In Sri Lanka, culture and tradition have been a barrier to budding entrepreneurs. Much of our society is brought up in a “do as you’re told” setting and have been taught that it is not wise to challenge the norm. This setting has led to multitudes of them seeking employment in companies. As a result, startups in the country often do not receive sufficient support to thrive.
Recognising this, SLASSCOM is consistently working towards supporting local startups. The latest addition to its efforts – the Women in Tech Forum, identifies up-and-coming female “technopreneurs” on the island and offers them the support they need to thrive. The third episode of the SLASSCOM’s Women in Tech Talks webinars featured two female Sri Lankan entrepreneurs. Both of them shared their respective journeys to help inspire other women looking to follow the same path.
Chinthi Weerasinghe – CEO of Mitra Digital
Chinthi is a veteran of over 20 years in the IT industry. She had spent the first 14 years of her highly successful career working in the USA at a leading tech firm. She also consulted for several fortune 500 companies during this time, helping them accelerate their business outcomes by creating flexible and resilient IT solutions.
Going against the norm, Chinthi moved back to Sri Lanka to spend more time with her family. “I had a sudden realisation that however successful you may be if you are not there for your loved ones, there isn’t a point of it all,” she shared. Despite this, the move did not stop Chinthi from working towards becoming the best version of herself. Every day is an opportunity, and she lives by the motto, “Ambition is the enthusiasm with a purpose”.
Chinthi took up the CEO’s role at Mitra Digital in 2020 and has helped the company grow phenomenally since. Wishing to live a life with no regrets, she works towards giving back to the local community of entrepreneurs, focusing on women in particular.
Thanuja Masakorala – Co-Founder of MINT HRM
Thanuja’s entrepreneurial journey had a rocky start. Hailing from a traditional family and forced to leave her career after her son was diagnosed with a lifelong medical condition. After making this decision, all Thanuja heard was that her career had come to an end. However, she did not accept this. She knew that she was capable of being more than just a housewife. Thus, she transformed herself into an entrepreneur.
Together with her husband, she co-founded Mint HRM, “I used to work as an HR professional and had no background when it came to tech. But my husband was into this industry, and we decided to use our combined domain expertise to come up with something new that would benefit the current HR industry,” Thanuja stated. The company began in their living room with just one software developer. Years later, it is now the proud holder of a cloud-based Human Resource Information System catering to over 100 corporates within and outside the country.
When building a startup, what should you be looking for when recruiting new talent?
For Chinthi, in addition to their required skills, she looks for a few particular qualities when hiring people. “They need to be action-oriented, and I need to see their passion for something – what exactly it is that fuels them to be their best. They also need to show a growth mindset and a can-do attitude”. When it comes to putting together a strong team, Chinthi believes it’s the leaders’ responsibility to do so. In that context, leaders need to be able to:
- Take on adaptive challenges with a strong mindset.
- Maintain an Eagle’s eye view – Leaders should be able to observe from above but swoop down at any time if needed.
- Successfully regulate distress – They should be able to get different personalities to work together cohesively.
- Maintain attention to discipline and prioritise tasks accordingly.
- Learn to support teams and not control them.
- Protect those below them – They should give their subordinates the freedom to be themselves and make mistakes while taking the overall responsibility for it.
How can startups stand out from the competition?
For this, Thanuja stated that the first step should be to identify the market gap accurately – “The best example of this is the electric car; it did not come from a leading company like Toyota or Honda. It came from Tesla”. Secondly, simplicity should be a vital feature of the product or service of the startup’s product or service.
However, an essential tip Thanuja could give young entrepreneurs is that they remain committed to their startup venture. She stated that in a startup, there would be more downs than ups. Only by being able to stick through these challenges will a founder be able to guarantee its success.
How is prevalent gender bias in the tech industry conquered?
Chinthi stated that gender bias had been a pressing issue even when she was in the United States. In addition to evident disparities in salary, she conveyed that she has witnessed employers denying female employees opportunities simply because they were pregnant. Chinthi went onto state that we should speak out against the unconscious biases that exist within organisations.
On the other hand, Thanuja believes that discrimination may exist for men and women alike and that gender biases only exist if you allow them to. “As a lady, if you believe in yourself and work equally as hard as a male counterpart, you will not have to face such a situation.” Furthermore, she states that women are better capable of switching roles from office to home.
As entrepreneurs, what were your other biggest challenges, and how were they overcome?
To Thanuja, it was the acquisition of her early customers. Getting her first fifty customers on board was a struggle initially for the startup. To overcome this, she reiterated that persistence and commitment to the product pay off. When it came to securing overseas clients, she added that the product or service should not limit itself locally from its development. The initial concept of a startup should cater to a global audience. Thanuja also recommends forming strategic partnerships with global giants for a better reach at the international level.
However, challenges are not limited to starting a business and will continue to rise now and then. Therefore, Chinthi elaborated on her concept of the 3’R’s – the approach to how business leaders should tackle the obstacles that come their way. The first phrase is Response, which encompasses crisis management while keeping personnel and business essential safe in times like the current pandemic. Next comes the “Recovery” stage, where she stressed that it is okay to take a few hits in the company’s best interests. Lastly comes “Renewal” – the amending of company objectives following the timely analysis of the situation.
As a final message, the session concluded within an hour with both women ending on the same note – “The road of entrepreneurship is a rugged one. But no matter how tough it gets, never edit your dreams.”