Interview
| Florentine Maats

Esin Gural Argat, the female entrepreneur behind JOALI Maldives

To go through International Women’s Month without mentioning Esin Gural Argat would be impossible. After working for her family business, Esin began searching for the perfect island in the Maldives to start a beautiful art-focused resort, and thus her five star resort JOALI was born. JOALI’s concept clearly emanates both the female touch and the incredible nature by which it is surrounded. The Sybarite speaks to Esin about JOALI and her dedication to sustainability, her focus on female empowerment and what we can hope to see from her in the future. 

You’re a true business woman that comes from a family of glassware makers and it’s fascinating to see how you’ve managed to turn JOALI into a truly beautiful and mesmerizing destination, unlike the rest. How did you go about finding this piece of island and what was your vision for it? How much of your own personality and style is reflected in JOALI?

I wanted to find a special island that was untouched and very remote. I found Muravandhoo island in the remote northern Raa atoll and fell in love. We decided to purchase neighbouring islands, keeping them completely untouched in order to preserve their natural environment as well as stop any further hotel development. 

JOALI’s design is very personal to me and I was involved in every aspect, from the architecture and landscaping of the island to the interior design and immersive artwork concept. JOALI’s island design is inspired strongly around being a private home of a super-stylish, worldly, creative, intelligent and charismatic woman, who has collected one-of-a-kind pieces of artwork and furniture of the finest quality from across the world and decorated her resort with attention-to-detail and love. We are very proud to be the Maldives’ first and only immersive art resort, with nature-inspired design and artwork throughout the whole island, all with messages of sustainability and Maldivian nature at their core. 

Feminine touches and attention-to-detail can be found in all the villas – including rose gold bathroom taps with marble sinks, flower-shaped bedroom fans, floral wall carvings and stylish in-villa beach kaftans designed especially for JOALI’s guests by Ardmore with an intricate grey heron and frangipani design. JOALI’s design reflects different talents of being a woman including our social sensitivity, communication power, our tendency to act with collective mind, and our leadership abilities. The coming together of all of these abilities is reflected in JOALI’s design. 

As a resort that is within the luxury and lifestyle category, what does luxury mean to you personally and what of JOALI do you feel encapsulates this description? 

To me, luxury means the “joy of living” which is reflected in every aspect of JOALI. JOALI is a place of blissful joy to create cherished and joyful memories with loved ones, which to me, is life’s true luxury. 

How is it managing your family life whilst owning and operating a resort that is all the way in the Maldives? Not to mention the other businesses that are under your portfolio. 

I am thankful to have an incredible team at JOALI as well as a very supportive family. Luckily my children are adults of their own now and so it has been easier in that aspect of not raising a young family while launching JOALI, however you must still be careful to not miss special moments and milestones, and to always be there for them – technology helps with this when we are apart! 

At JOALI, we have created a very close-knit team and we are like a family, with many team members having been with us since before JOALI’s opening, working together to build and launch the resort. Having a team I can trust completely is a great honour and very important to me, especially as I am based in Istanbul and not always able to be on the island. I believe the question is not about being a woman or a man, but about the right planning, the right team, and the right timing.

In light of International Women’s Day and a growing number of female entrepreneurs in your field, do you think the future is female?

Absolutely! Female empowerment is essential for sustainable development. Equalizing the ratio of women and men entrepreneurs in the world indicates that the global gross national product will increase 2.5-5 trillion dollars by 3-6 percent. If women participate fully in the economy on an equal basis with men, there will be a $ 28 Trillion or 26% increase in annual global GDP by 2025. Existing data and experiences show that the empowerment of women not only contributes to economic growth, but also has positive and significant effects on raising future generations and family health. The empowerment of women, their participation in the workforce and the development of their self-confidence has the power to have incredible results that will have a positive effect in every aspect. Working on this issue in the Maldives is of huge importance to me.

At JOALI, we are strong believers that diversity is a valuable resource – we are particularly committed to gender equality and to the development of talented women in all its entities and at all levels of the organisation. I believe that as a leadership team we are caring and empathetic, and I like to think that we are very unique and dynamic. As a new, modern-thinking and independently-owned resort, we have the ability to think innovatively and revolutionarily.

We are delighted to have created a Leadership and Gender Diversity Program in line with our commitment to the UN Women’s gender equality campaign and JOALI is committed to supporting training for girls in local schools, hiring local women in roles around the island and ensuring Joali’s team is structured in a way that encourages female team members to grow and progress.

Gender equality and empowerment of women is one of the top priorities for us in all areas where we operate. We work for equal opportunity and  equal participation. Our LAV brand, which is currently the 5th glass producer in the world, has reached 50% of women employees. This is our goal for our other brands and of course JOALI.

Could you tell us more about the JOALI reef restoration program and how important it is for JOALI to be conscious about the impact we have on the environment and what sustainability in this day and age means to you. 

In 2016, as a result of an extreme El Niño event, the reefs in the Maldives and the whole world experienced elevated ocean temperatures over an extended period of time. As a devastating result, up to 95% of the corals in the Maldives were bleached and unable to recover leading to mass coral mortalities. We created a Reef Restoration Programme at JOALI to help grow the island’s house reef by growing coral fragments in an underwater nursery, before eventually transplanting them onto the house reef. The more Maldives resorts that can do this, the more the Maldives’ coral reefs will be able to grow back and increase the ocean’s biodiversity. 

We believe that it is our responsibility as a resort in the Maldives to do our part to support sustainable tourism. Sustainable tourism brings welfare to the locals and doesn’t impact the nature. It is important that the uniqueness and authenticity of our places stay the same for the generations to come. Sustainable tourism is becoming more and more important and guests are searching for the locations where they will have contact with the locals and with nature. 

We understand the value of big ideas and the importance of clear communication. We know that what can be good for the planet is also good for business.

The Maldives is a unique place with a very fragile ecosystem. From the tiniest creature to a single tree, each plays a role in the islands’ natural replenishment cycle. Back when we were first building JOALI, construction was designed around the island’s trees to preserve the natural flora of the island. This conscious decision saved over 1,000 original palm trees which remain throughout the resort today. 

In present day, some examples of what we are doing to practice sustainable tourism include offsetting all carbon emissions from guest stays, we have our own compactor to compact tins and papers, a new wood chipper that helps us create our own natural fertilizer, a rocket composter for all wet rubbish generated, a desalinating water system to create our own fresh water bottled in glass, a rain harvesting process for landscaping and our menus are all Fairtrade stamped.

Finally, what would you like to see happen in the next few years? Any future or exciting plans? 

We are very excited to be launching JOALI’s sister island, JOALI Being, later this year. JOALI Being is going to be a dedicated wellness retreat island like nothing ever seen before in the Maldives… watch this space!

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