Fridays with Flea Style: Author, Humanitarian + Hotelier Maryam Montague
Maryam Montague is one of the hardest working women we know. When not fighting for human rights in the far corners of the world, she’s managing her blog, boutique hotel, non-profit, book appearances and multiple retail collections from her home in Marrakech where she lives with her husband and two children.
We’re in awe over her career path, work ethic and ability to inspire others and change. From her tips for being effective at work to getting your brand or message out there, do not miss this empowering podcast! See some highlights below.
Tell us about your upbringing and how you ended up in Morocco.
I was born in Egypt. My father is from New York and my mother is from Iran. My dad was running a humanitarian aid organization in Egypt so I feel like I was born right into the region. It started my love for all things North African. My family moved to Tunisia and eventually moved back to New York where I was raised. I went to college and graduate school in the U.S. but after that I knew that I wanted to be an adventurer and head out into the world. With my dad’s example in humanitarian aid and my upbringing by my activist parents, I set off on a course into the world of humanitarian aid. I moved all over and eventually settled in Morocco with a non-profit.
How did your boutique hotel Peacock Pavilions come about?
Thankfully I married an architect (not that tango dancer)! I was doing a lot of humanitarian work and was in war zones and I wanted to be able to come back to a peaceful place. Marrakech is a beautiful city but peaceful is not the first word that comes to mind. It’s a riot of sounds and smells. I wanted to build a space that spoke to my soul. We found an olive grove outside of the city and set up to build Peacock Pavilions. It took four years and many pitfalls until it became what it is today. The intention was not to build a hotel, it was to build a home. But when we bought the olive grove, the city of Marrakech asked that we create an investment project. They really want people to give back and invest in the city. So we thought of the concept of doing the boutique hotel.
Is that where you fell in love with design?
I grew up with parents that are great collectors because they lived all over the world. Our family design aesthetic was very unusual, very global and eclectic. I didn’t want to create a cookie cutter feel to the space and I wanted to create a space that reflected our own global journey. I have been collecting since I was 16. I had a small warehouse to work with and then of course I had the souks of Marrakesh which is unquestionably some of the best shopping in the world. I wanted to create an aesthetic that felt more like you were just visiting your cool friend – a stylish friend that had a curious space. I started documenting that journey on my blog and because of that I ended up having a publisher approach me about a design book.
After being so focused on humanitarian work, you kind of fell into the design aspect of your business. Has that been difficult to straddle both worlds? They are so opposite.
When I started my blog, I made the intention that I would not be reporting on my work. I was running a prisoner’s rights program. I would spend my time doing that all day and then I would heal myself at night through design and beauty. The work I was so passionate about was difficult. It’s so important to create an environment where you feel comfortable and inspired. The two worlds blended in a way that was so important for me. I then wanted to expand upon my own work on the side by creating my own company, MMontague, which is social business that includes Peacock Pavilions, shopping design services and now my non-profit for girls called Project Soar.
Tell us more about all of that!
I knew I wanted to create a business that gave back. I’ve always been passionate about issues related to girls and women. Much of my career background has been training women to run for office, running advocacy campaigns for women’s political participation, combatting child labor… Those issues speak so strongly to me as a human and as a mother. I knew when I was setting up my own non-profit, I wanted it to be related to that space. Most people don’t know that adolescent girls are the most vulnerable population in the world. They suffer from discrimination of being female and being young. I wanted to create a curriculum where we could work with teenage girls to empower them.
You just started another adventure to help women. Talk about Agent Girlpower.
On March 8th (which is the International Day of Women), I launched my new social business, Agent Girl Power which is the Arab world’s first feminist apparel business. It is a capsule collection of bi-lingual feminist gear — both athleisure wear and jewelry. The athleisure is produced in India by women and the jewelry is made in Kenya by women working in the slums. It’s a very good product that gives back from start to finish. My hope is that stores will be interested in picking it up. The online store, agentgirlpower.com, just went live! These pieces really spark conversations about women’s equality everywhere they go.
You’ve accomplished so much. What would you tell your 20-year old self?
I raise my kids on speed. Which means they would snowboard, skate, participate in quick and risky sports. I wanted them to be fearless. I wanted them to know that feeling of risking but still managing to be in control. Push yourself. Ask more of yourself. Take the risk. Be brave. You can always come back to where you were. You have to make the ultimate decision, do you want to live the small life of the big life? Go for the big life!
Last meal on earth?
I love Thai food so I think it would be some kind of delicious Thai meal. My best meal is when I’m with people that inspire me most – I think it would be more about the invitations to that meal than the meal itself.
Dream dinner guest?
I’m very inspired by Angelina Jolie.
Dream vacation destination?
Right now I’m really dreaming about going to Japan.
Don’t miss Maryam’s entire podcast. It’s so good! Check it out along with other Fridays with Flea Style episodes on iTunes here.