Nadira Lalji’s curriculum vitae notes that she graduated summa cum laude in government from Harvard University in 2009, was a John Eliot Scholar at Jesus College, Cambridge University, and received an MBA from Harvard Business School. What it doesn’t say, however, is that she was so motivated as an undergrad to help aspiring businesswomen in developing countries gain access to capital that she co-directed a microfinance organization called ADITO (A Drop in the Ocean). “It was all consuming,” says Lalji. “But I was so inspired.” And while her résumé states she was part of the prestigious Goldman Sachs Foundation’s Global Leaders program, it could never fully reflect her passion for social causes and personal growth—a passion that sent her to such places as Dhaka and Istanbul. Today, Inhabit Hotels, which she co-founded in 2017, speaks as much to personal growth and creative inspiration as it does to commerce—the groundbreaking wellness brand focuses on restoring and advancing healthy habits at an accessible price.
I was inspired from a young age as a result of a global upbringing. I grew up Canadian and British, but also East African and Indian by heritage. When I was a young girl, my parents started a business in India. As East-African Indians, we were rediscovering our heritage as a family. There were cows ambling on our doorstep and our street was heaving with auto rickshaws, motorbikes, street vendors, and cyclists. As a child, it was an awe-inspiring profusion of colors and smells—a complete sensory overload. There was a seemingly infinite amount to absorb and understand.
My time in India exposed me to places and people that many of my young peers and neighbors perhaps didn’t have the privilege to see. It made me feel a sense of responsibility. I discovered that I was at home in South Asia, and I studied and spent time there, increasingly determined to make an impact. But not just in the developing world. In New York, I worked on projects that brought together the private and public sectors, looking to provide services to residents of New York City Housing Authority and to integrate treatments for opioid addiction in the U.S. criminal justice system. And now I’m turning my focus to underserved and overlooked communities in London where I live.
My experiences have solidified my belief that businesses can positively shape communities and the world. Big business can bring about tremendous change, especially in partnership with the government and public sector. My aim with our hotel businesses, albeit smaller enterprises, is to position ourselves at the confluence of public and private work. I recognize this is the privilege of being a next-generation entrepreneur in an established business.
I credit my love of mindfulness and art to early life experiences. When I was living in India, my mum and I came across a paper advertisement on a tree for a local yoga class on a rooftop and we began to practice yoga together. We also discovered an artist holding pottery, metal-embossing, and painting classes in a neighborhood garage. These chance encounters left an impression and I later spent time outside Delhi running a pottery camp at the Sanskriti Kendra. In my college years, I was compelled to return to India and Bangladesh, where I shadowed women’s rights activists: a garrulous and courageous group of women mobilized for rights reform. South Asia remains close to my heart, as do my experiences there.
Yes, in the lead-up to launching Inhabit, as I was leafing through books on mindfulness, I began to read about ideas from the Scandinavian tradition such as lagom and hygge—concepts that explore the idea of comfort in our day-to-day living and routine. As I read these books, the word “inhabit” kept surfacing. It summarized what we aspired the hotel to be—that is, a place for restoration and present-sense awareness. Mindfulness fosters not only a greater sense for one’s immediate surroundings, but also by extension, an appreciation of, and care for, the greater world. It’s essentially the starting point for empathy and community engagement. A lot of change can be realized in the world if people are mindfully aware of the wider world.
Well-being to me is a state of expansiveness. When I am truly well, I am in a state of comfort, health, and happiness. What is interesting is that wealth, by definition, is well-being. The origins of the word “wealth” are in the old English word “weal,” which in turn means “well-being” or “welfare.” So to possess well-being is to be wealthy in the purest and truest sense. And what is the value of material accumulation if you are not well?
Yes, at Inhabit, we see well-being from a broader perspective.
Being physically well by consuming nourishing food and maintaining a healthy body, remains a key component of one’s well-being. Our menu is plant-centric and we have a roster of group exercise classes. Exercise at Inhabit is soulful rather than pressured, and includes mindful walks, hatha, vinyasa and yin yoga, and meditation.
