‘You just switch gears and anything is possible’


Lakmini Wijesundera, the Co-Founder and CEO of IronOne Technologies and Board PAC (Pix by Jude Denzil Pathiraja)

by Randima Attygalle

"I believe in keeping BoardPAC and IronOne ‘earthed’ because it is not just about two companies, but all about contributing to our country," reflects Lakmini Wijesundera, the Co-Founder and CEO of IronOne Technologies and BoardPAC.

Speaking to The Sunday Island, the trailblazer, who was crowned ‘SAARC Woman Entrepreneur of Asia 2018’ last month, reflects on her ‘risk-taking gene’, which has enabled a journey that has not always been a ‘straight one’…

Q: You come from a family of strong women and table-turning entrepreneurs. In what way do you think this ‘family DNA’ has shaped you to become the woman that you are today and the entrepreneur that you are?

I have inherited the ‘risk gene’ from my maternal side, which I believe is essential if you are to become an entrepreneur. My mother certainly had it and so did my grandmother and great grandmother Helena Wijewardene. The foresight of my great grandmother Helena was such that she invested in a lot of Colombo properties at a time when they were forests!

I’m told that she has looked at the map of Sri Lanka and had invested in properties around the road junctions. This was entrepreneurship in her own way I believe.

We revered our uncle Upali (Upali Wijewardene) for breaking barriers. At a time when cars were not being assembled locally, he plunged into the industry proving that Sri Lankans are as good as anyone else out there. This was followed by a range of other products including electronics. Recently when I was on a business trip to Bangladesh, I came across an Upali Mazda in perfect working condition!

After I completed my studies overseas and returned home, I always knew I had to do something interesting like my ancestors had done. I feel that the two companies I founded - IronOne and BoardPAC – are a kind of continuation of the innovation my late uncle championed and could not finish in his lifetime.

Whoever that experiences BoardPAC (a globally acclaimed IT solution for board meetings) says that globally there is no better product than that for the requirement. We are humbled by this recognition and we are taking all efforts to make it the No. 1 product for all board meeting software requirements. We are present in about 20 countries right now covering Asia, Europe and the US. Locally, we are present in nearly 60% of the blue chip companies and banks.

We have this general mindset that a product of finesse is always imported! My uncle proved it is not so with all the brands he pioneered on par with any global brand and it is my turn to do it now (smiles)

Q: What is the role your Alma Mater Ladies’ College played in shaping your perceptions about life, decision-making and leadership?

When I go to industries, I always come across many Ladies’ College colleagues doing significant things for the country in various ways. I truly believe that there is a level of confidence that is built naturally in the school. The liberal culture of the school that did not push too hard on getting star grades helped us nurture ourselves.

I was very shy in school among a bunch of noisy and mischievous friends, and I must say we are all doing well! Beauty of Ladies’ College was that it encouraged us to be multi-faceted in sports, theatre, literature etc. I think the stimulating dialogue the school encouraged on diverse subjects too shaped all of us LC’ites to be what we are today.

Q: Your list of accolades runs long. How do you perceive your latest achievement - ‘SAARC Woman Entrepreneur of the Year’ reflecting positively on Sri Lankan entrepreneurship and the Sri Lankan woman?

It is beyond a win for me or for my company. I felt proud that I was able to win it on behalf of Sri Lanka. SAARC is an important region for us – both nationally and at an organizational level. Achieving the recognition with the ‘SAARC’ recognition is advantageous in this region. This award gave an independent recognition and the feedback has been overwhelming.

I must also applaud Chaturi Ranasinghe who leads the Women’s Chamber and Rifa Mustapha who leads the SAARC Women Entrepreneurial Council (SWEC), two very progressive women who played a role in this achievement.

The selection process, unlike my previous awards, entailed very intense interviews. The panel of judges consisted of professionals drawn from SAARC countries.

Q: How important do you think it is for us to make use of the ‘SAARC collective’ and also the Asian bloc in a bigger way?

If I speak for my sector, I think we have to do more for a better engagement because we are cliché in the fact that we attempt to focus on Europe and the US. When it comes to products such as BoardPAC, the Board Meeting Automation Solution that we offer, it is not easy to sell directly to European countries because the investment cost and other logistic requirements are demanding.

