The Almighty Alum: Frits Van Paasschenn '83
Issue   |   Wed, 09/28/2011 - 01:40
Image courtesy of arabianbusiness.com
Van Paasschen, CEO of Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, Inc. dropped his desire to go to medical school in favor of a career in business.

“The Almighty Alum” is a series of interviews with alumni who have meandered far beyond their college majors.

Last Thursday, Frits Van Paasschen ’83 gave a presentation about his role as C.E.O. of Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, Inc, a global company with approximately 1,000 owned and managed properties worldwide and 145,000 employees. He presented to a room of interested parties, many of whom were Amherst students eager to find a job and learn from the experienced Paasschen. He covered a variety of subjects integral to thriving in today’s competitive and ever-changing business world, including energy efficiency, globalization and technology.

Central to his presenation, entitled “Preparing for Success in Today’s New World Order,” was what he’d picked up since leaving Amherst. Like many other Amherst alumni, one thing he learned was that one’s career won’t necessarily follow a beaten path. He shared with us this experience, as well as his opinions on his life now as it relates to his past.

Why did you choose Amherst?

Can I be funny? I looked at Dartmouth and the application was longer and there was a less favorable male-to-female ratio there.

I was really interested in Amherst because I really liked the rural environment. I was a strong believer in liberal arts as an education, expecting that I would probably go to graduate school after that. And I wanted to play sports but I didn’t want to go to a school where the sports were so serious that it interfered with my being a successful student.

You were a biology and economics double major; did you initially think those would be your majors or did it take you a couple of years to figure that out?

I originally came in thinking I would major in economics and then I would go to medical school. I thought that economics would make me more aware of the world at large. And I ended up liking my biology classes so much that I completed a major in that as well. But also at the same time in looking at medical schools, I realized that I didn’t want to be a doctor. It turned out that the economics background was useful in a way I hadn’t expected.

Do you remember what your favorite class here was?

I had a wonderful class in genetics with two professors named Hexter and Yoats. That was fantastic. And I had a year of Russian literature with Stanley Rabinowitz that I enjoyed immensely. And I had a wonderful class with Frank Westhoff about finance that I thought was interesting in that it gave me an exposure to the world of policy-making, which was new to me.

What did you do after Amherst? How did you solidify your interest in economics and in business? And how did you get your first job?

So I decided not to apply to medical school and as I was getting close to graduation I had to find something to do. I read a Harper’s magazine article about consulting and it having interesting jobs. I had no idea what that was, so I started to look up firms, interviewed and I was able to get a job with a consulting firm.

Given where you are now, what motivates you to do what you do?

The short answer to that would be because I love what I do. I find it really interesting to work with the people that I work with. I think the problems that I get to solve and address are both interesting and important, and I live somewhere I like to live.

For me, working in a globallybranded enterprise is a great way to mix what’s happening in the world at large with real-world business decisions.

If I were to try to explain what I like about working in a business, more than anything else it’s that you have a great opportunity not only to make change but to explore human potential. You get to see things happen and people doing things that they never would have thought that they could.

Has your motivation changed with time? Would you have given a similar answer, for instance, 20 or 25 years ago?

I’m hoping I’ve learned something in 20 years, but also that I’m the same person that I was. Twenty years ago I was still working in consulting and I was enjoying the access that I had at a relatively young age to people running companies and I enjoyed solving interesting problems using political skills. I was also living in the Netherlands, so going back to the country where I was born was a great experience.

So the similarity [between the past and the present] would mostly focus on my own growth and development and the difference would be a greater interest now in the growth and development of other people as opposed to only myself.

If you could give advice to Amherst students today what would it be?

I’ll go back to something I was talking about during the presentation. I think being ready and willing to make mistakes and to be mindful of the idea that failure is an option are very important. Sometimes the best learning experiences are those that are the least pleasant at the time. One of the dangers of being a high-achieving person is fearing failure and making decisions based on trying to avoid failure as opposed to, not necessarily seeking out failure or failing deliberately, but putting yourself in a position where that is a possibility and either learning that you can do something you never thought you could or actually failing miserably and picking yourself back up and figuring out what goes from there.

If you could go back and do it all again, what would you change?

Is that an option? Is there an app for that?

It’s kind of a tough question in this sense because if I went back and didn’t make the mistakes I made, then I might not have learned things or something different may have happened. I’ve had a great time and if I went back to giving advice it would be to find stuff you really like to do and meet people you really like to work with. I think I’ve largely done that. I might’ve tried to take myself a little less seriously at times, but I am pretty sure that if I went back and gave myself that advice that’s not how it would work out.

— Jacob Walters ’14

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