A cleaning industry CEO shares how new technology leads to cleaner rooms and satisfied employees
By Katrina Brown Hunt
One of biggest challenges in Dr. Ilham Kadri’s industry is that often you can’t see the success. “The problem with ‘clean’ is that it’s invisible—if you can see the dirt, it’s too late,” says Kadri, the President and CEO of food hygiene and cleaning company Diversey. “So we started thinking about how to make that invisibility visible.”
Kadri—who has a PhD in physics and chemistry from France—has been trying to advance both the technology of cleaning processes and the opportunities for cleaning industry workers since she joined Diversey in 2013. One of the company’s most recent innovations is MoonBeam3, a system that uses ultraviolet technology to clean anything from operating rooms to bathrooms.
Before Diversey, Kadri worked in water processes and solutions for Dow Chemical Company in Dubai. She grew up in Casablanca, Morocco, as the granddaughter of a cleaning woman. Diversey used to be a part of Sealed Air Corporation (the folks who make Bubble Wrap). In March 2017, it was bought by Bain Capital, with Kadri at the helm. Diversity Woman spoke to Kadri about her grandmother, the future of cleaning, and the influence of a certain Greek goddess.
Diversity Woman: Who was your biggest mentor growing up?
Ilham Kadri: My first one was definitely my grandmother. I remember her telling me that there are only two exits for girls in Casablanca: one is your husband’s home, one is to your grave. But she used to tell me to find my third exit, which was education: the freedom to choose, to learn, to choose whom to marry. That was her dream, to reach prosperity through education, to be free to make my own choices.
DW: What was your first job as a young person?
IK: I did a lot of small jobs—my grandmother was focusing on my education, and finding that third exit, so I had very little distraction. One of my first jobs was selling bracelets on the beach. When I counsel youth now, I tell them that getting down to earth in an early job is good for making some money, but when you reflect on those jobs later, you realize you also learned a lot and were exposed to customers. On the beach in Morocco, I had my first experiences with customers. When I do multimillion-dollar deals, it’s still so important that I keep the customer in mind.
DW: How did you feel about cleaning as a profession, before you went into it on the corporate level?
IK: For me, cleaning used to be a mop and a bucket, what you do at home. But then I discovered the wealth of challenges. I’ve been in kitchens and laundries to try to understand what the challenges are, and you become more sensitive. At the end of the day, if you don’t see it, you take it for granted. But no restaurant or hotel wants to be on the front page of the newspaper for the wrong reason—you’ve damaged your brand.
DW: How has the cleaning industry changed since your grandmother worked as a cleaner, and since you started in the business?
IK: The cleaning industry has been, for more than 100 years, getting more sustainable, but the second pillar is alternative cleaning, and it will revolutionize the way we clean. We branded our approach “The Internet of Clean,” where we can be more proactive in monitoring our customers’ needs.
DW: How does that work?
IK: All the cleaning operations can be monitored remotely, and for a hotel or restaurant, this is extremely important. You can look at the machines and smart devices on your computer—how much energy are they using? We can help them see, for example, if a dishwasher needs to be fixed, or if room 202 needs more soap, or how long the cleaner stays in the room. If I’m a general manager, I want to know that all my restrooms have enough soap, and that the guest experience will be okay.
DW: When you improve technology for the cleaning industry, does that make cleaning easier for the workers—or does it make for fewer workers?
IK: Technology is here to make our lives easier, so we can use our brains more than our hands. If you bring in technology, the workers know that you are investing in their job, adding value. It’s not just a mop and a bucket. Now you can see one person doing more than one thing—taking care of the guest experience, engaging with the guest differently. It raises the bar.
DW: Cleaning jobs have a lot of turnover. How does that affect the industry?
IK: It’s not a glamorous industry—no one has ever dreamed of being a cleaner, and as soon as a cleaner gets a better job, she or he will leave. But through technology and innovation, you bring more pride to the industry. And while they are cleaning your toilet, they’re also saving your life. There is no life without water—or without hygiene and cleaning.
DW: Your company’s Hygieia Network addresses this issue—but how exactly?
IK: Four years ago, I noticed a huge gap in gender and prestige in the cleaning industry. I wanted that to change, to give the cleaners access to networking, education, and professional development. Because my grandmother was focused on educating girls, I could not imagine running my business without building something for the cleaners. The network is named for the Greek goddess Hygieia, because we cannot have good health without good hygiene.
The members get mentorship and scholarships. Last year we gave the first scholarship, and we have network opportunities. We also have award ceremonies, where we honor the best talent and rising stars—the man of the year, who is usually a woman. We had 50 attendees during year one, then 100 in year two, now 500. I’m so proud that this network is going to build pride and prestige and help employees.
DW: What do you look for when you interview?
IK: The first thing I look at is the eyes. The mouth is doing the speaking, but I look at the eyes—how passionate they are. How they speak about the person’s stories. I say to the youth, I hope they love what they do.
Then it’s about curiosity. At the end of the day, being smart is a commodity—you can always find better, smarter people on the IQ side. It’s about the other elements—the EQ, the curiosity. Are they willing to learn and learn and relearn? Another is humility. Life will always bring things you don’t expect. Perseverance and determination. Even if you fall, step up and do it again.
DW: Since you are so focused on cleaning, are you a tough customer yourself when you stay at a hotel or eat in a restaurant?
IK: My husband and son will say that when I am in a hotel or restaurant, I look at it with expert eyes. White is not the same “white” for me! If the whiteness of my towels is not what it should be—and I will look at the plates to see if they are clean, or if they are broken or damaged—sometimes I will complain.
DW: What object in your office says the most about you?
IK: One is a statue of an African lady with a water pot next to her, to explain my tenure in the Middle East when I was in the water business at Dow. It’s a fabulous piece of art, but also a reminder of the good years I spent there to do good for the people. Water is the most precious resource on earth. My nickname there was the Water Lady—and that land was blessed with oil, but not with water.
DW: What book have you read lately that inspired you?
IK: Invisible Power, by Ken Manning. When you are a leader, there is a moment in your career when you have to step back, like you’re watching a movie, rather than acting 100 percent, and that’s when you can find innovation. In my career, I have learned along the way to be more patient. There’s no need to race ahead of your team: life is a marathon, not a 100-meter race. The last four years I have been trying to live more “inside out.” DW
Katrina Brown Hunt is a regular contributor to Diversity Woman.