"Women's entrepreneurship varies and is rich in nuances, yet never an easy course, in fact, trials and tribulations are something of an inevitability. While the opportunity is great – being your own boss, working on your own terms, fueling a passion project, to name but a few – the risk of failure looms large. Yet, with it comes some of life’s greatest lessons."
So, who better to put in the spotlight this International Women’s Day than Aminath Salah, Chief Executive Officer at Voyages Maldives.? We had immense pleasure to sit with her where she shared her career journey, and the challenges she instilled and overcame at young age in breaking the gender stereotypes to quest success in an industry dominated by men.
Tell us about your journey. How did it all begin?
It all began when I started working at Voyages Maldives during my school holidays when I was 16. At the time, my interest was in science, and I was hoping to be a marine biologist, but my work at Voyages made me more curious about business. I ended up studying Business Management and joined Voyages as a Marketing Executive in 2002 and this is when I found my passion for all things travel, marketing and management. After completing a Master’s in marketing, I returned back to Voyages, and 20 years later I am enjoying it even more than I did when I was in my early 20’s.
Tell us about yourself, the challenges you face as a working woman in this profession and how you overcome them?
I think a lot of it was pressure I put on myself to work extra hard, to grow out of my father’s shadow who is one of the founders and Managing Director of Voyages Maldives.
My work ethic and dedication to Voyages after I had my daughter showed that I wasn’t taking things for granted and knew I had to work just as much as the next person to show my capabilities and capacity as a leader.
In the beginning I tried not to do too much at once. I took small steps, giving myself and our team time to adjust to these major changes. This is what helped me manage the high expectations I had placed on myself and helped me achieve bigger goals with my team.
In addition, as a female in this industry what really helped me was reading up and following female leaders not just in tourism industry but in other industries as well. The inspiration from other female leaders across the globe, especially as a working mother trying to reach new heights, helps me with these challenges.
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is “Break the bias”. How would you translate this and relate to your career?
I was very fortunate to be brought up in a gender-neutral household where I was encouraged to do anything I set my mind to. This laid the foundation for how I thought and made decisions while working in a male dominated industry. I was not limited by my gender to choose my path and work my way up the career ladder.
I strongly believe we have to start young to break the bias by bringing up children without enforcing gender roles on them from play toys to encouraging the type of activities they want to pursue. And this must happen not just at home but also at schools and universities. Smashing gender stereotypes has many challenges and parents and educators must be well equipped to engage in dialogs that can change the mindsets despite the odds.
Have you personally come across gender-specific challenges and stereotypes in your career?
Sadly, yes, along with most women in industries such as ours. As I progressed in my career and reached the level of a CEO, the experiences have become less, but it still exists. The difference now is that I now feel more empowered to speak out about it and put a stop to it which wasn’t the case even as recently as 5 years back. I see it happening with other women at different levels in their career, and one of my aims as a CEO and leading multiple teams is that women are not held back because of their gender, and that such stereotypes are eliminated. Both women and men in my teams are aware that I would have zero tolerance for such stereotypes.
It is said that during the COVID-19 pandemic, women are shouldering a heavier burden of household labor and caregiving and experience physical symptoms of stress and burnout at up to twice the rate of men. How do you think this can be improved in the future?
I think managers and leaders have a big role to play in this when it comes to allowing both women and men to have equal access to flexibility when it comes to household and child-caring duties. The assumption and stereotypical assumption that only women can take care of a child when they are sick and therefore have to take leave or stay at home needs to be eliminated and men also need to feel more empowered about their roles at home and speaking up at work about such roles and expectations.
It is said that it can take more than 100 years to reach gender equality. Worldwide, there is still a male majority in leadership and women are paid less than men for the same work. Do you think there should be affirmative action to improve this? For example, should businesses require policies of 50% women, 50% men in leadership?
Affirmative action is certainly required and needs to be appropriate in the context of our country and our own beliefs. It is definitely a long-term plan and is multidimensional and transcends all industries. We need persistent policy action to go hand in hand with change in social norms. This includes starting at appropriate education for girls, focusing on the role of men in decision-making and phased approach to encourage businesses to be more proactive in focusing on closing the gender gap in women’s leadership.
What do you think it takes to succeed in this industry?
As COVID19 has shown us, adaptability is certainly on top of the list these days, whether we are talking about individuals or corporations. Personally, for me, passion, determination and an unwavering curiosity and hunger to always learn more have equipped me with some important tools for success. I am a firm believer in the growth mindset, personal growth as well as growth from observing, listening to others and having mentors in life. To balance all this out, integrity and honesty is critical and as I have learnt time and time again, sooner or later, the industry shows us all who have these skills and who does not.
What are some of the trends you see impacting the hospitality industry?
A post-COVID trend that has been on the rise are “workations” or as what may be more appropriate for the Maldives “barefoot workations” as working remotely is forecasted to become more then a trend. This means the hospitality industry of Maldives need to capitalize on this and offer leisure travelers the opportunity of setting up office on an exotic sandy beach.
Another important trend to keep on top are unlike conventional tourists, Millennials and Gen Z travelers are more spontaneous and expects digitalized guest experiences and personalized interactions. Contactless services and widespread use of technology needs to be adopted by the industry in all aspects of the guest cycle and experience.
There are many examples around the world where women-led businesses and cooperatives are featured strongly as events/excursions, a trend we could easily adopt here in the Maldives. With the recent events such as the first ever female surf competition and female-led dive schools, it is something that we can help grow and feature as a Maldivian feature in the hospitality industry as well.
Do you think the industry lacks access to skilled manpower?
As a small country of less than half a million people, skilled manpower is scarce. We don’t seem to have enough training systems in place for the young population as they enter the workforce. Sometimes entering at very low levels and being stuck there for far too long with no obvious career path. In addition, there are very limited slots available to enter training positions at higher levels.
For example, boat crew have traditionally been all Maldivian especially boat captains. However, recently there has been a trend to employee expatriate workmen for deckhands and cooks onboard again due to lack of skilled labor available locally. Worryingly we’re now in a situation that boat captains are becoming harder to find locally and historically the job of a boat captain is very prestigious and held at high regard.
What will be your advice to young hoteliers or entrepreneurs? And what is your career advice to other women?
Always follow your passion, not what you think you should do or ought to do but what you want to do. Passion allows you to do things that seem impossible. Don’t be too hard on yourselves if things don’t go your way at first (or the second or third time either), learn to be flexible and learn from the challenges. Passion cannot be taught or bought; it is your comparative advantage in life.
Be authentic, bring your true self for work. Our society put these pressures on us to be a certain way and that anxiety to play that part could hold you back. Travel industry is a 24/7 job and if you are not true to yourself it just becomes overwhelming and exhausting.
As for women, real change must begin with changing attitudes, within ourselves. Often, it all boils down to confidence. What holds women back is not a lack of competence but confidence. We tend to hold ourselves to an impossible standard of perfection. This needs to change through changing your own mindset and resetting the narrative for yourself. As an employer we are looking for people who can help take our business to the next level, not their gender, so we should all aspire to prove that, and grow within to reach new heights.
There are women leading in every front of the industry now, such as Dice Center Owner and First Female Padi Course Director in Maldives - Zoona Moosa, Dean of Hospitality Faculty - Zeenaz Hussain, COO of Universal Resort Management - Visha Mahir, Summer Island Resort Manager - Maria Shareef, Director of Marketing at Coco Collection - Shafa Shabeer, Planning Director at Sun Siyam Resorts - Aishath Shimani, to name just a few. Even when I joined the industry these things were unimaginable but hopeful. Here we are…
Please login to Comment