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Meet Sumalee ‘Twinkle’ Khurana, owner and manager of The Palayana Hua Hin and more

by Aiden

Heritage begins with her.

By Aiden Jewelle Gonzales

When I asked Sumalee ‘Twinkle’ Khurana, whose unpretentious warmth and glamour bely the keen mind and strength needed to manage all aspects of her family’s hospitality business, how she handles the pressure to conform to societal expectations of womens’ role in the home, she gently reproaches me with a smile. “Would you ask a man this question?” she chides. “The idea that women must become housewives is an outdated concept. I didn’t succumb to these societal pressures by making sure that I got married to someone who sees me as an equal. My father treated me as an equal, my brother treats me higher than himself, and now myhusband is my equal. We are both homemakers of our own house, where we do things equally. We both passionately enjoy our work equally and take care of our family equally.”

This passionate defence of women’s strength and competence shines through in all of Twinkle’s answers as we chat, and is embodied in the uncompromising way she carries herself – approachable but assertive; pragmatic but not afraid to lean into her femininity in her eye-catching looks; what I imagine the poster-woman for ‘The Future is Female’ would look like. In her relaxed office where we met, the buzz of productivity of her all-women team has a constant undercurrent of camaraderie; a testament to her ‘walking the walk’ when it comes to mentoring and supporting the women around her.

“I once had Sushmita Sen visit us for a family function and one thing she said stuck with me,” she recalls. “She told me, ‘Twinkle, never settle,’ and I want to say this to all young women growing up.m For example, if the person you are marrying doesn’t help you grow or support you, or instead brings you down, please do not do it. Marriage is a choice. Do not settle for less.”

Brought up in Thailand after her parents moved here in 1984 from Dehradoon and Delhi, Twinkle saw firsthand growing up what it was like not to settle: her parents started with humble beginnings before her dad eventually opened in 1991 an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) company, now called Zenith Infant Products Co., Ltd.. This company has since become one of the largest producers of plastic feeding baby products in the world, manufacturing and distributing them worldwide. “My initial plan growing up was always to be in the baby products’ business,” Twinkle reveals. “The aim was to be in the family business; whatever it was didn’t really matter. I saw how my dad always came home happy, how he achieved the perfect work/life balance and was always at his peak energy. His motto has always been that we should be learning every day in order to grow. So, I wanted to follow in his footsteps, even if it wasn’t a common thing for a daughter to be a part of their father’s business or legacy.”

After studying at Thai Sikh International School and graduating from Mahidol University with a Bachelor’s degree in Finance, life took a slight turn. While Twinkle did still join her family business, at that point, the family had ventured into the hospitality industry.

“With no intention or even remotely understanding what the business is, my dad and I got straight into it, and we haven’t looked back,” she tells me. With a laugh, she explains that growing up, she’d never seen an heiress to a family business outside of Paris Hilton, so it was something she was determined to pursue. “Now, we currently have The Palayana Hua HinThe Yana Villas Hua Hin and Miss T Café & Restaurant. All three properties are based in Hua Hin, and I personally manage and take care of them,” she says with understandable pride. “Moreover, with all the love and praise that we’ve received for our food, we have also ventured into catering with The Innovative Plate.”

She spoke to Masala further about the mantle that she’s taken onto her shoulders; how the heritage of gratitude and humility from her family moulded her into who she is today; and the ways that society, and Indian society in particular, can further support the women in their care.

How did your background growing up in the family business help shape who you are today, and who you are as a manager?

Gratitude is something that was practiced heavily at home: being grateful for what you have and not taking it for granted, and understanding that you can always make the most out of things if you continue to make sure you’re open to learning. Knowing that everyone knows something more than you. It’s about listening to people to discover new, out-of-the-box ideas that you could use in your business. These values instilled in me played a huge role in shaping me into the person I am today, particularly because my parents worked their way up. They celebrated all the small victories. My dad worked so hard and had his wife, his best support system, who made sure she supported him thoroughly through the years.

