Monday, June 02, 2008

Ladies Who Launch Travel Article
June 2, 2008

I just realized that I forgot to include a link on my blog to the Ladies Who Launch (LWL) travel article that I was featured in. Ladies Who Launch is a great organization that provides a powerful support network for female entrepreneurs. It was actually in my LWL Incubator in New York that I first came up with the idea to build sustainable boutique hotels. I began the incubator with two different ideas - to create a luxury hotel club and to build wind farms - and my fellow Incubator members helped me combine those two ideas into my current business: developing sustainable boutique hotels.

Ladies Who Launch has an online magazine. This month their focus is on travel and I was profiled in one of their articles: "The Trip that Inspired Me To..." (You can click the title to read it.)

Michele, the author actually asked me a lot of questions, but, of course, everything gets shortened in an article. If you want to read all my full response to her query, it is below:

1. When did you visit Belize and San Pedro, and how long was your stay?
I went to Belize in January of 2006. I stayed for two weeks.

2. Did you go alone or with a friend/family member?
I went by myself. (I normally travel by myself.)

3. What motivated you take this particular vacation at the time you did?
I just really enjoy traveling and had some vacation time saved up. I went to London, Austria, and the Czech Republic for Christmas 2005. I went to Morocco in May 2006... I decided to go to Belize because I saw an advertisement for a resort there in an e-mail newsletter that I received. I realized that I didn't really know that much about Belize, so I started researching it and discovered that it had a lot of interesting things: rainforests, beaches, great diving, caves, Mayan ruins… So I decided to go! I didn't stay at the resort in the advertisement, but it was a great inspiration anyway. My favorite part of the vacation was waterfall spelunking!

4. At the time, what job were you doing? (I'm guessing it was something
corporate!) How long had you been at this job, and doing this kind of work?

I had just been promoted to the Chief Information Officer of CharterMac, a real estate finance company. Prior to my promotion, I ran the Fund Management Group there where I managed over $7 billion of private equity invested into more than 100 real estate funds. I started working at CharterMac after grad school in 2004.

5. What about the Caves Branch eco resort made you think that you could do it better?
Caves Branch didn't really have any problems that I thought I could improve. Instead I was inspired by the place and the experience that I had there. The owner lived at the resort and he told me how he had left corporate America years before and came to Belize to develop his resort. It was a small place that he personally ran.

At night after all of the guests came back from the day's activities (which ranged from visiting Mayan ruins to horseback riding to waterfall spelunking) we gathered in the main reception hall/ restaurant area around long, communal tables and swapped stories with the other guests about the day's adventures. Each night the guides would come to the tables and ask if we would like to sign up for activities for the next day. I really liked the community atmosphere the resort fostered. I am still good friends with some of the people that I met on that trip.

After speaking with the owner, Ian Anderson, I realized that I had all of the skills that I needed to create my own resort. Caves Branch was focused primarily on adventure tourism. I am more interested in creating a culturally authentic experience. I have always been interested in seeing the "real" culture of an area that I travel to. One thing that really struck me during my Belize trip was how isolated the tourists were from the locals. They were cloistered in private, all-inclusive resorts where there was no real opportunity to see or interact with the native residents.

I really want to create a place where visitors can see how local people really live (not an artificial historical reproduction) and have the opportunity to interact with them. This desire was strengthened during my Fulbright Fellowship in Bangladesh. The Fulbright Fellowship is a wonderful cultural exchange program which facilitates interaction and cross-cultural understanding between Americans and people from other countries. It was amazing to me how many misperceptions people have about each other (from both Bangladesh and the United States). Some misperceptions were small, like the idea that Pizza Hut is high quality American cuisine; others were large and disturbing, like the belief that Americans hate Bangladeshis and Muslims. Americans also have a lot of misperceptions about Bangladeshis; because of the negative reports in the media many people believe that Bangladeshis are corrupt and immoral, but in fact they are the most warm, friendly, generous, hospitable people that I have met in my global wanderings.

In order to facilitate cross-cultural communication at my resort, guests will be able to participate in excursions to local villages where they can speak (via the guide as a translator) with the local people. I am also marketing the resort to Bangladeshis (and including some lower priced rooms) so I hope that the guests themselves will be both Bangladeshi and bideshi (foreigner).

6. Had you ever entertained the idea of owning/operating your own resort before, or was that the first time it ever dawned on you?

There were two "events" that led me to the idea to create my own resort. One was the trip to Belize, the other was a lecture that I attended at NYU on luxury residential clubs. I don't actually remember which event came first anymore. At the lecture I met a man who created a company (Tanner and Haley) that built luxury vacation homes all over the world that he rented to very high net worth individuals. Again the small scale of each project (you could start with one house) and the accessibility of the speaker (I had the opportunity to speak with him after the presentation) inspired me and gave me confidence that this was also something that I could do.

7. You mention motorcycling in San Pedro and how you had an "Aha!" moment while doing it. Was it crystal clear at the time, or was it something that became clearer in your mind when you returned to the States? (And where were you living at the time?)
I actually had my "motorcycle moment" on the beach in San Pedro before I went to visit Caves Branch. I drove a motor scooter (for the first time in my life!) down the beach and I just had this incredible feeling of freedom and limitless possibility. I had feelings like this when I was a child, but hadn't experienced that sense of pure joy in a very long time. I got a glimpse of a life that I could have – one where I didn't have to put on a suit and go into an office every day, a life where I could decide my own schedule and have the freedom to decide for myself how I could best make a difference in the world.

