by Rishini Weeraratne
She is the Founder and Chairperson of Design Corp Group of Companies. She is the Founder and Chairperson of the Academy of Design (AOD); Sri Lanka’s inspirational design campus that offers International Design degrees from Sri Lanka to South Asian students through a ground-breaking partnership with the prestigious Northumbria University - School of Design, UK. Subsidiary entities under Design Corp Group of Companies include concept store, Urban Island, fashion retail store, FMLK and the city’s first real estate tower dedicated to Design, Technology and Innovation, The Colombo Innovation Tower. Other ventures under her belt include, the AI Academy, the city’s newest educational institution for innovation driven from the combination of design and technology, Sri Lanka Design Festival and Mercedes Benz Fashion Week, Sri Lanka. She is the Founder and Chairperson of Design for Sustainable Development (DFSD); a registered voluntary social services organization that uses design-led strategies to promote sustainable development in the craft sector. This includes teaming top designers with skilled crafts people to foster design innovation and the organization has a strong focus on sound environmental practices, women’s empowerment and promotes heritage skills. Up to date the organization has employed three hundred artisan families and has directly empowered two hundred and fifty women across five regions in the island.
In 2018, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Civil Law by Northumbria University, UK, in acknowledgement of her global reputation as one of Sri Lanka’s leading entrepreneurs, and for her services to design. She holds an MBA from the Post Graduate Institute of Management, Sri Lanka and a Post Graduate Diploma in Marketing from CIM, UK. In 2009, she was the recipient of the International Young Fashion Entrepreneur Award for Sri Lanka awarded by the British Council by an International Jury for changing society through education. She was the recipient of the 2013 Professional and Career Women’s Award by Women in Management, Sri Lanka, and in 2014, she was honored with the Women Leadership Award by the Women Leadership Congress, Mumbai. She was named as a ‘High Potential Winning Entrepreneur for EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women,’ by EY Asia Pacific in 2019.
She Can and she is a spirited, innovative, fearless, empowered, corporate power house; a national icon.
What are the most important attributes of a successful leaders today?
The most important thing is not only for entrepreneurs to think like entrepreneurs, but for everybody who’s in a leadership role to think like an entrepreneur. The world has evolved and the opportunities available now, compared to what we had before are completely different. Yuval Noah Harari always speaks about the ‘useless class’; just as mass industrialization created the working-class, the AI revolution will create a new unworking class. I totally believe that a useless class is coming. I’m a huge fan of Yuval Harari. He’s one of the most up-to-date futurists. Anyone who wants to innovate or create something new has a blank canvas right now and I think that’s the space we were all waiting for. To succeed in this new space, you need the mindset of an entrepreneur. Whether you’re a CEO or a Manager, whatever role you’re in, you need to shift your thinking and you need to start thinking like an entrepreneur. It is an entrepreneur’s mindset that can operate in a space when you don’t know what it is, and you need to navigate smartly to survive and thrive. At present, we are all in the unknown, and if we remain in a box, we won’t be able to operate the unknown. Your heart has to be resilient. There are many entrepreneurial skills that are required for this new normal. Leadership today is completely different compared to pre-Covid19. As we prepare to make a comeback most are forgetting that we are coming back to a new world. Hence, leadership today should be purpose driven.
What inspired you to launch AOD - Academy of Design?
I saw an opportunity and grabbed it. At the time I launched AOD, there was a gap in the market. There were no options available for creative individuals who wanted to further enhance their knowledge and study fashion or fashion design. An individual who couldn’t afford to enroll at an overseas institution had no options available locally. I wanted to create options for the younger generation and for future generations, and give them opportunities to contribute and thrive in an industry that accounts for approximately forty-four percent of Sri Lanka’s total exports. The apparel industry always needs new creative designers, and shortly after I started AOD I realized there were also multiple other industries in the country that constantly needed new designers. When I launched AOD, I had a blank canvas to paint on, and I was able to structure and grow the company exactly as I envisioned it. I had an opportunity to change the game for the better in Sri Lanka. I was given the chance to create something that would continuously help the country. I strengthened the creative industry in Sri Lanka, professionalized it and gave it leadership. Of course, I did not do it all alone, there were many who assisted me and supported me along the way. Subsequently, we were able to create other products like the Sri Lanka Design Festival, Mercedes Benz Fashion Week and so on. All these brands helped create our overall eco-system. Following the success of these brands, we were able to launch and create retail spaces like Fashion Market and Urban Island.
What is your WHY?
I don’t do anything without knowing ‘why’ I’m doing it and without having a clear answer. For me what I’m really inspired by is giving other people opportunities. I can go to one of the most remote villages in the North and sit with a woman and make her see a future she can’t really see for herself. I believe that is my strength and I put it to good use. I can similarly sit with an AOD student and help them envision something they could never see. It’s about imagining these possibilities. I’m encouraging people to dream, to hope, to imagine and believe. Hope is not a passive thing, it is an active thing, where you view the world in a particular way and you do things to make that world a reality.
