Social Entrepreneur: Interview With Ekaterina Gvelesiani

Ekaterina radiates a blend of tranquillity and tenacity. In just a brief exchange, it becomes crystal clear that she is a self-made woman of unwavering determination. Ekaterina Gvelesiani currently oversees a hotel in Mestia, Svaneti, in parallel to managing a tourism company and a non-governmental organization. Her pursuits are driven by her profound love for freedom which she discovered in the mountains, particularly in the enchanting landscapes of Svaneti.

Photo Credits to Phiro Abramishvili

Ekaterina’s childhood dream had always revolved around Mestia, as she fondly shared dreams of building her own hotel with her grandfather. Despite initially intending to study tourism administration, a less popular field at the time, she ultimately chose to pursue a degree in business administration. However, Ekaterina held onto her dream and in 2020, she obtained her MBA degree from the Hospitality Business School (EHL) in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Ekaterina’s thesis delved into the critical aspects of sustainable tourism development and the dangers of overtourism in Georgia. Previously, she had studied and worked in France and Germany, and upon returning to Georgia, Ekaterina embarked on a career within the public service at the National Security Council.

“Owning my own hotel was my childhood dream. However, once I grew up, that dream took a backseat. Later events in my life have convinced me that when you truly desire something, you must relentlessly pursue it. Due to my personal character and inclination towards creative pursuits, I found it difficult to find fulfilment within public service, so I got involved in the work that deeply resonated with me.”

Fuelled by enthusiasm, Ekaterina set out to construct the hotel from the ground up. She emphasizes that transforming a dream into reality is the result of hard work and her persistent character. She never takes no for an answer and finds herself more intrigued and engaged in the face of challenges.

Ekaterina’s surname instantly brings to mind her ties to Svaneti. The question remains, however: why choose Svaneti?

“I am Svan by origin, raised by my grandparents, and my grandfather passed on to me a house and land plots in Mestia. When we used to go to Mestia for summer vacations as a child, I would feel the kind of freedom that I could never find elsewhere. The natural surroundings, mountains, and the Svan environment evoke entirely distinct emotions. Although I have lived in various parts of the world throughout the years, I have never felt a comparable sensation of freedom and pride elsewhere. This is precisely why I opted for Svaneti!”

Ekaterina Gvelesiani’s hotel is called “Paliani Hotel” in honor of her late grandfather, Shamil Paliani. The hotel is strategically positioned in the prime spot of Mestia and boasts the capacity to host 60 guests. What sets it apart is its unrivaled panoramic view, allowing guests to marvel at all the towers in Mestia. The top floor houses a hostel with 14 beds. Within the hotel premises guests can enjoy dinner at a lovely restaurant serving delectable cuisine.

Photo Credits to Phiro Abramishvili

In 2016, Ekaterina started drafting her dream business plan and thus began a path full of challenges, some unique to the Svaneti region. During our interview, Ekaterina identified a shortage of qualified workforce, disorganized logistics, faulty infrastructure, and a notably passive local community as the primary hurdles she has encountered.

“Visiting Svaneti for leisure is very a distinct experience from establishing a business there. There were many challenges, unforeseen at the outset, which have eventually become a source of excitement for me. For example, there is a lack of qualified staff in Svaneti, the main reason for which is the outflow of the local population. On the one hand, businesses have the option to recruit staff from Tbilisi and relocate them to work in the region; on the other hand, they can choose to motivate local youth so that they stay and work in their original places of residence. I chose the latter option, and I believe that businesses adopting a similar mindset can achieve great success. The hotel bears the name of my late grandfather, who has shaped who I am today. He was my role model and I wanted to pay homage to his memory.”

Ekaterina Gvelesiani’s approach to management revolves around empathy rather than strictness. She tries to give her employees greater autonomy, allowing them the freedom to learn and make independent decisions.

Years of residing actively in Mestia have shown her that despite numerous challenges, the local population tends to be rather nihilistic and passive. In 2023, as part of a personal civic initiative, Ekaterina successfully secured grants from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and the Rondeli Foundation. These grants were instrumental in her efforts to bolster social activism in the community. This later led to the need for the establishment of a non-governmental organization.

