Even in this day and age, it’s rare for anyone to find their true calling in life. Indeed, for the vast majority of us, our careers are things that we seemed well-suited for and that pay us well. For the rest, our job is just a job, something to get by.
Harris Rosen was lucky enough to find his true calling at a very young age and to find himself working in that career for much of his adult life. That is, until fate and his bosses conspired to push him away from the thing he loved most in the world…
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When Harris was 10 years old, he helped his father distribute hand-lettered place cards for banquets at the world famous Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City. It was his first job and he was paid an actual pittance for it: a penny a card. The job, though menial, was lucrative and it made him realize something very important: he wanted to work in hospitality. If that hadn’t done it, his next experience certainly would.
That same year, Harris and his father had a chance encounter that set him on the path he would follow for the remainder of his life. He recalled walking into the elevator one day and beholding before him, a stunning blonde lady with a beautiful figure standing next to a dapper gentlemen. He asked his father who they were and he introduced Harris to Senator Robert Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe…
That was his moment, Harris knew that if this type of business meant he could meet movie stars and politicians, than this was the job he wanted. He attended Cornell University, a prestigious, Ivy League school, where he earned himself a bachelor’s degree in hotel administration. Once he’d graduated, the world was open to him.
Eventually, Harris got himself a job working for one of the biggest sites for tourism and hospitality in the world: Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. There, he helped to develop Disney’s Contemporary, Polynesian and Fort Wilderness resorts. It was a great job, doing what he loved, but there was still something missing…
Letting Him Go
Years after he first got his job and after helping Disney make some of their biggest resort hotels successful, Harris Rosen was fired. It seemed that his bosses down at Walt Disney didn’t believe he’d ever be a “company man” and because of this, they no longer had need of his services. Frankly, Harris agreed.
Not a Company Man
“I finally came to the conclusion that I most likely didn’t have the organization man’s personality,” explained Rosen. “I’ve known since an early age that I’ve been inflicted with what I call that awful defective entrepreneurial gene…” Harris knew that deep down, he wanted to be in business for himself…
Business for Himself
And so, Harris Rosen left Disney, withdrew the $20,000 he had in his savings, and made a down payment on a 256-room Quality Inn, located somewhat appropriately, on Orlando’s International Drive. It was a competitive place to put a hotel, but based on Orlando’s tourism utopia, was the only place he could put it and expect to make any money.
It is in this unassuming Quality Inn that Harris Rosen conducts his business. His office is more cozy than opulent and he’s kept company by his two dogs, Bambi and Apple. In time, Harris had built the largest independently owned hotel group in Florida. But there was still so much more to do, and the origins of those ambitions can also be traced back to his childhood…
10-year-old Harris was intent on becoming a hotelier of some sort thanks to his father, but it was his mother who showed him how to get there. They lived in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the ’40s and ’50s, which was little more than a crowded ghetto teeming with destitute immigrants. His mother tried to impress upon him that not everyone lived that way.
She explained to both Harris and his brother that if they didn’t want to live here for the rest of our lives, they had to work hard in school and get a good education. All at once, Harris learned not only how important it was for everyone to get a proper education but also that not everyone was as blessed as he was…
Later in life, successful business owner Harris Rosen was sitting and having lunch with his friend, UCF Professor Abe Pizam, when the discussion moved to the hospitality program within the UCF business school. At the time, the program only had about 75 students, and needed a new building, a new program to help those who like him, felt drawn to hospitality in a very real way.
Building a School
Harris promised Abe that he’d build a new school that day and five years later, he finally made good on that promise. He pledged an unbelievable $10 million in cash, along with 20 acres of property at his new resort to the school. Yet his contribution, however, came with certain conditions…
Harris explained to school president Hitt, that he would prefer the new college be near the theme parks, the convention center, and on International drive. Hill of course conceded. It was a reasonable request after all, because that was where all the tourism and action was. Harris was even brought in to help design the building itself.
Harris’ team contained experts of his own choosing as well as deans from the top hospitality colleges in the nation: Cornell, Michigan State, UMass, UNLV, whom he invited to come down for a weekend to weigh in. Now armed with their expert input, Harris and his team developed the perfect school and in 2004, the Rosen College of Hospitality Management finally opened…
A Great Accomplishment
Today, with the help of founding dean Abe Pizam, The Rosen College of Hospitality Management has over 3,500 students enrolled: quite a few more than the previous 75. In fact, the UCF Rosen College of Hospitality Management is the largest hospitality program in the nation.
Yet, while Harris was thrilled with the success he’s achieved with both his hotels and the school, he knew that he could do more. He realized that it’s one thing to build a school for people like himself, but it’s quite another if you can help anyone, even those who wouldn’t normally have had a chance, get into college…
Harris Rosen wanted to do more for education and he realized that Tangelo Park was the perfect place to start. Tangelo Park was originally built on land once used for orange groves and had been filled with housing for workers at the nearby Martin Marietta, but it had since become an isolated residential area.
Tangelo Park had few services nearby for residents, few public transit options, and many of its residents lived well below the poverty line. So it was that Harris helped start and fund the Tangelo Park Program, which gave every neighborhood child age 2 to 4 access to free preschool, and that wasn’t all….
Success After Success
The Tangelo Park Program also gave parents have access to parenting classes, vocational courses, and technical training as well. Today, Tangelo Park Elementary is now a grade-A school and every high school senior graduates. What’s more, every high school graduate who is accepted to a Florida public university, community or state college, or vocational school receives a full Harris Rosen Foundation scholarship.
Harris spent $9 million on his adopted neighborhood and continues to help out to this day. He’s stated, quite matter-of-factly, that “I will be involved in the program until Tangelo Park is a gated community and the average home is selling for $1 million. Then I’m gone.” For anyone else, that might be a lofty goal, but not for Harris Rosen.