New Mom of a Business and a Baby: Noëlle Homsy, co-founder, ENVI Lodges
Dreaming that one day she would one day design her own hotel and retire on a Greek Island, Noëlle Homsy studied architecture in her home country, Lebanon. What followed was an eclectic and unconventional career path, spanning construction project management, claims, risk management, and arbitration cases for real estate projects, and even starting an online résumé-writing company. After stints volunteering, traveling, and studying for an MBA, Noëlle, had developed a passion for eco-luxury lodges. With this focus, she moved to Dubai and secured her first hospitality role with Shaza Hotels, a company developing eco-accommodation, then went on to be the hospitality lead for Grant Thornton in the region.
When the pandemic hit, Noëlle saw an opportunity to make another shift. In September 2021, she decided to combine her passion for watching hotels come to life with her love for responsible tourism and co-founded ENVI Lodges, the GCC’s first home-grown experiential eco-lodge brand, and the company is due to open its first property in Saudi Arabia this year. Alongside birthing a new business, she also recently had her first child! Here's herstory!
Let’s start from the beginning; what was your first job?
I took my first job during the summer between high school and college. It was a part-time role at a post-production studio, owned by our neighbor. The studio’s bulk work came from editing music videos for Lebanese and Arab artists, and I was handed the task of retouching their faces and bodies to make them look prettier, younger, and skinnier. After that, I studied architecture and took on a few design roles at multiple architectural studios, and from there on, a job that required me to be on a construction site, looking after the progress from start to completion.
And from there your career path was somewhat eclectic – how did this lead you to where you are today?
I often found myself getting bored with my professional life, which pushed me to make incremental changes to my function or industry every two to three years. In 2017 I decided I needed a radical shift, so I took a year off and headed to Singapore to pursue an MBA at INSEAD. It was a transformational journey for me, allowing me to take a step back and redirect my career path toward hospitality, an industry that appealed to me since I was in architecture school. Following graduation, I made a triple career change – industry, function, and location. I moved to Dubai and joined the development team of a hotel operator. I later moved to Grant Thornton UAE to look after its hospitality and tourism practice before co-founding ENVI Lodges and launching the company in September 2021.
What made you leave your home country of Lebanon?
Although I enjoyed the lifestyle in my home country, I realized Lebanon was limiting my career growth. One of the great lessons I learned at INSEAD was the power of diversity in maximizing value creation. Dubai offered the diversity and reach I was looking for, in addition to having the right ecosystems that allowed professionals and companies to flourish.
How did your time in Singapore and Asia studying for your MBA open your eyes to future opportunities in travel and hospitality?
Singapore was the perfect base for me to travel around Asia, a region that hosts the most extravagant resorts, as well as the most primitive and simple ecolodges. While I had the opportunity to experience both, what really transformed me were the trips that brought me closer to nature, the local communities, and the authentic cultural experiences – sailing the Flores sea, visiting the pearl farms in Vietnam, staying on a rural private island in Indonesia, and camping on a primitive island in the Philippines. None of these experiences fit the traditional definition of luxury that we were used to, yet they filled a void that my other travels were not able to. The idea of combining unique guest accommodation with unscripted real experiences remained in the back of my mind for a few years after that.
And what fuelled your passion for sustainable accommodation?
I’ve seen some beautiful touristic places in my home country, Lebanon, diminished into garbage dumps, with sewage ending up in the sea, forests being degraded, mountains exploited for stone quarries, and rivers polluted; and it always angered me how we didn’t value the natural treasures that we possessed and underestimated the impact this would have on our country as a tourism destination. As a tourist myself and lately as a business owner in the hospitality space, I decided that I want to be a part of preserving the natural wealth of destinations rather than destroying it, for the next generations to enjoy what has been handed over to us and more.
You enjoy volunteering – how has this shaped you personally and professionally?
I’m a kindness advocate, and this includes being kind to your friends and family, to the underprivileged people around you, to animals, to the environment, and to future generations. I believe the volunteering work that I’ve been a part of has reinforced my belief that there is no greater satisfaction than the feeling that you have left a positive impact on the world, no matter how small. I’m hoping to get the same satisfaction through the work that we are planning to do at ENVI Lodges.
You returned to the Middle East, what factors influenced this decision?
