Not that Malmström Shivdasani has ever let fear get in her way. She and her husband Sonu Shivdasani founded their first resort, Soneva Fushi, in the Maldives in 1994, “when no one believed in our idea, and no one wanted to invest in us”, she reveals. “The Maldives was a diver’s paradise at the time, with very few, very basic hotels. No one would believe that we could build a luxurious resort.”
But the dynamic duo did. Now the Soneva Group comprises three luxury resorts in total – Soneva Fushi and Soneva Jani in the Maldives, and Soneva Kiri in Thailand – with Soneva Fushi still Malmström Shivdasani’s greatest achievement to date. That, and she’s also pretty proud of the fact she once held a world record for three years in one of the most dangerous sports on the planet. “It was to ride the bobsled run in St. Moritz. At the time women were not allowed to compete, but could go down as a guest. I was challenged as a woman and I felt, in that moment, that I stood up for all women. I showed we’re not scared or easily intimidated.”
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If we’re honest, it would be hard to imagine Malmström Shivdasani ever being intimidated. Smart, single-minded and with a strong sense of mission, if anything she might be the one who’s a little intimidating: her life is the stuff dreams are made of, after all. Except for the fact this is a woman who is kind to her very core. “Be humble, kind and fair, and treat everyone with respect. You don’t know what they are going through,” she explains when asked about the best piece of life advice that everyone should know.
Above all, her life’s work is to be kind to the planet, a virtue instilled in her when she was a child. “Thanks to my parents, I was always brought up thinking of the planet. When we first arrived here, people did not understand my philosophy, and thought I was mad when I told them that they couldn’t even cut a branch without showing me first. No one understood my militant wish to take care of the environment, including my husband, who at the time thought ‘green’ was just a colour! He didn’t have the same upbringing as I did and could not understand my fuss about mentioning my interest in ecology in every interview. We are the guardians of this earth and it’s our duty to do all we can to leave it in a better state than we found it.”
From the outset, Soneva has pioneered a business model with sustainability at its heart. It’s now widely regarded as a leader in the world of sustainable hospitality. Its villas have been built around the existing trees using recycled wood, furniture has been locally crafted from sustainable sources, solar panels heat water for the kitchen, cleaning products are all biodegradable, and everything on the island gets recycled – from fabrics to glass bottles (used in water filtration).
So, when it comes to sustainability, what is Malmström Shivdasani most proud of? “The organic gardens at Soneva Fushi. I wanted them and Sonu said, ‘No, There’s no point, and we can’t grow enough salad for everyone anyway.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s not a good excuse, at least we can grow for some.’ And today our organic gardens are huge in all three resorts! We even grow 14 different species of mushrooms, mostly Japanese,” she says proudly.
She also practices what she preaches with a much-improved approach to health and wellness as she’s gotten older. “I was very careless when I was young. I didn’t drink enough water, lived on chocolate, and I really did not take good care of myself. I regret that now. Now I am much more careful and try to eat more healthily, avoiding sugar and dairy. At our Soneva resorts, we use alternative sugars and serve mostly plant-based food. It’s impossible to taste the difference between dairy-based blue cheese and our plant-based one. We buy a lot of produce from Australia, as it is the only country where one can trust that the product isn’t genetically modified or, at the very least, told when it is, so one can avoid it. Now I only eat organic food, use only organic beauty products and I don’t even have a mobile phone. I never had one, so I don’t miss it.”
It probably helps that Soneva has a ‘No News, No Shoes’ philosophy, where guests are asked if they’d like to unplug from their devices as well as remove their shoes on arrival. “It’s all about disconnecting from the stresses of daily life and reconnecting with the earth, with the sand between your toes,” Malmström Shivdasani says. “It’s also about comfort, practicality, functionality, fun and quirkiness (I love odd things). I think hotels should be made for the guests, not for someone’s ego.”
Take 10 With Eva Malmström Shivdasani
Most important lesson you learnt from your mother?
Take care of the world. We only have one.
Best advice you received from your father?
To learn a bit of everything. He wished for a boy, so he taught me everything he would have taught a boy. This was very lucky for me, as I became quite handy.
Best decision you ever made?
To go out with and, later, marry my soulmate.
Describe yourself in three words?
Curious, caring and grateful.
What’s your greatest strength?
Integrity. I walk the talk.
Your favourite mantra?
“If others can, then so can I, as long as I have the mental and physical capability to pull it off.”
What’s the secret to a happy marriage?
To respect and honour your partner and to not be jealous.
And what have you learnt about friendship over the years?
That real friendships never die.
How would you like to be remembered?
As someone who made a difference in this world.
What are the most important decisions you make as a leader of an organisation?
To treat everyone equally, with great respect and kindness, and to always laugh a lot!
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