart decision-making, including launching the Vignette Collection, a luxury and lifestyle brand, in 2021 and investing heavily in IHG’s digital presence to make the most of the resurgence in travel after Covid-19 restrictions were lifted.

Keith Barr standing at a podium, gesturing, smiling, and speaking.
Cornell Hospitality Icon Keith Barr ’92, former CEO, IHG Hotels & Resorts

“This recognition is as much about the incredible teams I’ve had the privilege to work with as it is about me,” said Barr, as he accepted his award. He reflected on his career journey, highlighting the importance of mentorship and teamwork. He thanked his mentors and peers for their support, saying, “I wouldn’t be here without the guidance and encouragement from so many individuals throughout my career.”

He reminisced about the little acts of kindness that got him to where he is today, from calling out a cousin in the audience that lent him a car to drive to his very first internship, to thanking Cheri Farrell, a Nolan Hotel School administrator who helped Barr secure the financial aid he needed to attend the school.

Barr concluded by expressing his optimism for the future of the hospitality industry and the next generation of leaders, encouraging them to embrace innovation and remain committed to excellence. “The future of our industry lies in the hands of those who are willing to push boundaries and strive for greatness,” he said.

Cooking up change: Celebrating a visionary recipe for hospitality

Nolan Hotel School graduate Dayssi Olarte de Kanavos ’85, president and COO of Flag Luxury Group, presented the Hospitality Innovator Award to chef Andrés and Wilder, whose three-decade-long journey began in 1993 at their first restaurant, Jaleo, in Washington, D.C. Even early on, the pair set high standards for training and service, attracting and retaining top talent to support their evolving mission.

Then in 2010, a devastating earthquake hit Haiti and Andrés headed there to help and cook alongside displaced families in a camp. It wasn’t just about feeding people in need—it was about listening, learning, and cooking side-by-side with the people impacted by the crisis. This is the real meaning of comfort food, and it’s the core value that Andrés and Wilder, along with their wives Patricia and Robin, used at the center of founding World Central Kitchen. Inspired by the work of Robert Egger, founder of DC Central Kitchen, Wilder and Andrés created World Central Kitchen, a global nonprofit organization that is first to the frontlines, providing fresh meals in response to crises. Today, the organization provides meals to people in dire need, not only providing sustenance but also uplifting spirits during dark times and helping to rebuild local food systems.

Highlighting her partnership with them over the past five years, Olarte de Kanavos reflected on their collaboration during the planning of the Ritz-Carlton New York Nomad and the opening of three successful venues—Zaytinya, The Bazaar, and Nubeluz. She praised Andrés’ and Wilder’s partnership, comparing them to legendary pairs—Batman and Robin, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson—but ultimately concluding that they redefined the partnership genre altogether. She highlighted their groundbreaking culinary experiences, commitment to social responsibility, and notable achievements, including Andrés’ Nobel Peace Prize nomination.

Appearing via video, Andrés expressed his heartfelt gratitude for the honor, but emphasized that the honor belongs to everyone who supported him and Wilder, including their wives, families, partners, and investors. He offered advice to those entering the hospitality field: “Embrace complexity, step out of your comfort zone, and surround yourself with diverse, talented individuals,” he said.

He also stressed the importance of adaptability, empathy, and a passion for service in future hospitality leaders, ending with a hopeful message for the future of hospitality: “Innovate, inspire, and make a lasting impact on the world,” he said, “Let’s build longer tables, not higher walls.”

Rob Wilder standing at a podium, smiling and speaking.
Rob Wilder, cofounder of José Andrés Group and World Central Kitchen and a 2024 Cornell Hospitality Innovator

Wilder took the stage to give his thanks as well, reiterating the importance of teamwork. “Geniuses can’t do it on their own. Innovation happens when you empower others,” he said.

Wilder recounted some of the bold decisions he and Andrés made, like starting a media company and founding World Central Kitchen after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, saying, “We had very little money and just a kernel of an idea to leverage the talents and wisdom of local chefs.” As of this month, World Central Kitchen has served over 400 million meals to communities impacted by natural disasters and humanitarian crises.

Wilder attributed their success to curiosity, learning from mistakes, empathy, and a commitment to their people: “What’s always united José and me is this insatiable, pure curiosity for new ideas and being persistent learners,” Wilder said.

A commitment to service and innovation

Leland Pillsbury standing at a podium and speaking.
Leland Pillsbury ’69, managing director of Thayer Ventures

Leland Pillsbury ’69, managing director of Thayer Ventures and founder and cochairman of Thayer Lodging Group, concluded the awards presentation by highlighting a timeless quote from Nolan Hotel School founding benefactor E. M. Statler: “Life is service. The one who progresses is the one who gives his fellow men a little more—a little better service.”

Pillsbury, who serves on the SC Johnson College Leadership Council, served on the Nolan School’s Dean’s Advisory Board, and is a Cornell University Trustee Emeritus, also posed thought-provoking questions about the impact of innovation, asking the audience to imagine the hospitality and tourism industry without modern conveniences like online reservations or ride-sharing services. Pillsbury emphasized that true innovation requires the ability to think big, risk failure, and surround oneself with talented, hardworking individuals.

“Icons among us are those who build and lead teams with these attributes and who succeed in innovating over and over again,” Pillsbury concluded.

All photos are by Diane Bondareff.