Having benefited in her hospitality career from mentorship, Hampton by Hilton Dubai Airport GM Nayla Chowdhury strives to be a mentor herself to another generation of hotel industry leaders, particularly women.
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates—The way Nayla Chowdhury sees it, when you’re the first at anything, you have a responsibility to help others to follow.
Her hospitality career is full of firsts, but her current role is particularly surrounded in superlatives: Hilton’s first female GM in the Arabian Peninsula, at the first Hampton by Hilton hotel in Dubai, which is the first in the Middle East, and the largest Hampton in the world with 420 rooms.
None of it would have been possible without mentors along the way who helped to instill in her the confidence she needed to lead, Chowdhury said.
Having started in sales and marketing, she was motivated by one such mentor to become the GM of the Embassy Suites by Hilton Tysons Corner in Virginia, which she led for five years starting in 2003. In the years since, she held GM roles at three other Hilton hotels, including another Embassy Suites in Washington, D.C., the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner, and most recently at a DoubleTree in Ras al-Khaimah, United Arab Emirates, where she was until October 2017.
At the time she made the switch from sales to GM, Chowdhury hadn’t imagined it was possible, she said.
“I was very comfortable where I was, but (the first GM she worked for) saw something in me … and really inspired me,” she said.
She remembers that as she strives to be the same kind of mentor to people on her staff at the Hampton by Hilton Dubai Airport. Currently, she is mentoring two women for GM roles.
“I feel like there need to be role models, especially women in leadership roles and at the senior level. It’s just very important for (women) to see that it can be done,” she said.
Identifying, fostering leaders
Part of that, she said, is having a plan and utilizing the proper training and resources, of which Hilton has a lot.
“We have coaching; we have mentors. When (women) see a female GM who has been able to balance family as well as have a career and be successful in both, I think that gives them the confidence to believe this is possible,” Chowdhury said.
As a mentor, she meets one on one with her mentees, has regular calls and allows them to shadow her on the job.
What she looks for in a mentee is “someone who shows interest in the business and asks questions beyond their specific role” at the hotel, she said.
“You can see they’re looking for something beyond a job; they are looking for a career. … And they are willing to give the time to learn,” she said.
She’s been where they are, and understands their ambitions and their struggles, she said.
“A lot of it is confidence. There’s a level of that lack of confidence, because there are not too many women in these roles,” she said.
When she took her first GM role in 2003, there were not many women GMs even in the U.S., she said. It’s improved over the years, but more can be done, she said.
“I’ve not only seen that in the U.S. we have come a long way, but also in other parts of the world, even in the Middle East. After I was the first female appointed GM, there’s been two other female GMs in the region, and there are more to come,” she said.
It starts with overcoming a mindset, she said.
“Women always have had this unconscious bias that as women we will not be able to be GM. ‘It will take so much time away from my family, and I cannot do both.’ They give up sometimes before they even understand the whole scope of it,” she said.
“Within Hilton right now, we have five global heads who are women, and we see a lot of our senior level GMs, senior management, regional directors, they are balancing both. As a company and as an industry, flexibility is important.”
For example, she said, Hilton offers 12-week paid maternity leave for women.
“These types of flexibility as a company and as an industry will allow women to feel like they can do both, and not feel they have to give up one aspect of your life, because both are important. Just as important as being successful in your career is to feel fulfilled personally and have that balance,” she said.
A mother of three boys, Chowdhury has that balance herself.
“I love being a mom,” she said. “When I go home, they just keep me going. It’s a different world, and that just takes me away from all of the other challenges. Even if I had the worst day possible or a challenging day, when I go home, I forget about all of that. To me, just being a mom is really the most important thing.”
As much as she tries to separate work and family, the two intertwine, she said.
“I try to stay very business-focused at the hotel, when I’m with my team. But at the same time … my team really looks up to me as a very nurturing person. It’s part of you, so it shines through,” she said.
And her sons, with whom she likes to travel, are like “mini-hoteliers,” she said.
“Any hotel they go to, they are very highly critical,” she said. “They really are very discerning about what they like and what they don’t like.”
Strength of the team
As she does with her children, Chowdhury wants to see her team at the Hampton by Hilton Dubai Airport succeed, because “the team is what’s going to make the difference in the success of the hotel,” she said.
She describes her leadership style as collaborative.
“The key is creating an environment that (the team) feels they can thrive, that they feel empowered to make decisions, that this is their hotel,” she said.
“It’s not something I have to look over their shoulders every day to see. … I think you can sense it in this hotel, that everyone takes an ownership. It’s their hotel. I want them to feel that their success is the hotel’s success, and the hotel’s success is what they do. They’re all intertwined.”
She said her most rewarding day as a GM was opening the Hampton by Hilton Dubai Airport this past September, which she saw as both a personal and a team accomplishment.
“Being appointed as the first female GM in the (Gulf Cooperation Council), that in itself was very rewarding—to be able to break that barrier in this part of the world which is a little bit more traditional,” she said.
She also led the pre-opening team, working with contractors and procurement and recruitment, owners and senior management. That process and the days leading up to the hotel opening were among the most challenging in her career, she said.
“It gets a little overwhelming,” she said.
“However, we all did it as a team; I had a great pre-opening team. We never felt like it was work. … Every day, we were all encouraging each other … we had a little bit of a countdown. It got really exciting. As difficult as it was, we really enjoyed it,” she said.
“One of the best parts was being recognized at the EMEA general managers’ conference we had in October. This hotel got the best hotel opening, and I got the best GM award for that. That was culmination of all the hard work of the team. It was of course a team award, but I felt I was able to lead the team to that success, and that felt great.”
Editor’s note: Hampton by Hilton paid for travel expenses, and provided accommodations and meals. Complete editorial control was at the discretion of the Hotel News Now editorial team; Hampton by Hilton had no influence on the coverage provided.