I’m one of those advocates of ‘work with Asia’ because the cost is reasonable specially for starting out an international journey. It is certainly not the world but a crucial stepping stone to the world at large. The statistics show the Asian population standing at 4.5 billion which is approximately 60% of the world’s population and with Asia’s importance rising, it’s a good bet to start with.

When I expanded my company to Malaysia for instance, I was surprised by the welcome I received, thanks to my late uncle Upali, who was a strong believer of the Asian region. In Asia, we are bound by common cultural traits of the region which matters a lot. When people know each other and trust each other, business happens with less interaction.

Q: As an entrepreneur who has proven internationally, what would you like to share with employers, policy makers and national leaders in enabling Sri Lankan talent, which is second to none in the world, to reach the next level?

It is a mind shift change that we require to be the Number 1 in the world - be it a product or a service. In my discussions with people across the world, when I state that we are going to build a billion dollar company, there is a blank look in most faces.

Then I say forget we are here in Colombo, think we are in our Rockefeller office in New York or in Silicon Valley, and let us start this conversation all over again, now would your response be the same? (smiling) No, certainly not because there everyone aspires to be Number One and it is common place to dream big in the United States.

‘Impossible’ is just a mindset, you just switch gears and any anything is possible, even in case of taking our talent to the next level globally. Interestingly the tagline of BroadPAC is ‘achieving the seemingly impossible’.

Today, it is a norm to transcend national borders in the wake of all sophisticated means of technology and communication. We only have to push beyond our limits to reach the top. On a personal note, if I didn’t have the vision of being global, we could easily have stopped at Asia and made it extremely profitable and happy and remained in a comfort zone as Asia is a very large market, but my aspirations are greater and I think this could be replicated in all other domains.

Q: Your visionary late uncle, Mr. Upali Wijewardene was once dubbed as the ‘quintessential entrepreneur of Asia’. Today, when you look back at his foresight as an entrepreneur yourself, how do you perceive his foresight and wisdom to promote the Sri Lankan skill and our own products, which he pioneered on par with global standards?

I find it incredible. What he did was hugely motivational and encouraging because the model he adopted long years back is relevant even today. He really knew what branding was. If you put out a list of the greatest entrepreneurs Sri Lanka has produced, his name is still likely to come right on top from a global branding point of view - and this more than 30 years ago.

So much has happened since then, there have been successful businessmen but from a product perspective for which you need branding, innovation and creativity, he has no parallels even to date. The brands such as Kandos, and the newspapers he launched such as The Island and Divaina still continue with a very strong brand presence.

He not only created local brands, he made them known overseas at a time when the world was not globalized. Even today in Malaysia, which is a strong operational seat for me, he is spoken of as if he was one of their own people. He made them feel that way with his personality too. He loved life and he had a good sense of witty humour and I think that too helped him to build networks.

I cannot really fathom the depth of what made him do what he did, but I suppose he wanted to prove that the others were wrong too and show that anything is possible even at a time when everything was so difficult in the business fabric.

He broke barriers and I think he found it quite amusing to do as well! So I think the title ‘quintessential entrepreneur of Asia’ still stands valid in his case. I think we all got to strive to take the cue from him.

Q: To what do you attribute your personal success as a business leader and the success of your organization?

There are fundamentals I believe in and there are hard decisions that we take. I almost believe that every large thing that we do is finally broken down into small decisions and each decision has to be taken with integrity. That always helps us to keep going and sometimes we lose opportunities that we work hard for, but we have to walk away because holistically we are looking at being the number one company in the world in what we are doing. So it is important that we don’t fall into pits - short term.

I also attribute my success to the values, which were instilled in me by my family, which I translate into my professional life. I believe in goodness - in correct business partners, correct decisions etc. It has certainly not been a straight journey. I have to keep on pushing as far as I can, so perseverance certainly helps.

My late uncle believed in ‘taking a plunge and getting on with it’. I think plunging into the deep waters helps one grow as in my case too. Of course, there have been moments when I had to crawl back and learn lessons the hard way too!

