27 January 2017 | News

On India’s unceasing contributions to female leadership

When Indira Gandhi became India’s first female head of government back in 1966, she unquestionably paved the way for female leadership in the world’s most populous democracy. In flash-forward, the Forbes 2016 list of The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women makes mention of no less than 4 Indian women. Similarly, in 2015, the World Economic Forum paid homage to 3 Indian women in its index of ‘women who are changing the world’. Moreover, while a half-Indian woman holds the record for total cumulative spacewalk time by a female astronaut, Facebook’s first female engineer originates from India as well.

Considering these random examples which are indisputable illustrations of feminism and female emancipation, why have crimes against women in India doubled over the past decade? The following is an interview with Amruda Nair (34). As heiress of the Indian business conglomerate ‘The Leela Group’, the enterprising spirit was instilled in her from a very young age. An alumna of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, she possesses an impressive track record in the international hospitality industry and currently acts as the Joint Managing Director and CEO of Aiana Hotels and Resorts in Doha, Qatar.

HP: Considering your credentials in leading hospitality brands, what inspired you in accepting your current position?

“I am a third generation hotelier. Both my parents graduated from hotel schools and my grandfather, Captain Nair, started The Leela Group in India at the age of 65. So in a way, both entrepreneurship and hospitality are in my genes. I believe that entrepreneurship is all about opportunity, timing and the ability to take risks. I was inspired by the challenge to create a new brand that catered to a gap in the market for experiential, authentic, technologically-driven offerings.

I would not have ventured into this entrepreneurial endeavour without the support of my partner in business, Sheikh Faisal bin Qassim Al Thani, who is a long-term investor in the hotel sector and a visionary when it comes to real estate and development. I was fortunate to meet a partner in Sheikh Faisal who shared my passion for hospitality and supported my dreams and ambitions of creating an Indian brand with a global presence. Our joint venture is the result of a focused and proactive strategy to create a niche in the hospitality market that we call Hospitality 2.0! As Joint Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of Aiana, I am responsible for designing the brand’s signature programming as well as spearheading the company’s overall business development to create a unique proposition that will define the next wave of smart hospitality.

I wish to position the Aiana Hotels and Resorts as a global hotel brand inspired by a strong Indian service ethic. The Aiana brand was launched in March 2015 and within 18 months, we added eight hotels under contract to our portfolio”.

HP: Are you of the opinion that India’s Companies Act 2013 (in which it’s also defined that specific companies with a particular amount of turnover shall have at least one female director) has truly propelled more female leaders in India?

“As a committee member of the Sahachari Foundation, a trust founded by women in Mumbai in order to support women entrepreneurs, I sincerely believe in ‘women walking together’. The basic premise is to support and provide a platform to encourage women entrepreneurs to start new business and take their first step towards economic and creative freedom. In addition to this, I was asked to join the board of Camphor & Allied Products Ltd. as an Independent Director after the Companies Act came out in back in 2013. I am happy to say that today this particular company has surpassed that requirement. Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In talks about ‘taking a seat at the table’. I too believe in making the most of opportunities and therefore if the country’s regulatory framework creates such breaks, I hope women professionals take advantage of it”.

HP: In the series Let’s talk about rape, induced by the Hindustan Times, some claim that the recent cases of sexual assault in India are strongly intertwined with emancipation, which has followed an upward trend, with major leaps in India. What is your opinion on this and in your judgement where must the solution lie?

“Sadly, it has taken horrific stories to bring the issue of rape and sexual harassment to the forefront in India. While recent media coverage has raised the nation’s awareness of the extent and brutality of the crimes committed against women in our country on a daily basis and public protests have led to legal amendments empowering women to file reports against their assailants, the fundamental change that is required is in society’s mind-set towards women. Often what the woman was wearing, whom she was with, the time and venue and whether she was consuming alcohol, is used to place the blame back on the victim. There is a need for sensitisation towards survivors whose conduct is often questioned by the police, as well as hospitals and the court system. These entities should actually be safety nets for victims…

As a woman, I learned to change the way I used to approach confrontation. In my role, I try to be confident on decisions I have made and take a stand if I need to. We are told as little girls to be kind and gentle and to play nice and as adults the message gets even stronger… I believe that a woman must be able to be strong and assertive when the situation warrants it. When a boundary has been crossed, something is unfair, someone weaker needs protection, it is the role of a leader, man or woman, to speak up! It is just as important to embrace that anger and channel it towards something positive – learn to say no, learn to set boundaries and emerge stronger so that you can be kinder and gentler to those who deserve it.

As vice president of the Apne Aap Women’s Collective, an anti-trafficking organisation that serves women and children in Mumbai’s red light district, I’m convinced that empowerment comes from breaking the cycle. With the right tools and resources and a safe place to learn, we have prevented a second generation of girls from going back into the system and I’m proud to say that our alumni have not only received Master’s degrees but have also flourished as in the outside world!”.

HP: The World Travel and Tourism Council 2016 Economic Impact Report targeted on India, states that the direct contribution of travel and tourism to the GDP of India is on the rise and will eventually be of positive influence on this nation’s respective employment, visitor export and investment rate. Do you subscribe to these economic predictions?

“The tourism industry in India is certainly on the cusp of an upswing and in a volatile global environment, India has emerged as one of the better-performing economies of the world primarily due to strong investor sentiment and a large, resilient domestic market. However, security and safety of tourists remain the major concerns and if India wants to increase its share of foreign travel arrivals from the current 0.64%, strong action needs to be taken against those who damage the country’s reputation on an international level. The government needs to work towards improving the negative perceptions of the treatment of women in India and make the country safe for women travellers”.

HP: What hospitality trends do you foresee for 2017 and beyond and what role shall women be playing in this?

“According to the Skift Megatrends 2017, ‘Humanity returns to travel, in an age of digital overload’. We at Aiana fully subscribe to this belief and are furthermore convinced that technology should enhance human interaction and not replace it. The word aiana is derived from ancient Sanskrit, and translates to ‘eternal blossom and refuge’. It triggers us to adapt to the local environments of our hotels and reflect the colours and textures to create a sense of place. It inspires us to be intuitive in our approach, and embrace the concept of unity represented by the mandala. We are committed to providing savvy travellers and explorers with Hospitality 2.0 – a new generation of hotels that merge global sensibilities with the charm of India. It has been two years since I established Aiana Hotels & Resorts with the ambition to be the Middle East’s first ‘home-grown’ Indian–inspired hospitality brand. With 1,000 rooms under construction across Qatar, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and India, Aiana has gone from being the new kid on the block to a hotel brand with promise.

Developing a sense of purpose as a leader, is a constructive way in which women in leadership positions can address gender biases in the work place, seize the opportunity to enhance their individual careers and improve organisational performance. Even when discrimination is not the intent, most organisations suffer from ‘second generation bias’ due to under-representation of women in top positions. This can only be undone by consciously working at removing entrenched beliefs and encouraging women to bid for leadership roles”.