The idea for the resort didn't solidify later, but the seed of change was planted in my mind that day on the beach. Eight months later I quit my corporate job in New York, donated everything that I owned to charity, and moved to Bangladesh. Today, I drive my own motor scooter down the streets of Dhaka and get to experience that feeling of freedom and joy every day.

8. Tell me about the Bangladesh property! How did you find it (or are you building the resort from scratch?), and why Bangladesh?
While I had the idea to build a resort before I left for Bangladesh, the project was put on the back burner for a year while I worked on my Fulbright Fellowship. Near the end of my Fulbright, I started thinking about what I wanted to do next. I considered going back to Corporate America and taking a job at a hospitality company in Europe, but ultimately decided that I would be happiest if I started my own company.

I never thought that I would build my first resort in Bangladesh, but then a series of coincidences led me to consider doing a resort here. While researching low-income housing (for my Fulbright), I met Anna Heringer, a German architect who is pioneering a new mud and bamboo construction technique in Rudrapur, Bangladesh. I saw the school that she built and fell in love with the design and the material. I joked with Anna that I wanted her to build me a little mud country house where I could go on weekends to escape the city. I started telling my friends about Anna's work and my little country house idea and all of them replied in the same way, "You have to invite me!"

Most of the expats in Bangladesh live in Dhaka which is a large, dirty, crowded city. Because there are few international standard hotels in the country and figuring out how to get out of the city is a bit of a challenge, most people rarely go to the Bangladeshi countryside (which is breathtakingly beautiful!) This got me thinking that there may actually be a market for an upscale mud and bamboo resort within the expat community here. I followed my idea up with a survey of expats and Bangladeshis and discovered that there was a strong demand for this type of product by both foreigners and natives.

From there I decided on the most strategic location and set out to look for land. Now Panigram Resort is under development!

9. I'm sure you took a lot of baby steps in the three years between your Belize vacation and your move to Bangladesh (if indeed you're now living there). Is it possible to retrace these steps so that Ladies Who Launch readers can get a better sense of how to ACT on the inspirations that come to them while traveling? If possible, let me know five concrete steps that got you where you are now.
Excellent question! I actually have six steps that I recommend:

  • Build a financial safety net. I was able to put some money into savings before I left New York. Starting a business takes time and this money is now covering my living expenses and my initial business start-up costs.
  • Write down your ideas and observations. I always carry a little notebook along with me. Whenever I stay in a hotel I make notes of things that I like and don't like about the property. I take down prices, locations, restaurants in the area, etc. I even draw maps of the places that I visit. This lets me organize my thoughts and formulate my plans.
  • Write down your goal and project tasks. Whenever I begin a new project I always write down what the ultimate goal is. I visualize what I want the final project to look like and keeping that image in my head, I write down a list of all of the characteristics that I want in the final product. Then I start breaking that goal down into smaller tasks. For example, if the goal is "build a resort" then I start writing down the large tasks that I need to accomplish - i.e. "buy land", "design resort", "get financing", etc. - to achieve the goal. I organize the tasks into chronological order and then take the first large task and try to break it down into smaller pieces. For example for "buy land" I would write: "find good location", "do title search", etc. I don't always know all of the tasks up front, but I write down as many as I can. Then I focus on the first task until it is completed enough to move on to the next task.
  • Take action! This is definitely the most important step! Your idea is useless unless you take steps to bring it to fruition. Every day I make a list of at least three actions that I need to take to complete my tasks. Some days I complete all of them, other days I don't get anything done, but every day I begin with the intention to ACT! Even doing something small like spending a half hour on the internet researching your project keeps the idea and the passion alive in your head and in your heart.
  • If you get stuck, breathe. Sometimes I get backed into a corner and am not sure where to go next. When this happens I have found that stepping back and breathing really helps. I mean this literally! I sit in a quiet corner and meditate or do yoga. I give myself permission to release the problem from my head and try to spend an hour thinking only about my breathing. It is amazing what ideas will come to me when I just relax my mind! I have also found that often if I ask myself a question before I go to bed, I will often have the answer when I wake up in the morning.
  • Trust yourself, listen to your body, and have faith. If you feel uncomfortable about something it is probably a sign that you are not on the right path. Also be on the lookout for coincidences. I have noticed that when I am really focusing on an idea, strange things will start popping out of the background. Every time that I have followed up on one of these coincidences it has led to something good! If something doesn't work out the way that you want (I have had many disappointments!) trust that something better is on the way. Not only will you feel much better, but in my experience so far something better has always does come!


At Monday, September 08, 2008 2:26:00 AM, Anonymous MILAN said...

Greetings from "bangladesh travel homes ltd"
I am MA.K.AZAD(MILAN) a tour operator & tourism consultant based in dhaka Bangladesh. I am realy very impresed to learn about your blog and the future way of plan to develop the sustainable tourism in Bangladesh.


At Wednesday, June 24, 2009 12:59:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thi is Imrul,a civil engineer interested to know about your works. I am serious to see u'r works. My cell no: 01714108208 and email:


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