Nominated by the Community Foundation and voted on by a committee made up of executives representing the Community Foundation of Greenville and TOWN, the Visionary Leadership Award honors lifelong service to others through both individual endeavors and community involvement, and is a gift that spans a lifetime.
DJ Rama surveys the horizon from Juniper, Greenville’s hottest new gathering spot, which towers over Main Street. A peachy sunset bathes the Blue Ridge in the distance, while folks gather below, at the entrance to the AC Hotel. Dozens of thoughts race through Rama’s mind, including gratitude. The hotelier may be standing atop the $70-million-dollar complex, his latest creation in Greenville, but he’s still the little boy afraid of snakes, living behind his family’s coke and candy shop in Malawi, the African nation where he was born. “It was simple living,” the entrepreneur recalls. “It was very modest. Our home was connected to the store and there was a jungle out back. You had your business that you protected . . . because you were the manpower. You ran the place.”
Today, Dharmendra “DJ” Rama runs Auro Hotels, a privately owned company with 41 properties, 4,300 employees, and 6,000 rooms around the world. Rama’s ascent in the industry represents the quintessential American Dream: immigrant family hits U.S. shores, works hard, and builds a hotel empire. “When you put that all in front of me, starting with my grandfather’s mango and rice farm in India, it’s a great journey,” the 53-year-old confides. “Forty-seven years of hard work, by all the family members. So many sacrifices and compromises, where we try to ensure each generation is set up for success tomorrow.”
The sprawling Rama family strives not only for individual success, but for the success of strangers and the community at large. Philanthropy is a primary component within the Auro Hotel group’s operating manual. “At the end of the day, all of us have always received help,” Rama notes. He describes how outsiders backed his father and uncles when they raised $19,000 to make their first purchase—a 40-room strip motel in Pomona, California—in 1973. “We can never forget to do our part to help others succeed in life, too. It’s the number-one value instilled in us by our grandfather, our fathers and our family.”
As the recipient of this year’s Community Foundation’s Visionary Leadership Award, honoring community involvement and lifelong service to others, Rama states that he does not stand alone. “I wish all the best to family members, and those who have received it in the past, and leaders of the future, who hopefully will keep giving back to Greenville.” This conversation, like most with DJ, blends past with present and future.
Early in the new millennium, Main Street development was moving past the Reedy River into the West End. The Hyatt Regency, the original catalyst for the downtown renaissance, sat neglected at the opposite end of town. DJ’s family business purchased the place in 2011, injecting money, energy, and vision that once again lured people to North Main Street.
Mayor Knox White witnessed Rama “bringing the Hyatt into the modern era” with his attention to detail and keen eye. “When the Hyatt was built, it was like it was hermetically sealed because you didn’t want to see Main Street,” White says. “Originally, the restaurant was deep inside. DJ recognized this and brought a whole new perspective by pulling the restaurant outside to reflect the new Main Street. That’s the kind of thing he understands. It’s a classic DJ observation.”
“We felt like we were trustees of what started downtown growth,” reveals Rama. “I’ve had only two events like that come up in my life.” The second was the new AC Hotel on sparkling Camperdown Plaza. “We went to the drawing board with a lot of depth. We wanted to make sure we put our pillars in that hotel, commemorating The Greenville News, the textile industry, the arts and theater, and nature.” In just a year’s time, the result has become a magnet for the masses.
Brody Glenn, president of Centennial American Properties, worked with Rama for almost five years on the project. “DJ is one of my favorite people to do business with because he has a vision and sense of calm in figuring out solutions,” the developer shares. “He’s the type of person with observations that create a new experience. He always challenges what exists to create what the city needs.”
One of Rama’s initial moves, when he took over the family business in 2012, was formalizing its philanthropic arm, by creating O.N.E. (Outreach, Nurture and Encourage). The guiding principle is to donate 1 percent of profits, 1 percent of production, and 1 percent of personnel to meet the needs of the underserved. Currently, Auro Hotels is supporting one of Rama’s favorite projects to date: Unity Park. “It’s a very unique touchpoint,” the president and C.E.O. divulges. “The word unity is so powerful. The inclusiveness and togetherness. The word sparked me right away.”
Ten minutes into a park-funding pitch, Rama committed $500,000 to build Auro Bridge in the heart of the 60-acre site. White says that was a first. “He knew we were trying to tell a story,” the mayor explains. “It’s a story about the diversity of Greenville and our different communities. The Indian community has been here a long time and has been very successful. This bridge sponsorship now gives a chance to tell that story.” Auro Bridge will provide a way for pedestrians to cross the Reedy River, linking north with south, while creating a panoramic vantage point of the park.
Although economic survival was paramount when the family immigrated, education was equally important. “Education is something all of us will never lose, right?” Rama asks. “It remains with you. What gives us the greatest pride is educating others, making sure an individual succeeds in life because education is their tailwind.” And what a gust they’ve created—locally, nationally, and internationally.
Greenville Heroes is one of the biggest recipients of O.N.E. funding, providing scholarships for children of first responders. Rama is a huge cheerleader for area schools and students, quickly giving thanks to teachers who taught him at Beck, JL Mann, and Southside Christian. Heather Whitley, the corporate director of communications for Auro Hotels, helped mold O.N.E. “I think DJ, and his family, have a deep-seated belief that education is the key to a better life,” she says. “It can open doors to a brighter future. This belief has shaped their giving for years.”
In fact, that giving and commitment to education reaches around the world. In 1998, the first generation of brothers established the Rama Scholarship for the American Dream, with a one-million-dollar endowment. Since then, 492 recipients have received more than $800,000 to attend hospitality management programs at select universities including Greenville Tech and the University of South Carolina. In 2011, the family founded Auro University in Surat, India. The private university has since grown to include 35 programs that incorporate six-month-long internships in the United States.
When asked if he’s a hotelier, a philanthropist, or an educator, Rama pauses. “I believe all three,” he admits. “Without one, the other cannot happen. More than building a business, it’s our responsibility to teach and make sure the next generation has opportunities. We can lead and show them. I’m also thankful for this community. We didn’t know Greenville would be our final stop, as we moved so much as we purchased properties. But Greenville welcomed us with open arms. That’s how this community operates. I feel like I’m a Greenvillian, and I take a lot of pride in that.”