The Middle East is a region that is going through a massive transformation on so many levels, including tourism and hospitality, which makes it the perfect place to be for accelerated career growth and exposure to the best in class. Besides, it was always my preference to contribute to the economic growth of my home region, and hopefully my home country someday.
What made you decide to take the plunge and start your own business?
I never imagined myself as an entrepreneur; it wasn’t in my career plans. It took what I believed was a great idea, ripe market conditions, the perfect business partner, the support of the industry, and the trust of our first round of investors to make me believe that it was the right time to go solo.
ENVI Lodges is a ‘COVID baby’ success story – why was the pandemic the right time to launch?
The pandemic has accelerated travelers’ shift towards more sustainable, eco-friendly decisions, so we couldn’t have asked for better timing to launch ENVI Lodges. We were also fortunate to have been raising funds at a time when the investment community had boosted its interest in ESG-friendly businesses and investments. This allowed us not to compromise on who to partner with, and to bring on board shareholders that truly share our vision and our values, and that are strategic to our growth.
Is there anything you would do differently?
ENVI is being funded by private investors, through multiple fundraising rounds, just like a start-up. In retrospect, we would’ve started approaching investors for our second round much earlier. We had accounted for a shorter negotiation period, but we realized that with institutionalized investors, things take longer than anticipated.
What have been the challenges and opportunities as a female entrepreneur in hospitality?
My experience has been mostly positive, and I felt that being a female made others more interested in hearing my story. Although I don’t like getting extra attention, just because I’m female, I embraced it and directed it towards inspiring other women to shape the journey they want for themselves.
You have just given birth to your first child, a beautiful daughter, Iris; how are you managing to juggle looking after a newborn baby with a fast-paced career growing a start-up?
I have always been a planner, with endless Excel sheets and to-do lists. While they seemed excessive previously, they come in handy now that I have to switch from baby issues to start-up decisions within minutes. They help me organize my time and save me from blaming my sleep deprivation for my bad memory. Besides, I’m lucky to receive great support from my husband who has been taking care of Iris on his own in the early mornings so I can get a few hours of sleep and better mental clarity during the day.
What support network do you have to ensure you can be a mum and the co-founder of a start-up?
I’m grateful for my husband who considers himself equally responsible for caring for our daughter, even on his busiest work days. We are also lucky to be surrounded by lovely family members who have gone above and beyond to provide us with all the support we needed around the time of Iris’ birth. We are looking forward to our return to Dubai, where we will be counting on the excellent services the city offers to new parents.
Does your husband also work in hospitality?
Thankfully not, and this makes him a good person to run ideas by when I need a sounding board. My husband is a civil engineer, working in the construction and infrastructure industry between the UAE and Saudi Arabia. His views are often very structured and methodical, with much fewer emotions involved than mine. I believe great solutions come from the cross-pollination of ideas from different industries and perspectives.
What advice would you give to other women considering ‘going solo’ in travel or hospitality?
Choose the right partners. Network like your life depends on it. Always keep the end goal in mind.
And what about that hotel you plan to design…and that Greek island?
We are now in the design and development phase of our upcoming ENVI lodges, which is satisfying my desire to see beautiful projects come to life. There are 227 inhabited Greek islands so I have some market research work to do before I settle on a location!
Quickfire with Noëlle!
What is your morning routine?
Now that I am looking after my newborn, I have no routine; I just follow her feeding cues! In my previous life, I woke up around 7 am, read my emails quickly on my phone, and then went on to do some house chores before getting ready for the day and my first work call around 9 am. I never skipped breakfast or my skincare routine. I always wanted to incorporate meditation into my routine; it was always an on-and-off relationship but I’m planning to bring it back once some normalcy returns.
What do you do for self-care?
Besides exercising and playing tennis, I like treating myself to massage therapies on a monthly basis, whether at one of the many spas in Dubai or through an in-home service.
What is your top hack for traveling with a baby?
We are yet to travel back home with our newborn and I’m hoping that my packing list will save us on that very first trip.
What is the best advice you ever got?
I was advised to focus on networking for career progression, and it was the best advice ever, not only for my career but for building long-lasting friendships that have become my support system in Dubai and elsewhere.
What books/podcasts/TV are you into right now?
Unsurprisingly, I’m currently reading a few parenting books, one of which is The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read. I’ve always been into investigation and crime documentaries, and I’ve watched nearly all of them on Netflix.