From a humble beginning as a secretary, Zuley has reached to the very top of one of the biggest brands in local tourism. Zuley—a devoted mother and a lover of food—is an inspiration to both young men and women aspiring to reach heights in the industry.
1. As we know, you have been working with Sun Siyam Group for over a decade now; how has the journey been so far?
I actually started working at Sun in 1996, so it has been over two decades! It really doesn’t feel as if I have been here for this long and I think that is mainly because I love what I do, and the role is constantly changing. So you don’t get a chance to be bored. And of course the management and the team has been absolutely fantastic to work with. I would like to think that I will retire with this company!
2. What motivated you towards a career in the hospitality industry? Could you tell us how it started?
During my school years, I had my heart set on being a doctor—a surgeon to be precise! But along the way for some reason I was demotivated. This was also a time when the tourism industry was booming in the Maldives. When I joined Sun, it was never with an intention that this would set the path for a long career in hospitality. But that it did, I fell in love with the industry and the rest, as they say is history.
3. Being the director of Sun Siyam Group, could you tell us about the upcoming projects?
Until about two years ago, I was heading the Sales & Marketing for the group and my job revolved around selling the properties that the Planning and Development team created. When I was moved to the executive office, this gave me an opportunity to be involved in the planning and development phase of the projects. I was able to use my experience in selling, and knowledge in needs and wants of customers, to good advantage.
This is a challenging yet an excitement time for us as we are armed with many projects. We are continuing our expansion of Olhuveli Beach Resort. We are developing a brand new boutique property in Dhaalu Atoll. And of course, our biggest venture yet, in Noonu Atoll which would have 509 rooms! So yes, this keeps us real busy!
4. You work with Ahmed Siyam Mohamed—one of the leading pioneers in the Maldivian tourism industry. Can you share your experience with working with Mr Siyam?
What I am today is because of him. Mr Siyam must have seen the potential in an ordinary secretary who joined his company way back. He guided me, molded me to the role, and over the years, believed in me enough to entrust me with the responsibilities that I now have. He has been and continues to be the driving force and my mentor. I am confident that as long as I have his trust and confidence, I can only look ahead. Mr Siyam is very hands-on, and is the kind of “open door” boss where we could always come to him for guidance and advice. He is a real visionary and never ceases to amaze us with his creativity and knowledge. Sometimes we would think “no that can never work” and yet, time and time again it does! We call him our White Horse!
5. You are one of the few local women to hold a Director-level position in the local hospitality industry. What do you think is the reason for fewer females in high positions of the industry?
I would disagree with that statement as I have several colleagues and friends in similar positions in the hospitality industry. This was true some years back as was the case for resort based positions too. Being resort based, I do understand that you face challenges when you start a family. Although this was a male-dominated industry, it is very refreshing to see that we have more females now, especially when you look at positions like sales, marketing, PR etc.
6. What qualities should a woman have if they aspire to a position such as yours?
It did not happen overnight. It took a lot of years of hard work, sleepless nights, constantly being in different time zones and jetlag to come to where I am. Belief in one’s own ability is important; being confident and willing to try. You need to have an engaging and friendly personality, and a genuine interest in other cultures and people as this is what you eventually end up doing. I have been a very reserved person growing up, did not have any confidence in myself. To some extent this is still very much the same, and my friends would agree with me. However, being in the industry opened out a whole different perspective to life and slowly I changed to what I am today. So, nothing is impossible.
7. How is Sun Siyam Group supporting or helping to increase the number of women in the hospitality industry?
We are not gender biased, however we believe that that there are certain positions which fit better for a female, mainly is customer service. I am also proud to say that our entire Business Development team is female (by default), except for our Assistant Brand Identity Manager.
8. What has been the driving factor behind your success?
Two people have played very critical roles in shaping my professional life. One is Mr Siyam my Chairman whose trust, guidance and mentoring had given me this opportunity and I hope to continue to live up to his expectation. The second person is my Executive Director Ahmed Shakir—who constantly pushes me to do the impossible. He is my rock and I could not have survived this long without him being there. For me, success is not measured by any individual’s work and I always believe that it is teamwork that leads to it. I have a wonderful (and long-suffering!) team behind me and they are the real reason I am able to do what I do.
9. What are your biggest accomplishments so far?
I always regard the opening of our first resort Vilu Reef as the biggest accomplishment. It was when my love affair with the industry really started, so to speak. A project where my involvement started from the bidding process and continues to this day—going through a second development and rebranding 2 years ago. I also regard the successful rebranding of Iru Fushi in 2014 after much controversy, as one of our greatest accomplishments. Also, creating Sun Siyam as a collective brand—encompassing all the business activities and interests of the group—is a big accomplishment.
On the personal front, my biggest accomplishment is to have a 17 year-old daughter and raising her to be who she is today.
10. We have noticed that you are a food lover, if not mistaken especially your love towards deserts. What’s your favorite food?
Hahaha yes that is true; I am guilty of that and I always seek out new things to try out. I have been known to check out the dessert station first just so I know how much to eat for my main course! There is hardly any food I dislike, although I am not a big fan of Chinese cuisine.
My favorite is Japanese food, and I absolutely love our own local food. Give me a fiery curry any day!
11. Do you like to cook your own meals or like dining out?
I do love to cook. I grew up in a household where cooking and family meals were a big part of our lives. My mother and elder sister are fantastic cooks and I have learnt from them—but of course I can never compete with them! I always prefer eating home cooked meals to dining out and I love when people enjoy and compliment the food I make. I also find cooking to be good for stress relief, after a long and hard day at work.
