Dr Mariyam Shakeela | CEO of SIMDI Group

Dr. Mariyam Shakeela is a successful entrepreneur and a powerful voice for women’s empowerment in the Maldives. Her leadership has been instrumental in shaping the SIMDI Group into the diverse conglomerate it is today. In this interview, Dr. Shakeela shares her strategies for aligning SIMDI’s various divisions towards a common vision. She offers valuable insights on gender diversity in the Maldivian corporate sector and the importance of sustainability, drawing from her background in environment and energy. Finally, Dr. Shakeela provides inspiring advice for young entrepreneurs, especially women, on overcoming challenges and achieving success.

SIMDI Group has evolved significantly since its inception. Can you share some key milestones that have shaped the company’s journey to becoming a diverse conglomerate?

SIMDI Group has become a very diversified entity that deals with world-renowned products. In that regard, SIMDI has secured and maintained exclusive distributorship agreements with some of the world’s top companies. Over the years, SIMDI has also extended its service portfolio into the education, medical, mental health, wellness, agriculture, lifestyle, interior design, and hospitality and leisure industries. SIMDI Group has always been a market leader and will always strive to remain so.

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SIMDI came into being in 2001 but has a history of knowledge, experiences, and expertise dating back to 1972. SIMDI represents 200 world-renowned brands and 15,000 products and services in categories such as alcoholic beverages, fast-moving consumer goods, office automation, resort ware, machinery, and appliances. Its service portfolio extends into education, medical, mental health, wellness, agriculture, lifestyle, interior design, and hospitality and leisure. 

As a leader, how do you ensure the diverse arms of SIMDI Group, from resorts to your luxury airline, work cohesively towards a common vision?

To ensure that the diverse arms of SIMDI company work cohesively towards a common vision, first and foremost our MD, GM, Chairman, and all executive team members make sure that we clearly communicate SIMDI’s vision, mission, and values to all employees across different arms of the company. 

In fact, during the orientation of new staff, each and every one of them go through an orientation program that covers SIMDI’s corporate structure, its subsidiaries, partners, and affiliated institutions together with SIMDI’s core values, vision, mission, and the do’s and don’ts. A handbook that clearly states all the necessary information that a staff needs to know is also given to each and every one of them. 

Refresher programs are also conducted to update on any changes and stress on the importance of our values and expectations. This process ensures that everyone in the organization is aware of and understands the overall SIMDI vision, mission, and values, along with divisional objectives and targets. Constant monitoring and evaluation processes go on to ensure that goals and objectives specific to each division/department are well aligned with the overall vision of SIMDI. 

We give the highest priority to collaboration and teamwork and work together towards common objectives, and this is constantly encouraged among different departments and arms of SIMDI. Training and development opportunities are extended to workforces across SIMDI to enhance their skills and knowledge and ensure that their work is aligned with current trends and demands. Our workforce is quite a global workforce, and so the SIMDI corporate environment is a melting pot of cultures and nationalities. That means we pay special attention to promoting diversity and inclusion, and this has created within us an environment where employees from different backgrounds feel valued and respected, irrespective of where they are from and what positions they hold within the organization.

Our executives, department heads and all of us adhere to the simple principle of leading by example, to walk the talk and demonstrate the values and behaviors that is expected from our employees and thus show commitment to the common vision of SIMDI through our actions.

Whatever success any of SIMDI related establishment celebrates, all of us together as a unified body, recognize and celebrate the success taking pride in the achievements. 

That strategy boosts morale and strengthens the sense of unity among employees.

We pay special attention to keeping open lines of communication across different arms of the company and regularly communicate updates, progress, and challenges that they face to ensure understanding, transparency, and alignment.

These well thought out strategies ensure that we, as a group, work cohesively towards our common vision, and I strongly believe that it will lead to greater success and synergy across all aspects of our business.

How do you view the current state of gender diversity in the corporate sector in the Maldives, and what steps do you believe are necessary to improve it?

You don’t need me to stress that the quest for Gender diversity in the corporate sector of Maldives remains a challenge. It is a known fact that the Maldives is a country that does not lack laws pertaining to gender equality. Our constitution itself prevents discrimination. Maldives has also undertaken gender-sensitized international commitments and translated them into national laws and policies. It has also created institutional mechanisms to implement them to promote gender equality and gender mainstreaming. The Gender Equality Act, which promotes equality and women’s rights, came into effect in 2016 but is lagging in implementation. The Gender Equality Action Plan (GEAP) 2022-2026, which has been formulated to try and speed up the implementation of laws and regulations, is also not being properly implemented. I believe our government recognizes the importance of embracing gender diversity and tries to create a conducive environment. But we fall on our back foot when it comes to implementation. Maldives is also taking some very transformative steps, such as the groundbreaking initiative- “Gender Equality Seal,’ to be awarded to those government agencies, private businesses, and companies that actively promote activities to remove gender-based obstacles. Hopefully, that will drive the corporate sector to bring the necessary institutional modification towards gender diversity so that we are able to create a culture where equality thrives. 

