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Harem Escape

Your Stories: Harem Escape

This week we hear the amazing story of Sandra Shoemake Zwollo who has been organising exclusive retreats for women since 2009.

What is a brief description of your business?

Harem organises luxurious retreats exclusively for women. I’ve created a place where women can be themselves, are allowed to completely let go, no responsibilities, no demands, no decisions, just a healthy dose of self-indulgence, lots of high-end pampering, great healthy organic food and the time and space to put themselves first, for a few days, with even clothing provided, so nobody needs to worry about their wardrobes. Harem doesn’t only focus on the physical well being but also pushes women, through massages, yoga and meditation, to take stock of their lives, and leave again with new ideas about who they want to be and where they want to go.

1. What drove you to start your own business?  What was the turning point?

One Sunday afternoon sitting next to a pool in a posh resort, I was observing all the other clients and noticed that the men were all reading or having a nap, and the women were running after their children, making sure they were safe and entertained. I thought, hmm, how is it that we women with all the hats we are constantly wearing, still have no vacation on our vacation? How come we always give and give until we are blue in the face, and functioning on automatic pilot, desperately trying to keep everybody around us happy, and then even feel guilty when we finally do take some time for ourselves? Why do we keep going, for fear of not being loved anymore if we stop? I took a piece of paper and wrote the Harem concept down in one hour. Then I realized I needed ten million dollars to build a Harem, and I put it in a drawer. Happily 6 months later, I met the owner of the Harem estate, he loved the concept, and proposed I use his property for my retreats. We both invested money to make it work, and Harem was born.

2. Who do you admire or look to for inspiration as a business owner?

I admire drive, passion, charisma, a sense of wanting to share, to make things happen, to make a change in peoples lives, to have the goal to leave something worthy behind, to help people, to share things with like-minded people, to learn, to listen, and to treat each day with gusto and optimism. I admire people who know what they want, and go for it. Some of these people have been:  Simone de Beauvoir, Anais Nin, Ayn Rand, Audrey Hepburn and now they are Brene Brown, Danielle Laporte, Tony Robbins, Kriss Carr, Tonya Leigh, Oprah Winfrey, Madonna.

3. What are your goals for your business?

My dream is to open Harems all over the world, every time using local foods and people and giving eighty percent of profits to a local charity for women.

4. What would you do differently next time around?

I don’t believe in cutting corners, so I think all the mistakes I’ve made have been necessary. It’s a learning curve and we have to make mistakes in order to grow. Thankfully Harem is growing organically, slowly and steadily, so it’s not overwhelming, as so many businesses are. I would next time make sure I have a little more money in the bank for PR and Marketing. I know there are many women out there who desperately need a break, who have been running on empty batteries for a long time, but they don’t know what to do about it. My target group is business women who have many hats on, and never take time for themselves, and when they do, they feel guilty. I took the guilt away by donating eighty percent of profits to the charity the Harem estate owners had already set up.

5. What difficulties and challenges have you had to overcome and how did you keep going?

The biggest challenge was establishing a mailing list and reaching women. I still have a long way to go. The second biggest challenge is being in a Muslim country, albeit safe, some people still perceive it as scary. And the third biggest challenge is that I’m not open all year round, because it’s a private residence I’m renting, and so the dates are not always flexible. Furthermore, I need a minimum of 6 women for a retreat to take place, and that is not always easy. I’ve kept going by assuring people Morocco is a very stable and safe country, by never stopping to reach out to women, and opening up Harem also for less than 6 women, by using an adjacent property which is open all year round, and organising mini-Harems there.

6. What legacy would you like your business to leave to the world and your family/friends?

I’m really passionate about making women realize that they can take time off, and they have to, in order to keep sane. Sacrifice and martyrdom are not the answer. The answer is to take good care of ourselves first, so we can be generous to others. I would like this to be known and put into practice all over the world.

7. What support did you seek out and what difference has that made to your business?

I’ve used LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, all because they are free, and although it is time consuming, keeping it up daily has slowly made my business grow and become known. I’ve reached out to press and the idea has caught on and I’ve had lots of free press, because it’s an original name and concept. But the biggest support was attending Pure Life Experiences, a travel fair for high-end travel agents, which conveniently was held in Marrakech. It has given me the confidence and the contacts I needed to go on successfully.

8. How far ahead do you plan and what keeps you on track and motivated?

I plan about one year ahead. Whenever I have a vague idea of where the next step is taking me, I meditate a lot, and then I start writing down my goals. Once they are on paper, somehow things fall into place and it’s all working towards where I want to go. You have to get very clear on what you want, so you can get there.

9. What has been one big success that you have achieved in your business?

Being mentioned in the New York Times, twice! And having one woman after a Harem retreat write to me to thank me for changing her life. She felt confident enough, after being here for one week, to quit her job and go after what she always wanted to do, become a travel writer.

10. What piece of advice has had the most impact on your business?

It was said casually by my husband one day, he said: don’t get overwhelmed, take baby steps, every day a bit towards where you want to go, but most importantly he asked me: what do you want? I usually only vaguely knew what I wanted, but had a huge list of what I did not want. Every time I started on the huge list he cut me off and said very patiently, I don’t want to know what you don’t want, I want to know what you want! And I did not know, until I sat down and made a list of what made me happy, what gave me energy, what made me creative, what got me out of bed in the morning. Once I had that list, it was easy, and everything seemed to fall into place. It is so important to know what you want, and nobody ever asks you that question. They should start asking that in school!

11. What are your top 3 tips for someone who would like to start a business now?

Know what you want, and be very specific and clear; be selfish, meaning, do whatever you need to do to get to your goals, and let your family know beforehand that you are going to be very, very busy; make sure the business you are starting is exactly what makes you happy, you’ll need that passion and drive in times of setbacks, and people will support you if they see you’re loving what you’re doing. It’s no use starting a business only for the money, the money will come after a lot of hard work and dedication, but it’s vital that you love what you’re going to spend lots of time end energy on. Life is too short!

12. What are 3 books, websites or resources that you would recommend to other business owners?

Danielle Laporte, Ted Talks, Tony Robbins

How can people connect with you on social media?


Twitter 1:  and Twitter 2:


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About Jayne Ryan

Hello! I'm Jayne Ryan - Editor for Women Unlimited. It's such a joy to be part of this amazing community. I'm always looking to connect with women business owners who can inspire and inform our audience, so if you have something valuable to share please get in touch at editor@womenunlimitedworldwide.com or read our Guest Posting Guidelines. In my other life, I'm an author * editor * speaker and help women in business find and tell their own powerful story. You can find me over at jayneryan.com so come say Hi!

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One comment

  1. Harem’s business is very impressive. For sure, a lot of women out there (including me!) would like to try the services she is offering.

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