In terms of the family business, my brother and I both tested the waters to see what our preferences were. I was more of a people person and so I enjoyed the hospitality industry more. Working with different departments every single day and engaging with people from different walks of life was something I found very exciting. It doesn’t feel like a job.

While we were blessed with successful businesses, the main takeaway we had was to be humble. I have seen my dad pursue the biggest and most challenging deals in the world with the same dedication and compassion that he puts into a plate of butter chicken that I would create. There’s no discrepancy in the dedication or the level of attention paid, regardless of how big or small the task is. I have also learnt that you need to listen to understand, and not just listen so you can reply. Learn how to take feedback, be grounded, and be humble, while also pursuing your goals and what makes you happy. That’s the key balance. We carry these values in all our ventures. My dad has a quote on his table, which we all have on ours now. It says, ‘It Can Be Done’.

What drove you to join the hospitality industry? Tell us about each of the businesses in the industry, and the USPs of each.

Honestly, the hospitality industry was just a part of a financial investment that fell into our lap. The Palayana was my first baby; with 70 rooms, Palayana specialises in weddings and has successfully built its name in the Indian wedding market. We work very hard on our service, and I have the most wonderful, hardworking and dedicated team that work day and night without any complaints to make sure that our clients have the most memorable days of their lives.We do roughly 50 to 60 wedding events in a year, and we absolutely love it. We celebrate diversity, same sex marriages, and cross-culture weddings. We always make sure that everyone getting married at our property feels that The Palayana is their home away from home, that also comes with impeccable food and exceptional service.

The Yana Villas is located in the heart of Hua Hin. After you’re married, this is where you’d go for a romantic honeymoon. It’s chic, modern, and has the best views in Hua Hin, with the villas being the highlight of the property (as its name suggests).

Miss T Cafe & Restaurant is a huge beachfront eatery. My grandfather had a bakery in Dehradoon, which burnt down in the 1984 riots and ever since then, my dad and I have wanted to build something in remembrance. We make our own breads and croissants, and we were inspired by our culinary travels as a family. The result is a cute, Instagram-friendly restaurant, which we also use to host events because of its massive size.

The Innovative Plate is our newest baby, around six months old, which was created because we received a lot of love and rave reviews for our food at The Palayana. We love creating fun fusion food and tailoring it to our clients’ tastes. We make sure that each dish is made with a lot of expertise, dedication, and love. We have started catering all over Thailand and are now looking towards an exciting wedding season ahead. Honestly, the F&B industry is my favourite! It’s the ‘anti-stress’ part of my job; I Iove coming up with new concepts and giving people the best food they’ve ever had! Plus, I love learning from these experiences, always keeping room for improvement open.

As a young woman in business, have you faced any unique challenges or pressures in the Thai-Indian society? If so, could you elaborate on them?

Most definitely. I think more than society placing pressures on you, you place those pressures on yourself. From a young age, you are always worried you will be married off, or that your main goal in life is only to get married. Secondly, you are afraid you won’t end up carrying the family legacy forward.

You also face a lot of challenges when you are the child of the boss in the family business. When you enter that business at such a young age, you have a lot to prove before you can be taken seriously. The only way to make your own place is to work hard and to work on those challenges side by side, which I did with my mentor. I kept asking him questions along the way until I found my own identity and found how I should be navigating our own business.

In what ways does the patriarchy impact your work as a young woman in business, and how do you navigate those challenges? Have you encountered any specific instances where gender bias has affected your decisions or interactions within your business?

Definitely, an example is the wedding business. Most of the wedding planners are women, and the industry is dominated by powerful and capable women. However, when clients come to visit and speak to us, whenever it’s the father or the uncles of the bride, they will always prefer to talk to a man instead of me. Similarly, I face this bias during phone calls with clients where they feel a man can be taken more seriously. But that’s where I’m assertive and I let them know that we are an all-women’s office, and each woman handles a big job title, and we are very much capable of answering and making decisions.