Still, there are other important, if perhaps less obvious, elements. Well-being for us is also governed by intellectual, social, environmental, and emotional wellness, which comes from exposure to new ideas, people and places, as well as an understanding of one’s feelings. It is important to pay attention to life’s day-to-day stressors, and to develop inner resources to grow from experiences, which we encourage at Inhabit through partnerships with groups like Self Space, workshops with inspiring social enterprises and artists, curated readings in our library, nourishing food, yoga, and meditation.
At Inhabit Queen’s Garden, this approach to mindfulness extends to our wellness center, Inhale at Inhabit, which is inspired by four pillars for the body, mind, and soul: awaken, balance, calm, and strengthen. Guests can enjoy bespoke sleep rituals and raindrop massage therapy, but the experience extends beyond the four walls of a spa. We also encourage guests to create their own rituals in our spaces designed for reflection and contemplation.
More broadly, one’s well-being relates to the wellness of the wider world. We are not islands, but interdependent beings. Environmental wellness is not only topical, but also integral to our understanding of well-being. At Inhabit, we carefully consider our use of water, waste, cleaning, and sanitation. We also seek to align our impact with several of the UN’s sustainable development goals that relate to good health and well-being, clean water and sanitation, and responsible consumption and production. We aspire, and seek to inspire our guests in turn, to intentionally consider a lifestyle that respects our surroundings.
I witnessed the impact of ill health firsthand and saw how debilitating it can be. No amount of healthcare and medicine can bring one back to good health. I realized the importance of preventative medicine, as opposed to reactive care. Like anything, prevention is better than reaction.
I try to prioritize sleep—and not always successfully—as a mother of a young toddler. We remove technology from our bedroom: no TVs, laptops, or iPhones. We park everything at our door, so the night is for rest. This is something we also encourage at Inhabit, with calm, peaceful interiors and places to tuck away devices. For me, mindfulness is not only my early morning meditation practice, but also going about my day-to-day activities, like making a morning matcha, with present-sense awareness. I like to think of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s wise words, which are somewhat of a mantra for me: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf.”
I was first inspired by an artist rather than one work of art. An artist by the name of Ismail Gulgee came to London and painted in one of our empty and cavernous buildings, its ceilings high enough to accommodate a large mural that he was working on. A small man jumping with every brushstroke, Gulgee animated the space. I was a bystander, watching him create and helping him to clean his paintbrushes. He inspired me to push past formal boundaries and straight lines in my own painting and to explore abstract expressionism. It’s only now that I fully appreciate the privilege of my experience: he was Pakistan’s most acclaimed artist, with art displayed in the world’s most prominent art institutions, including the MoMA in New York.
The process of creating art is as moving as the finished work for me. One example of an artist I admire is West African artist Armand Boua. His art is a response to the inhumanity he sees in Abidjan, where he works. He observes and paints street children by engaging with found materials and repurposes the boxes they use as makeshift homes for his canvases and their raw images.
Miya Ando’s artworks, inspired by the Buddhist tradition, are beautiful and meditative and feature in our hotels. As do Amanda Betz’s intricate paper works, which are inspired by nature, and Margaux Pecorari’s fine metalwork, which is in the Inhabit Southwick Street library. We are commissioning more works from students at leading art schools in London. For instance, we have worked with Ravensbourne at Montcalm East and with Somerset Works. Every piece has a story behind it and is aligned with Inhabit’s broader curatorial themes (such as peaceful play, mindful escape, and the supernatural). The artists themselves, as well as their processes, have brought the spaces to life.
Artists are many things, not only aesthetes but also phenomenal agents for change. The artist today, especially in more conservative contexts, is very much an activist and observer of the world, with a heightened sensitivity to the human condition. In this light, they are tremendously powerful.
Yes, as a student, I explored a variety of artistic mediums and periods of art history. I was inspired by art through the ages, from 1600 to the present day, which developed my understanding of early art and cities. Art was also something that I grew up surrounded by, especially in a cultural city like London.
Outside of work, I practice yoga, meditation, and martial arts. I received my blackbelt in karate and am a beginner student of Tai Chi, which sits at the intersection of martial arts, yoga, and breathwork.
Well, creativity is certainly something I encourage. My son loves hands-on, messy play and we experiment around the house with paints and crayons, but also with sand and water, baking and gardening. Art is an incredible way to foster imagination and encourage exploration. But, above all, it is an opportunity for us to be playful, to be fun and to be together.