My biggest food critic is my daughter Zaain. Now that she is away, I don’t really cook as much as I used to. During her term holidays we love exploring new places to eat at. Food is one thing we absolutely have in common—and shopping too!
12. As we can see, you love traveling and you have travelled to many countries throughout your life. Could you tell us how many countries you have visited and what’s your favorite of them all?
Gosh, off the top of my head, I don’t even know how many! I have been doing this for so many years, since 1997 so it has become such a big part of my life that I don’t even think. In the beginning it was very glamorous “jet setting” here and there; but it comes with a lot of responsibilities and it is also very tiring on the body.
Extensive travels throughout Europe, Asia and Middle East. Turkey, Czech Republic and South Africa have been some high points in my travels. And of course my all-time favorite—where I never get bored of going to— Japan!
My bucket list includes Vietnam, Laos, and Bhutan. I would love to travel there some day for a holiday.
13. As a working mom, you must have faced a lot of challenges. How do you manage to balance work and personal life?
My daughter Zaain is the best thing that happened to me and I live for her. She makes me realize that life is not just about work. She is the one constant in my life. We have a very strong bond, which had gotten stronger during her teenage years. She is still very much a child at heart although, of course, priorities have changed! She grew up with the notion that her mother “owned” several resorts and used to tell people so, to the point which it was embarrassing. She is now studying for her A-levels at a Boarding School in Malaysia and absolutely loving learning to be independent. We message and call each other every day, and I keep abreast of all that is happening in her life, as she does mine.It was a challenge when she was younger, as I was constantly travelling and worked long hours. I could not have done this without my mother and elder sister whom actually raised my daughter. Their unwavering support helped me to invest the time and dedication to my work and I am forever indebted to them. And of course Zaain’s father has been extremely supportive and helped immensely.
When she was younger Zain would feel uncomfortable if I am around during the day time and would even say “Mamma, do you not have a meeting to go to?”
14. Could you share with us how a typical day starts and ends for you?
I do tend to get up early. And I need my “me” time before I face the day. I would go to the gym in the morning before office as once the work day starts, it is unpredictable. As the Executive Director, I am involved with everything and anything so no two days are alike. My biggest responsibilities are sales and the ongoing projects. Before you know it, the day is gone! I try to be home around 7pm. I don’t go out much, and like to spend time at home with friends when I do get the opportunity.
15. You have been recently selected to the board of Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI), how is serving MATI been so far, and what are the upcoming events of MATI.
As it has just been very recent, I am yet learning the ropes. It is a great honor for me to work alongside and reap from the incredible knowledge of the industry legends. It is very much a learning process and I hope that over the tenure I would be able to contribute to the association to the best of my capacity. The travel advisories imposed by the generator countries have been one issue MATI has tackled and I am glad that fruitful discussions with the concerned authorities have now paved way in some critical countries such as China to look at the situation more positively. . I was also involved in the Forum on China-Maldives Tourism Cooperation as a representative of MATI—a first of its kind held in the Maldives—where the local industry was able to network and discuss on how we can effectively lead the marketing on long term.
16. What is your opinion on the tourism industry of Maldives? How has it changed from back then when you joined to now?
We are not what we used to be in the sense there is immense competition. A recent study showed surprisingly that we are not just competing with other island or Indian Ocean destinations but with major countries such as Australia, France or Singapore! Gone are the days when we issued contracts to tour operators without any special offers and then sit and wait for the resorts to fill up, six months ahead. The dynamics of travel have changed and the customer is very much in control when it comes to what they want. It is also very social media oriented and we constantly seek new ideas and invest in new technology to interact with the customer directly. We have up to be up in the game, if we need to stay ahead in today’s ever evolving world.
17. What are the developments you think that would help the tourism industry of Maldives in the future?
I think there needs to be more focused destination marketing. As I said, we have bigger names to contend with now. These giants have bigger marketing budgets too. Nobody sees the beauty of a diamond when it is hidden under the ground. We have to be innovative and leverage on the unique selling points of our country at the same time, diversify into newer markets. We also need to move away from the perception that Maldives is not affordable to the average couple/family. We now have a range of accommodation that fits to any budget. It is great to see a comeback from our traditional European markets that have sustained us over the decades. Maldives still stands supreme over any hotel or resort brand and would always come first.
18. What is the best mindset that you would suggest for a young female professional to embody?
Always be ready to take on whatever comes your way. We will always face challenges as the more vulnerable gender. Be honest above anything else and work with integrity. At the end of the day, what I like to take home with me is a clear conscience.
19. What is your advice to women who wish to pursue careers in the field of hospitality?
Be ready to give it a lot of time, and be passionate in what you do. This is not a job that you can do if you don’t like it; there needs to be genuine interest. At the end of a guests’ holiday, the review they leave behind is the yardstick you measure your achievement against, and there is no greater feeling. And don’t think that an academic qualification automatically gives you a leg up. In our industry, the greatest knowledge comes from working your way up the ladder and that experience and knowledge will help you when you have an executive position. Nobody can bluff you then, as you have done it yourself. This is what my Chairman always instils in all of us and I go by the same principle.
20. What are your plans for future?
Well I should think I would continue to work for several more years! Especially now that my daughter had grown up and left the nest, I will need to fill my time too. We have several projects that would keep me occupied for the next five years. I have never had the ambition to have my own tourism business and I would continue to work for Sun Siyam for as long as they would have me. But it has always been a dream to have something in either F&B or beauty. So who knows, the world is your oyster!