As Sri Lanka works towards becoming a middle-income country, we’ve reduced the gender gap in education. According to the EDB, Sri Lanka enjoys a high female literacy rate of 92.6% and a female university enrolment rate of 60%. But as the ADB points out, participation of women in the workforce stands at only 33.6%. This gender gap in the workforce presents a lost opportunity for the Sri Lankan economy. Improving gender equality can increase a nation’s GDP by an average of 35%. Recognising these facts, the Lankan Angel Network, in partnership with The Ford Foundation, launched the I AM HER programme to support women entrepreneurs.
The #IAmHer programme was launched with a panel discussion. Its purpose was to spark a conversation on how to support women entrepreneurs with a multi-pronged strategy—in turn, catalysing the growth of Sri Lanka’s startup ecosystem. Moderated by Board Member of the Lankan Angel Network, Anarkali Moonesinghe, the discussion brought together a cross-section of women who support organisations, startups and social services.
Joining this discussion, Chairperson of Women in Management, Dr. Sulochana Segera, said that empowerment needs to be better defined. “Too often, empowerment is seen in terms of charity. Empowerment has nothing to do with charity, it’s a responsibility, and it’s about finding your path and your vision. We believe that empowerment has to happen very early on – both within family life and at school, where girls are empowered and encouraged to be confident in their skills and abilities.”
Meanwhile, Director of International Development Assistance at PwC, Zahra Cader, shared some insightful statistics. She pointed out that global research has shown that companies with at least one female director perform better. Such companies enjoy better share price performance and return on equity. Companies with more than one woman on the board enjoy returns 3.7% higher than their counterparts. “Diversity and inclusion isn’t simply a program or a label. It’s about creating a sense of belonging within an organisation,” Zahra said. “It’s where when you go to a meeting, everyone has a voice, and everyone’s opinion is respected in the same way.”
Executive Director and Director of Engineering at Haycarb, Sharmila Ragunathan, spoke of her early experiences. She stated that she never felt the need to announce that she was a woman or required any special attention. “When I was studying in the UK, I was one among ten other men because of the field I chose. Returning to Sri Lanka, it was no different. I knew I was in a male-dominated industry. I willingly entered into this sector knowing those circumstances. I think it has to do with adapting. To choose a path you want to follow and to make that your own.” she said.
Sharmila also touched on the importance of looking beyond hiring with fill quota systems to build more diverse teams. “I do not believe in quota systems. When looking to hire someone to do a job, you have to look at the individual’s qualifications and their fit within the role you’ve envisioned. It’s not about hiring someone to fill a quota or tick a checkbox.”
During the panel discussion, Head of Social Enterprise at Women in Need, Kavindi Wijesekera, highlighted an essential need in the ecosystem. There was a demand for platforms that would make it easier for women in distress to communicate, particularly during challenging times such as the last year’s lockdown.
“There was a time during the lockdown when we had to give out our personal numbers as the hotlines could not handle the calls anymore. The police were engaged in their duty, and it was at times, a huge challenge for us to convey to the police the need to rescue a woman in distress,” she said. “We’ve received over 2000 calls during those few months alone, and it was even tougher on the women to reach out to us because not every time could they pick up the phone and talk.”
“There were children who called us, telling us how they were unable to study and so on. So in future, if we are ever to face a similar situation again, we need to have platforms so that women can access,” she said.
After the panel discussion, the Lankan Angel Network, along with the Ford Foundation announced the initiatives that would encompass the #IAmHer programme. The first of these,
known as Her Brand, aims to help women entrepreneurs create their brand story. It does so by pairing ten women entrepreneurs with ten up-and-coming videographers to crafting a video that talks about their brand. Each startup pays a nominal fee to be part of this initiative. 100% of the nominal fee each startup pays, will go towards creating a video for the Impact Partner of the initiative, Women in Need, which is a non-profit organisation fighting domestic violence, rape, child abuse, and other forms of violence (GBV) faced by women and girls. If you are a women entrepreneur seeking to be a part of this initiative, you can click here. If you’re a videographer, you can click here.
Another initiative of the programme will be focused on financial literacy for women entrepreneurs. Through this strategy encompassing many different areas, the Lankan Angel Network aims to increase opportunities for women entrepreneurs to succeed with the #IAmHer programme.