Dynamic Leadership with Aishath Shimani Director of Planning & Development, Sun Siyam Resorts

PUBLISHED January 05, 2024 | updated March 06, 2024 23:13

In this edition of the Islandchief, we delve deeply into the remarkable career of Aishath Shimani, the formidable Planning Director of Sun Siyam Resorts. From her early days navigating career choices as a high school graduate to achieving the distinction of being the first Maldivian to attain a BA (Hons) in Interior Architecture and Design, Shimani's journey resounds with unwavering passion, relentless dedication, and a resolute dismantling of stereotypes. A true pioneer in her domain, she has etched an enduring legacy by revolutionizing spaces on both local and international fronts. As the Director of Planning, Shimani's hands-on approach to steering construction projects epitomizes her unwavering commitment to excellence and underscores her belief in fostering a balanced, diverse industry. Join us on an exploration of the compelling narrative of Aishath Shimani, a visionary leader who is shaping the very fabric of luxury hospitality in the Maldives.

1. Could you share a bit more about your journey from studying Interior Design in Malaysia to becoming the Planning Director for Sun Siyam Resorts in the Maldives?

My path to becoming the Planning Director at Sun Siyam Resorts was anything but conventional. Originally aspiring to be a doctor, a pivotal scene during a movie changed my trajectory. Faced with the vast choices for further studies in Malaysia, Interior Design caught my eye. Despite skepticism about its prospects in the Maldives, my passion for organization and design led me to pursue it against the tide. Despite initial challenges, I excelled in my studies, earning accolades and even having my education sponsored. This propelled me into various interior design projects, opening doors to international opportunities and roles beyond design. The journey ultimately brought me back to the Maldives, where I embraced the unique challenges of turning remote islands into luxurious resorts at Sun Siyam, marking a new chapter in my career.

2. As a pioneer in the field of Interior Architecture and Design, how did you overcome the doubts and skepticism from society regarding your career choice?

In the face of skepticism surrounding interior design's future in the Maldives, I thrived on challenges and the desire to explore the uncharted. While many discouraged me, few explained why. I possessed an inherent curiosity to understand the 'why.' Starting out, I defied societal norms, entering male-dominated market areas for materials, braving judgment. Resort projects faced additional scrutiny, with societal norms questioning the involvement of girls. My parents, however, became my steadfast support, encouraging me to pursue my passion despite societal reservations. Their unwavering support empowered me, making me resilient to societal opinions. As I transformed bland government office interiors, the uniqueness of my designs garnered attention, slowly reshaping public perception and fostering a positive attitude towards interior designing.

3. Your transition from freelancing to working on a government project in the Maldives showcased your innovative approach. What inspired you to bring creativity to standard office designs and how did it impact your career?

The immigration department project marked a turning point for me, a newcomer entrusted with transforming a space solely based on client requirements. The client's unwavering trust allowed me creative freedom, emphasizing functionality over rigid design guidelines. The independence to infuse functionality with my own creative touch, coupled with the trust bestowed upon me, fueled my confidence. Pouring my passion into the project and receiving appreciation instigated a shift in the perception of interior design, creating a positive ripple effect in attitudes toward this profession.

4. During your time in Singapore, you played a crucial role in setting up the UNDP Global Center for Public Service Excellence. Can you share some key challenges you faced and lessons learned during that high-profile project?

Singapore's corporate landscape vastly differed from the Maldives, presenting numerous challenges in transitioning from interior design to overseeing significant projects like UNDP. The UNDP project demanded extensive involvement in the construction process, with an empty government-provided building needing completion within an ambitious three-month timeframe. Facing the absence of electricity, facilities, and even working desks, I had to navigate the complexities of managing a project virtually.

Being the first employee on the UNDP Singapore project, I found myself responsible for planning and executing the entire endeavor. The stringent rules and regulations of an international organization added an extra layer of complexity, necessitating compliance with safety protocols and regulations. The project exposed me to diverse fields, from project management and communications to shipping and procurement, requiring collaboration with various stakeholders.

Overcoming challenges such as limited resources, the absence of immediate guidance, and the need to make swift decisions, the UNDP project became a crucible of learning and growth. The experience broadened my expertise in project management, innovation incorporation, and resource optimization—a skill set directly applicable to my current work in resort projects. The demanding yet enriching nature of this experience laid the foundation for my success in navigating complex projects in the dynamic field of tourism and hospitality.

5. Returning to the Maldives in 2018, you took on the role of Planning Director for Sun Siyam Resorts. What specific challenges do you encounter in overseeing the construction projects for remote islands transformed into luxury properties?

Upon my return, the challenges were manifold. Initially, as the sole female worker on distant worksites, facilities were not catered to female needs such as toilets, posing a considerable challenge. The male-dominated working environment, with a team predominantly comprising Bangladeshi workers, presented its own set of difficulties. However, my team members, understanding the specific needs, worked towards creating a more inclusive and comfortable atmosphere for everyone, including females visiting the site.

Navigating construction sites was also a unique challenge, with makeshift paths, wobbly single planks across water villas, and no established pathways. Siyam World, a significant project for Sun Siyam Resorts, brought its own set of challenges. Unlike previous projects handled by the in-house construction team, Siyam World involved collaboration with a Chinese contractor, introducing new working methods and communication hurdles.

