From my grandfather, I believe I inherited a maverick streak and an eye for trailblazing business opportunities. My father always encouraged me to gain as much exposure as possible by studying hospitality in both Europe and the United States, as well as working with different brands across geographies,
says Amruda Nair, Joint Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of Aiana Hotels. A third generation hotelier, she has always had a focused approach, first towards academics and subsequently, a career.
Today, Amruda is grateful to her father for his support in letting her work on a wide plethora of hospitality projects across departments and functions in the United States, across Asia, Qatar and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Needless to say, it helped her immensely to be born to parents who themselves attended the Hotel School at Cornell University, New York, Amruda’s alma mater, and, even today, continue to be actively involved in the hotel business. Her grandfather, Captain Nair, is credited with the establishment of The Leela Group of hotels in India at the ripe age of 65 as well. As Amruda puts it aptly, “both entrepreneurship and hospitality are in my genes.”
An Economics graduate, Amruda gained qualifications in Hospitality Management from CHN University in the Netherlands and a Master’s Degree from the Cornell School. In this was included a stint at the Nanyang Business School, Singapore, to get a sneak peek into the Asian market.
After a stint with Mandarin Oriental New York, Amruda worked for Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels (JLLH). Based in Singapore, she joined the firm as a full-time analyst on the hospitality brokerage team and was involved in investment sales mandates across the region, including in Indonesia, Japan, China, India and Thailand. In 2008, she joined the corporate advisory division of JLLH, where she acted as an ‘Owner’s Representative’, managing three trading assets in Singapore and Shanghai, for properties operated by IHG, Fairmont and Starwood. She also conducted pre-opening budget reviews, management contract negotiations and mystery guest audits for properties in Bali, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Beijing.
On getting back to India, Amruda served as Head of Asset Management for Leela Palaces, Hotels and Resorts during a period of major growth, which included the opening of new properties in Gurgaon, Udaipur, Delhi and Chennai and an increase in group room inventory under management to 2,211 guest rooms. In her capacity, she was responsible for conducting financial reviews for the luxury group’s eight operating properties, reviewing pre-opening budgets for upcoming projects and annual business plans.
The stepping stone to entrepreneurship
“I believe that entrepreneurship is all about opportunity, timing and the ability to take risks,” says Amruda, adding that in the case of her recent venture, Aiana Hotels and Resorts based in Qatar, it was also all about meeting her right business partner, Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani, who shared her passion for hospitality and supported the idea of creating an Indian-inspired brand on a global scale.
The last two years as CEO of Aiana Hotels and Resorts has taught me to have self-belief, as if you are convinced the universe will rally behind you to help you succeed,
says Amruda. Belonging to a generation which believes in being independent, taking risks and being proud of their roots, Amruda says she got a lot of support from her family and business partners. She also found a lot of support from the hospitality industry itself, both in India and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries (6 Middle East countries). She says they are a great support to women entrepreneurs who are determined, persistent and passionate about their work. Building a support group that shared her passion helped her immensely in taking the plunge into entrepreneurship.
Lessons along the journey
Starting up a company in the Middle East has been a rewarding learning experience for Amruda. Her greatest strength has always been to never let go of an opportunity, and her success so far has been in identifying a gap in the lifestyle hotel space and tying up with the right partner. “Having a well-established, local partner certainly helped me adapt to a new geography. By aiming for steady growth and introducing the company incrementally, we have been able to overcome the challenges of setting up a new brand.
I learnt very early on that, as a woman entrepreneur, one’s self-confidence is the key. At the same time one must be conscious of their weaknesses,
says Amruda, who became CEO of Aiana Hotels at the age of 32, and thus was cognizant of the fact that while her heritage and global exposure brought a lot of credit, as a leader she, also needed to bring experienced professionals onto her team and create an environment in which they could thrive.
Key takeaways from her role as an entrepreneur
The young entrepreneur says her biggest challenge has been to create a brand that is India-inspired, yet a company that is global in its approach. “My journey as an entrepreneur has taught me so much in such a short time. It helped that I took on an entrepreneur’s role when I was young enough to deal with the risks and uncertainties. I take each obstacle or delay as a learning experience and equip myself to be better informed, more prepared and smarter the next time around,” she says.
A German quote by Friedrich Nietzsche keeps her motivated.
‘Was mich nicht umbringt, mach mich starker’. Loosely translated it means ‘What does not break me, makes me stronger’.
Aiana is Amruda’s partnership with Qatari investor Sheikh Faisal bin Qassim Al Thani, Chairman of Al Sawari Holding and Al Faisal Holdings, who shared her passion for extending legendary Indian hospitality to the world. They plan to have seven hotels either operational or under development, in India, South East Asia and the Middle East in the next five years, all under management contracts. In India, they are looking primarily at leisure destinations and a few key gateway cities. The company’s growth will be determined by a cluster strategy that offers hotel owners and guests accessibility and consistency in service delivery. Amruda says the primary focus now is to strategically stay within a four hour flight radius covering India, South East Asia and the Middle East.
Amruda is vested with the responsibility of designing the brand’s signature programming as well as spearheading the company’s overall business development to create a unique proposition to define the next wave of smart hospitality.
Having been there and done that, Amruda has one word of caution for fellow aspiring women entrepreneurs.
As a woman, I learnt to change the way I used to approach confrontation earlier. In my leadership role, I try to be confident of decisions I have made and take a stand if I need to. Too many little girls are told to be kind, be gentle and play nice, and into adulthood, the message gets even stronger. I believe that one must be able to be strong and assertive when the situation warrants it. When something needs to be addressed – a boundary has been crossed, a contract is unfair, someone weaker needs to be protected – it is the role of a leader, whether man or woman, to speak up and address it. I have thus re-learnt how to listen to my inner voice, act on instinct and embrace my anger to do something positive,
says Amruda. She credits this change to Kavita Ramdas, representative for the Ford Foundation’s office in India, and former president and CEO of the Global Fund for Women who at a speech said – We need women who are so strong they can be gentle, so educated they can be humble, so fierce they can be compassionate, so passionate they can be rational, and so disciplined they can be free.
This entrepreneur’s sports connection
Amruda believes that playing sports as a child gave her the skill set to become a better entrepreneur. “It made such an impact on my life that I even gave a TED Talk on the lessons I have learnt over the years from playing sports. Forging bonds as a team, rising above rivalry and recognizing the skills of others are a few among them,” she says. With a busy professional schedule, Amruda has to travel a lot, which does not allow her to commit to a fixed exercise regime. She tends to do more water sports during the summer, especially if she is in the Middle East and run outdoors, if the weather permits, everywhere else. She has run a half marathon every year for the last seven years and hopes to keep up that pace. Amruda’s dream is to do a Sprint Triathlon in Doha.
Last but not least, Amruda is thankful to her mother Lakshmi for her unwavering support and encouragement. “She is my biggest inspiration as she seems to know intuitively what I am capable of and is always there to nudge me along. Everyone needs a champion and I would recommend that every woman professional should find a mentor,” says Amruda.
“Hillary Clinton, in her first campaign speech for President of the United States, said that her mother would always tell her ‘Never back down from bullies or barriers’. I think it is the soundest advice and it is not surprising that it came from a woman to her daughter,” signs off Amruda.