The two companies I steer today - BoardPAC and IronOne are ‘earthed’ to our soil. I want my people to come here and work hard if they want to do something for the country. Everyone here, including our support team, is made to feel that they are contributing to the national agenda as the janitor at NASA said in his famous words: ‘I help to send rockets to the moon.’ A quote I love is Steve Job’s: "It is the crazy people who think they can change the world who go out and do it". I would like to believe that I am one those crazy people!

Q: Today, we see a significant number of talented and educated Sri Lankan women forced to become mere home-makers without contributing to the national economy, largely due to the rigid employment structures. In the absence of progressive labour laws, what measures can employers take to encourage flexi work arrangements making use of evolving technology to harness the talent of more females?

It is imperative that we capitalize on the technology, which is already available in a cost effective way. It is the cultural shift that we require. If people say they are working from home, they should have the discipline to really work from home. In other countries, this happens. Culturally, we need to make sure that discipline is instilled.

Our sector is looking at various ways to overcome the labour law deficit as we have no alternative since ours is a sector that works in tune with overseas time.

Even within the ICT sector, we do not see enough female presence, despite it being a sector which enables many flexible work arrangements. There is a lot of education taking place right now through forums such as the ICTA, SLASSCOM, Diversity Collective and Digital Chamber for Women among others.

Q: What are your views about retaining talent within an organization?

Personally our company has been very fortunate in retaining talent, which doesn’t happen everywhere. My company IronOne has been able to retain some of the best IT graduates from our state universities for a long time. So much so, some of them are the only remaining professionals from their respective batches in the university, as large numbers have gone overseas.

I believe ‘respect’ and ‘recognition’ are fundamental in retaining talent in any organization. Moreover, we must not forget that people are not just a head count in an organization. In our companies, we try to avoid the words of ‘staff’ and ‘management’ because as soon as you bring them in, you have the division. Instead, we believe in a ‘team’. We try to interact with people as directly as we can.

Recently, we were recognized as one of the top ranking great places to work at, selected by a US organization called Great Places to Work (GPTW). Ours is an organization with so many ‘millennials’ working. So we need to understand them as their perceptions are different to those of the previous generations.

Q: Can you throw light on the initiative ‘Give2Lanka’, which you support?

Give2Lanka operates on the concept that education is the way out of poverty. We have a ‘Smart Kids’ program, where gifted children are identified and empowered as it is likely that such children will be catalysts of hope to their families and their communities as well. IronOne contributes to this program in form of scholarships as we believe in giving back to society.

Q: As a person who has been a victim of violence in the country, having lost your illustrious father Prof. Stanley Wijesundera to it at one phase of the country’s history of terror, how do you relate to the recent episode of violence in the country?

When you have this kind of disruption in your family, it is not easy to get over it. Very often it becomes a life-long pain. My mother had a huge amount of inner strength to face the family tragedy. Losing my father was her second blow in a space of six years, having lost her brother - our uncle Upali, who disappeared a few years back, leaving the entire family in a vortex of confusion. Yet she picked up pieces and pragmatically looked at the future of her four children.

Despite everything she was positive. I think her strength and optimism gave us the confidence to be what we are today.

From a national and a global perspective, we are so connected today and we have to learn to accept diversity with no extremism. If we are to move forward as a country, we need to think bigger and most importantly peace has to be restored in the country.

Q: What are your other interests?

I love going to my estate and developing it not for non-commercial purposes, but for the balmy effect it has on me. I am a great lover of dogs, particularly Labradors. I also have a love for minimalistic large open spaces and I have great interest in it and strive to create such spaces even in my home surroundings.

Q: Finally, as a trendsetting Sri Lankan woman, what do you see as the best part of being a Sri Lankan?

I take immense pride in my Sri Lankan identity. Ours is a nation we can take so much pride in. Those from near and far find this island nation interesting and unique. I only hope the recent unfortunate incidents will not have a long lasting impression on our country. We are a resilient nation that can rise up from the rubble.

As an ICT professional, I also see the country as a high density pool of talent in technology from across the whole region, which is therefore very advantageous for those in the software sector. All this and much more makes it being a Sri Lankan truly great!



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