Coordinating with a foreign contractor presented challenges, exacerbated by language barriers, logistic issues, and unexpected hindrances like port congestions and weather-related delays. The Covid-19 pandemic added another layer of complexity, causing cargo delays, quality issues with materials, and disruptions to project timelines. Unpredictable weather, erosion of ports, and tidal challenges further complicated the construction process. Adapting to these dynamic factors required strategic planning, resilience, and creative problem-solving to ensure the successful transformation of remote islands into luxurious Sun Siyam Resorts.

6. What are your most noteworthy experiences in your current role and how do these experiences contribute to the success of your projects, and what complications have you encountered that one might not realize from an office setting?

In my current role, each project brings forth unique and valuable experiences. The nature and scale of the project determine the challenges we face. Regardless of the size or weather conditions, our primary achievement lies in successfully navigating and completing each project. The ability to adapt, especially in the face of challenges like weather disruptions and port congestions, is a crucial skill that contributes to project success.

Every project is distinct, presenting a variety of challenges that demand innovative problem-solving. The diverse experiences gained from tackling these challenges enhance our skill set and contribute to the overall success of the projects. The dynamic nature of the work ensures that no two projects are the same, providing continuous opportunities to learn, adapt, and find effective solutions. This constant evolution and variety in challenges contribute to the richness of our experiences and ultimately to the success of the endeavors we undertake.

7. In your leadership role, can you elaborate on how you build and foster a collaborative environment within your team?

Building a collaborative environment within the team is paramount to our success. I view the team as a family, eliminating rigid hierarchies that might hinder comfort and productivity. When facing challenges, we support each other, much like a family would during a crisis. Each team member is entrusted with specific responsibilities, and I encourage them to manage those responsibilities in their unique way, as long as the outcomes align with our quality and standards.

It's crucial to empower team members and trust them to execute tasks in their own style, fostering an environment of independence and confidence. We celebrate our achievements as a family, organizing events to create a comfortable and open atmosphere. This approach encourages team members to share concerns and ideas freely. I emphasize equal opportunities for everyone, recognizing that each person brings unique strengths to the table. By being an integral part of the team rather than a controlling figure, we can collectively contribute to the success of our projects, combining our diverse skills and experiences.

8. As a woman in the construction industry, what steps do you think can be taken to encourage more women to pursue careers in construction, especially in roles like yours?

Education plays a pivotal role in breaking stereotypes and promoting inclusivity. From an early age, it's essential to educate women that no profession is beyond their capabilities. Creating a supportive work environment is crucial, extending to practical aspects such as well-equipped workspaces and suitable facilities like toilets on work sites.

Encouragement is key to dispelling outdated notions that certain fields are exclusively for men. Recent positive shifts, such as women driving buses and operating ferries, indicate progress. It's vital to highlight these opportunities, showcasing successful women in various industries. The changing times call for proactive encouragement, emphasizing that women can excel in any profession.

As someone who initially stood as the sole woman in construction, I've witnessed a transformation within my team, where females now outnumber males. Sharing our experiences as women in construction becomes a powerful tool to inspire others and dismantle preconceived notions about gender-specific roles. It's about paving the way for more women to recognize and embrace the vast possibilities within the construction industry.

9. Reflecting on your achievements, could you share a specific project that holds a special place in your heart and why?

In the realm of resorts, the Iruveli project stands out as something truly special for me. It marked my inaugural venture here at Sun Siyam Resorts, creating lasting memories. However, beyond resorts, the Immigration department project holds a unique place in my heart. It was my first project in the Maldives, undertaken with no prior experience, yet it turned out to be a resounding success. That achievement is etched in my memory.

Each Sun Siyam resort carries its distinctive memories and significance. Siyam World, especially, holds a special spot due to the unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic. Dealing with new contractors and navigating uncharted territory made this project particularly memorable. Whether stationed in Siyam World or Iruveli, reflecting on the culmination of hard work and achievement brings immense joy and satisfaction.

10. It’s important to recognize the efforts of designers, architects, engineers and construction workers behind the scenes.  How can the industry better acknowledge and appreciate the contributions of these essential roles and what is your message to those hesitating to take a step towards venturing into this field?

In the dynamic world of tourism design and construction, our team often works tirelessly behind the scenes, ensuring the success of each project. Unfortunately, the limelight tends to shine on resort management and operations once the project is complete. It's disheartening, especially for our dedicated and innovative team members who contribute significantly to the company's success.

It's a common trend to see interviews and features focusing on general managers, operational managers, and F&B managers in magazines. Yet, the individuals who work diligently behind the scenes, the emerging talents, are often overlooked. The reality is, a resort wouldn't be what it is without the collective efforts of those behind the scenes.

I believe the media can play a vital role in spotlighting the unsung heroes of our projects—the young and talented individuals shaping the future of this industry. Recognizing the background team is essential, not only for their morale but also to inspire newcomers in the field.

When the hard work of these individuals is acknowledged, it serves as a driving force for continuous improvement and progress. Companies should ensure that both the operational and background teams receive the recognition they deserve for their integral roles in bringing projects to fruition.


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