I believe a huge part of the answer to achieving gender diversity also lies with females themselves. Females are over 50% of the population, and we females, as parents and educators, are responsible for nurturing the other 50%, who are boys, and have a very important role to play in bringing about the necessary mind shift that is required to eliminate the gender bias. If we raise males from a young age to respect, understand, and accept the value females bring into the economic equation and raise females not to view themselves as insufficient or lacking in certain areas, we will be able to achieve a gender-sensitive country. Quite often, in my work, I have come across many women who view themselves as incapable or have no confidence to deal with Male-dominated work environments despite their qualifications. I have come across women who do not know how to value their femaleness and unique strength all because of socially prescribed ideas and views. Women themselves need to harness courage to fight the stifling gender bias that afflicts them and begin to appreciate their uniqueness, their femininity and reshape their own perception of how they view themselves. I feel that women need to be taught to fight for their rights and not to give up on their dreams, no matter how many challenges come their way. Women should refuse to allow something outside their control to define them, to rule over them, and dictate to them what a woman should be and what a woman is capable of. 

With your background in environment and energy, how do you integrate sustainable practices into the operations of SIMDI Group’s businesses?

This is an area that is still developing, and we have not completely reached our targets for sustainable practices. Nevertheless, we are taking energy-efficient measures such as investing in energy-efficient technologies, using renewable energy sources, using LED lights and energy-efficient appliances, and optimizing cooling systems, etc. 

We have yet to be 100% satisfied with water conservation measures and elimination of plastics. It’s an ongoing process. We have started taking water saving measures such as recycling water where possible, and monitoring water usage to reduce water wastage. We have installed water-efficient fixtures, started the elimination of plastic in the organization, introduced aluminum water bottles, and placed water dispensers across SIMDI and outlets. We have also started using reusable bags. 

We also make extra effort to work as much as possible with suppliers who follow sustainable practices and engage in environmentally friendly and ethical sourcing methods to ensure we manage our supply chain sustainably and responsibly. 

We constantly make employees aware of the necessity to act sustainably through training, promoting awareness campaigns, and encouraging participation in sustainability initiatives. And I am proud to say that our workforce practically shows their sensitivity towards sustainability and the environment. For example, our SRC, through its own initiation, has included in its annual calendar two or three CSR events within greater Male and works with various NGOs to conduct activities such as beach cleaning, etc. Apart from the work our CLUB participates in, SIMDI as a group also engages with the local community through partnerships, sponsorships, and outreach programs to address social and environmental issues and contribute to local sustainable development goals.

Although we are not 100% there when it comes to Recycling and Waste Management, we will be working on proper waste management practices by setting up recycling programs and ensure proper disposal of waste materials.

By maintaining and implementing these sustainable practices, Simdi Company can reduce its carbon footprint, contribute to achieving sustainable development goals, and create a positive impact on the environment and society.

With your involvement in various organizations focused on women’s empowerment, how do you leverage your corporate role to advocate for these causes?

In any organization, there is so much unconscious bias that, irrespective of policies and programs to bring about gender equity, it continues to manifest itself through behaviors of both sexes, such as stereotyping, Microaggressions, and Tokenism. At SIMDI, we do our best to avoid such negativities and make sure that equal opportunities exist for both males and females and that females are not overlooked for promotions or challenging assignments. We avoid using double standards in judging males and females and avoid getting trapped in implicit bias, such as assuming that qualities associated with males make better leaders. 

To create a conducive environment for all working at SIMDI, we try and establish, gender inclusive policies, and continuously improve on them. We put extra effort into establishing and maintaining a culture that celebrates diversity and inclusion. 

We encourage and support women in their rise to decision-making positions. We will continue to strengthen employee education in terms of gender equality issues, raise awareness, and promote understanding among employees through workshops. Seminars, and openly discussing topics such as unconscious bias and gender stereotypes. We at SIMDI believe that by taking these steps, SIMDI can leverage an individual’s passion for gender equality and advocate for these causes both within the organization and in the broader community.

Looking ahead, what are your strategic goals for SIMDI Group in the next five years?