“Partnership for the Sustainable Development of the Region” is a community organization that was formed in collaboration with local youth, aiming to enhance social activism and address the prevailing issues and challenges in Svaneti.

“No one can better understand the challenges and come up with potential solutions than the local population. There are many issues on the ground, requiring the active involvement of locals, but unfortunately, there has been a notable lack of initiative. Recognizing this gap, I felt compelled to establish a non-governmental organization in collaboration with local youth. The goal was to offer support to the community, providing them with a platform to voice their concerns.

Locals tend to think that talking about their problems can get them into trouble and that that there is not much point in having discussions. The people of Svaneti have lost their motivation and a sense of nihilism prevails, which can be a very dangerous thing. If we look at best practises from around the world, one can see that high levels of social activism play an important part in making the country successful. Promoting civic engagement is imperative if we aspire to reach the similar levels of success. In our current projects, we engage with residents not only in Mestia, but also in Ushguli, Chuberi, Khaishi, and various other villages across Svaneti.

While the broader issues of electricity and road infrastructure are common throughout Svaneti, it is crucial to recognize that the problems in Mestia differ from those in Chuberi or Ushguli. Once the challenges are identified, we collaborate to find solutions. Initially, the local community showed little to no interest, but as they witnessed tangible results, there was a significant increase in their engagement and involvement.”

As if managing two businesses was not enough work, Ekaterina has gone on to create the travel company “Paliani Tour”, originally envisioned for handling inbound tours. Her experiences in Mestia persuaded Ekaterina that helping locals to take trips abroad could have a more profound and beneficial impact on the country.

“The fact that tourism can yield both positive and negative impacts is not a novel concept. Unfortunately, in Svaneti we have witnessed instances of negative influence, such as architectural pollution, negligence towards ecological threats, and the destruction of forest areas.

While our community organization actively addresses these issues, we also recognized the importance for the locals to first-hand witness successful examples of sustainable development in European countries. This is why “Paliani Tour” was created, offering services to organize individual and group tours for both locals and visitors alike.

Traveling, in general, holds immense educational value, and through these tours, locals can first-hand witness successful European models in waste management, ecotourism, and civic responsibility. The aim is to empower the community with first-hand experiences, allowing them to implement positive changes in their own communities. A well-informed community holds significant power, and this potential must be harnessed. The collaboration of the state, business, and donor organizations will undoubtedly lead to greater success.”

Photo Credits to Giorgi Ioseliani

Ekaterina often reflects on the question of when she will deem her goals accomplished. Due to her personality, she sees this is an ongoing, never-ending process, as new ideas constantly emerge in her mind.

“I have gradually realized that my thought process is following: I see a problem which triggers my mind to search for solutions; not merely at a surface or micro level, but comprehensively, and on a larger scale. I believe this to be my calling.

The establishment of Paliani Hotel was just the beginning. Relocating to the region has shown me all the directions and dimensions full of big challenges, and my further endeavours are aimed at overcoming these issues. The title of ‘social entrepreneur’ resonates the most with me – a pursuit not solely for profit, but also for addressing and solving societal issues”.

The formula for Ekaterina Gvelesiani’s personal success lies in the combination of her inherent character, quality education, and experience. According to our respondent, genuine success is only attained through one’s own dedicated efforts.

A resolute character, innate leadership skills, profound emotional intelligence, commitment to improve the surroundings, continuous self-improvement, and above all else – an unwavering dedication to learning and working hard – these are the elements that form true success. I am a self-made woman in business, neither having inherited privileges nor having entered into lucrative deals.

For people like me, the path to success can be incredibly challenging, but that is something to take pride in and to appreciate. The journey can be full of injustices and heartaches. It is often a solitary path where even close family members may struggle to fully grasp the weight of responsibilities, or the way your brand is akin to a cherished child; things you must think about when making crucial decisions.

But in the end, we must recognize that these challenges are not substantial enough to prevent us from moving forward. Instead, we must strive to channel all that hurt and pain into a driving force for greater success.”