How did you move forward when everyone kept telling you that your suggestions or ideas won't work?
I always believe that it’s the vision that you see that keeps you going. No matter how small your idea is, you need an entrepreneurial mindset to envision the future. I always keep moving forward; I believe once you make a commitment to make something work, or you say you are going to do it, then there should be no option to turn back. You can course correct and you can make changes, but the possibility of not doing anything at all is never an option. I don’t like the word fail fast, I prefer using the word course correcting because it’s not a matter of failing, you have to stay true to what you are trying to launch and go for it by tuning out everything and everyone else.
Tell us three exciting game changing projects, campaigns or initiatives you have executed during your career?
The Colombo Innovation Tower. We launched CIT in December 2019, but we had to hit pause in March 2020 when the global pandemic erupted. Hence, the full potential of the tower hasn’t been unveiled as yet. We want to make CIT a hub for design and technology. At present, CIT is just a building, but this is another blank canvas where all our future plans will be created out of.
The Academy of Design Start-Up School. A post-graduate school, that will help accelerate the growth of start-ups in Sri Lanka and fast-track the creation of a start-up ecosystem in the country. This project was launched in the middle of the pandemic, but at present we have thirty start-up’s in-house creating innovative, ground-breaking projects. I am excited about the impact this initiative will create in the country. It is quite literally a tsunami in the making. Post Covid19 this is going to be the need of the hour. The birth of changemakers that will innovate and create new entrepreneurial ventures.
The Agriculture Sector. During the pandemic, I also decided to enter the agriculture space in Sri Lanka. Work directly with farmers and we intend to create new products that will add to our export market and will also help improve the livelihoods of farmers. This is a new venture that we will be announcing and launching shortly; I am certain this will be another gamechanger in the industry.
Do you ever think – “Am I crazy?"
Yes, of course, all the time! I think I am a little crazy. I believe crazy is a compliment. Every time I want to launch something new, I hear it, and honestly, I don’t mind it. I have learnt to live with it. I believe it’s okay to do things that aren’t normal to most people. Being an entrepreneur doesn’t require you to follow the herd, that’s why there are very few entrepreneurs in this world. You take the risks you do because others can’t take it and they see that but at the same time they call you crazy and they eventually support you. They eventually see that it’s something they really want to do but they can’t because it takes a lot of guts, a lot of torment, a lot of being in the uncomfortable and the unknown. As a result, yes, I am crazy and I don’t mind being called crazy; it’s all a part of the journey.
How do you differentiate yourself?
I don’t try to differentiate myself, but my work has differentiated me. My belief in women and Sri Lanka, has enabled us to create different opportunities, create livelihoods, and we have been able to create an entire unique ecosystem in the country. We are a total girl power organization. We barely have any men in the senior management team; we didn’t plan it that way but things just happened naturally overtime. Our organizations success can be attributed to the fact that, women are allowed to completely and totally be themselves at work. They have the freedom to spread their wings and fly! They don’t have to look over their shoulders and wonder if they are too intimidating, they are encouraged to unleash their full potential; be power women. I don’t differentiate myself from the rest, but I do believe that I have evolved over time and I have allowed new things to be created through me. I embrace this change and I believe this is all a part of my journey.
If you could go back and tell yourself one thing before beginning your career, what would it be?
I don’t have any regrets. I don’t regret any of the mistakes I have made in the past. I believe I needed to make those mistakes in order to learn and grow. I don’t hail from a business family, hence I had to learn everything I know the hard way.
What was the biggest mistake you have made when just starting out?
The biggest mistake wasn’t when starting out, but rather a mistake I made along the way. When I launched AOD, I did so with bare minimum capital. I built the business, literally brick by brick by re-investing the profits we made. However, when the time came to launch our e-commerce business, I decided to divest a small stake in the business. In hindsight, I should have never taken this route. I divested a small stake and raised capital, as this was the norm in the business world and I thought I should also follow suit. We ended up losing a significant sum of money. I got carried away trying to follow the herd. I realized that being true to yourself, believing in yourself and your idea is key.
Where do you see yourself ten years from now?
I hope I would have contributed substantially and positively to develop Sri Lanka. I don’t think I have as yet, and I think I have a lot more to do. Ten years from now, I do hope I would have been able to develop and grow something permanent that will continue to impact the lives of future generations even after my time.
How do you want to be remembered one day?
To be honest, I really don’t care what other people think, as long as I continue to remain true to myself and my beliefs. I am quite happy to tune out all the external noise. I don’t allow myself to be shaken by those that try to shake me. I am here for a reason and I will continue to believe in my purpose. Light and darkness can never survive together, hence if you are full of light, you will be able to keep spreading more-light and eventually there will be no room for darkness. I want to do what I came here to do.
Daily Mirror - https://www.dailymirror.lk/weekend-online/she_can_by_rishini_weeraratne/LINDA-SPELDEWINDE/427-230932