How do you believe your experiences and accomplishments can inspire other young women who aspire to pursue entrepreneurial paths in traditionally male-dominated industries?

Ladies, you can do it all! You can multitask and you can dominate, and you can be as gentle as you want, all at the same time. There are always examples of women paving their path through rather tough industries. Recently, I have met so many young women that are doing incredibly well not just in their family businesses but also otherwise. In fact, all my girlfriends are successful women breaking the glass ceiling every day. It’s just a question of setting your mind to it and I am sure you can achieve it.

I’ve been lucky to be surrounded with amazing and hardworking people. From a very young age, I had the chance to meet successful business entrepreneurs, successful bankers, and learn from people’s stories. I feel that experience has given me the confidence to go forward and make an identity for myself. Make sure you listen to successful women; surround yourself with a tribe of young ambitious women which I have, and that is how you navigate through the slight tensions in building your business.

You have an all-women team. How do you mentor them and support each other as women, and how do you encourage them to break the glass ceiling?

From the woman that takes care of the office to every single office worker, we’re all women. We ensure we understand when a woman is going through terrible period pain and needs the day off. We understand about having work/life balance even if we sometime work overtime. I encourage everyone to go to the gym because you need stillness of the mind to function better. We also make sure that all the women in the office have space to discuss their goals and what they want to achieve in other aspects of their lives. I also am happy to have our team do other jobs, while not compromising the quality of their work here.

In your opinion, what steps should society, and the Indian community here in particular, take to create a more inclusive and supportive environment for women pursuing careers and entrepreneurship?

Firstly, it should be a given that a woman should work. Secondly, it’s sad that even in this day and age a woman’s hard work is celebrated way more than men. If we are equal, we need to be treated equally and it’s not a big deal if we work as hard as men. Thirdly, women should know that they can do it all. Marriage is not the end goal, and older women shouldn’t treat young girls like ticking biological clocks. Women now know their worth. As a society, we should not ask women questions that we don’t ask men, or at least not as much, such as, “When are you getting married?”; “When are you having a baby?”; or, “Have you gained weight?”

We should ask them instead, “How is your work going?”; “What do you intend to achieve and are you achieving those goals?”; and “Have you surrounded yourself with likeminded individuals?”

Tell us about your biggest support and inspiration over the years.

My father without a doubt has been my biggest inspiration through the years. He has achieved so much in his life with so much finesse and ease, while also ensuring that he integrates that thought process into his children. He wakes up every day excited to work, and the weekends are the most boring time for him because he most definitely does not enjoy free time! [Laughs] With his passion for work, he knows how to enjoy himself and he does that in his own way, with no compromises and a lot of style. He has treated me as his number one from day one, with no doubts or no judgement based on any societal pressures which do get imposed from time to time.

My biggest support is my husband, who is my best friend. He always encourages me, especially when I doubt myself. We do a lot of problem solving and discuss ideas together, and use them in my work or his, and it’s pure joy to be able to have someone who is willing to support you and hear you out. To all the young girls looking for life partners: marry because it makes you happy, and find a partner who will lift you up.

What new horizons do you hope to explore in the future, both personally and professionally?

Professionally, I aim to grow my business further. We want to open more hotels throughout Thailand with the idea of doing personal and intimate weddings, which has been our forte for years. Plus, I aim to make my new catering business a venture that can be done throughout Thailand as well. I am heavily inspired by Queens Catering Services and Foodlink Catering, and intend to reach their level at some point.

Personally, a lot more growth for sure. Understanding people around me better, being responsible for my own happiness, learning how to choose gratitude every single day, and learning one new thing every day. I also want to learn styling, as I enjoy fashion, so that’s on the cards! Other than that, just continuing doing things I enjoy – podcasts, fashion, styling, travelling, working out, and spending quality time with friends and family.

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