My vision and the vision of the executive committee in SIMDI is for SIMDI to focus on areas that can drive growth, sustainability, and competitiveness in the evolving business landscape. In that regard, our strategic goals at SIMDI are to keep up with emerging technologies and often fluid trends and offer products and services that appeal to and match circumstantial needs. Given that, we aim to embrace digital transformation, invest in digital technologies, streamline operations, enhance customer experience, and create new revenue streams. We also hope to develop a digital strategy that leverages data analytics, AI, IoT, and cloud computing to drive innovation and efficiency. 

We are also in the process of identifying new market opportunities locally and internationally, to develop strategic partnerships or collaborations for easy access to markets, distribution channels and technologies so that we can diversify revenue streams and reduce dependency on a single market.

One of the most important strategic goals for us is also to enhance and implement sustainability practices across our operations to reduce environmental impact, optimize resources, and enhance brand reputation. We are working on setting sustainability goals related to carbon footprint reduction, waste management, and community engagement.

We will also be focusing on investing in talent development, on upskilling, reskilling, and retaining top talent to drive innovation and growth. We would also be developing strategies to cultivate a culture of learning, encourage diversity and inclusion to attract and retain a varied workforce, and continuously re-evaluate the strategy. 

Among our strategic goals is improving customer engagement. SIMDI would make every effort to strengthen the customer centric approach, and understand customer needs, their preferences, and get feedback to drive product/service enhancements, to personalize marketing efforts, improve customer satisfaction, and drive loyalty.

Hopefully, it will not be too long before a future SIMDI invests in innovation and R&D. It will establish an innovation lab or center to encourage creativity, experimentation, and the development of new products or services. We will also invest in research and development to stay ahead of market trends, anticipate customer needs, and drive product innovation.

SIMDI would also continue to push approaches to strengthen corporate governance and ensure transparency, accountability, and ethical behavior across all levels of the organization. SIMDI would continue to establish and strengthen clear policies and procedures to mitigate risks, comply with regulations, and uphold corporate values.

I strongly believe that these strategic goals will support and help the growth of SIMDI Group of Companies to leverage its diverse portfolio of brands and products to capture new opportunities and new markets, navigate future innovations, stay competitive, and achieve sustainable growth in a rapidly changing business environment. 

Finally, what advice would you offer to young entrepreneurs, especially women, aspiring to succeed in the business world?

There is so much to say regarding this question, as this stems from my research and experience in diverse fields and is applicable to all women, whether they are entrepreneurs or aspiring to make their mark. I would try to answer as precisely and concisely as possible. I think it is important for all female entrepreneurs who aspire to succeed in the business world to first embark on their journey with awareness of the negativities around them, such as gender bias, stereotyping, etc., and accept them as a challenge, but as a challenge that they can work around.

Women as women or as female entrepreneurs need to be prepared to intelligently fight back against socially prescribed norms, be resilient and determined not to succumb to societal pressure and consciously begin to view their femineity as a strength rather than a weakness or view themselves as being less able. They need to exercise self-control, believe in their self-worth, not get negatively affected by uncomfortable situations, and courageously face incidents without hesitating to speak out or make their voices heard. 

I have come across instances, at the beginning of my work, where I had to speak ten times louder than the men to be heard half as often. I have come across attempts by some to ignore females to shut them off or attempt to make them feel insignificant and more like decorative pieces at meetings. But when they stood firmly in resisting the attitudes and showed that they were not fazed by attempts to belittle, they got the respect that was due. So, women should dauntlessly let their voices be heard, their ideas shared, and boundaries pushed with confidence.

It is a fact that if women lack belief in their own self and their capabilities, their self-esteem will suffer, resulting not only in a sense of insignificance but also helplessness, inadequacy, and even hopelessness. With this kind of attitude, women are defeated even before they begin. 

Another piece of advice I have to give is to stop viewing men as enemies or as oppositional forces and start viewing males as their partners and learn to pair their respective unique skills to reach perfect solutions and success. Men are not the real enemy but fellow victims whose thoughts, roles, and responsibilities are molded by society and culture. Therefore, women must transform many aspects of their behavior, attitudes, and social relations. Women also must try not to allow stress to overtake them and allow that to become an issue in their lives.

The way I see the world, I feel that it is important for women to always remember that the primary barrier for women to achieve success is often within women themselves. Their greatest enemy and strongest ally also lie within themselves. Women must realize that they do possess the ability to break down stereotypes, surpass expectations, and forge their own paths to success. Women need to recognize their value, embrace their strengths, and reject limitations imposed by societal norms. 

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