by Zanita Careem
How do you react to the public eye of being a model and beauty queen?
I have been in the fashion and Beauty Industry for almost 3 decades having been a Supermodel and a Beauty Queen and traveled to many countries representing our Haute Couture and my country as an Ambassador. The respect and recognition I have garnered in the public eye for representing Sri Lanka and making my country proud of me is irreplaceable. People know the contribution that I have made to uplift these two industries. I want to be a citizen who had contributed to my country and made a change, uplifted and strived for progress in whatever I do and adulation and accolades will follow suit. The admiration I have earned being in the public eye for many years as a Super Model and Beauty Queen still remains the same.
You were also a co-founder of one of Sri Lanka’s first web development company, what have you achieved in this field?
WEB Syndicate which I co-founded in ’96 went on to become a highly successful company creating the blue print and bench mark in web development in the country. We developed the world’s first online Tea shopping carte facility for Dilmah Tea. The company was also the first fully integrated web development company to build and own a state-of-the-art multi storey design studio in Pelawatte built as a SOHO complex in line with the San Francisco Dot Com revolution. We had the most diversified client portfolio of Exporters, Hotels, Multi Nationals etc. and quickly established ourselves as the number 1 web development company with the birth of the information Superhighway.
As an entrepreneur how do you see yourself a success or failure?
As an Entrepreneur I see myself as a success. Entrepreneurship is in the birth of ideas.
Innovation, talent, skills and vision which makes an idea a success but to achieve success throughout the years you need to have dedication, commitment and far sighted strategy and plan to see it progress through the years. During the 3 months lock down in this Pandemic I decided that I need to study further and make use of this long in house vacation we were forced to take and thereby studied ‘Entrepreneurship in Emerging Economies,’ conducted by Harvard University. An enriching experience that paved the way for me to start my own company ‘Island Properties.’
How do you see yourself in the Real Estate Business?
I was excited to start my own property business and we have a portfolio of properties that comprises of villas, chalets, hotels, resorts and lands in tourism hot spots as well as commercial, residential and apartments for sale that many expats living overseas want to come back and invest in our Island. Though the pandemic has placed an obstacle with capital investments down or taking a back seat it will improve since this is the right time to purchase properties. I see Sri Lanka as the most attractive destination for new projects since we have so much to offer, therefore I see progression in this business.
You’re the brand ambassador for REM Solar, say something about solar solution and renewable energy.
Renewable energy is the way forward if we are to protect the environment and restore the losses experienced through centuries of industrialization and pollution. I believe in sustainable development while protecting our environment therefore I was happy to endorse REM Solar which is dedicated to provide Solar energy to companies and residences. The company in collaboration with the Rainforest Protection Authority is planting a tree with every KW purchased. They also have the best industry solutions and I am pleased to partner with them. We are an Island and each one of us should strive hard to protect our country from bio degradation. Green energy is vital to live a healthy life and with resources vastly depleting around the world protecting the environment, fauna and flora is important for the next generation. The pandemic has taught us that nature should be protected or there will be devastating consequences.
You also promote Sri Lanka Tourism through your Instagram, what are the obstacles you face in promoting tourism in Sri Lanka?
I am blessed to be part of this Island nation that has the most unique bio diversity in the world. We have everything from beaches, tea plantations, cultural sights, hill country, wild life and so much more. We depend on tourism as one of the primary earners to the economy. The pandemic resulted in many hotels facing closure. Promoting my country was always my first priority from the time I started representing Sri Lanka on an international stage. The social media and Instagram being a powerful platform to reach out to a wider audience, I decided to blog my travels promoting the scenic locations in our country as a blogger. It was to promote local tourism to bridge the losses from the pandemic since the country was closed for overseas visitors. A picture speaks a thousand words, so Instagram gives a beautiful story for the discerning traveler and it was a great way to promote tourism in our country in these challenging times. Most important aspect of Instagram is the pictures should be of high quality and have to tell a story. Therefore, compiling this along with promoting it takes time and effort which is not an easy task.
Politics is your passion; will you take politics at any time in the future?
I was invited to support Anura Fernando, co-founder of Viyathmaga at the General Elections by Honorable Namal Rajapaksa. I took this up and supported him via the social media and through political write ups and it was the first time I undertook to do this. Politics always interested me since the country is shaped by the government we choose to elect. Every time I represented Sri Lanka I felt I had the platform to bring in change and contribute as a citizen of the country. My grand uncle S.F.De Silva, the famed author of many Geography books and former ambassador to China was an influence to me along with my father the famous cinematographer and film director and the country’s first Diploma holder in motion picture photography A.V.M Vasagam who has contributed immensely to the film industry. His Film ‘Sigiri Kassapa,’ depicting the God king of our magnificent Fortress will go down in the anals of our historical movies as unforgettable. Therefore Yes, I would be involved in politics in the future.
Shivani you are known for your beauty touch on the modelling part and tell us the international exposure you received?
The international exposure I received first as a Super Model having traveled to Belgium, Italy, France, Oman, Abu Dhabi through ‘Shades of Sri Lanka’, Senaka De Silva’s fashion Troupe as well as India and Singapore promoting the country’s Batiks, Silks and Handloom industry to international heights where we received a standing ovation. It was followed by representing the country at Miss. Asia Pacific Quest in Philippines. I won the Miss. Sri Lanka in ’95 and the Miss Universe was held in Namibia where I placed 22nd out of 82 countries and was asked to open the national costume round. I also received a special spot on the Jon Secada Music video. Finally when I won Mrs. Sri Lanka in ‘99 I went on to win the 4th runner up at Mrs. World held in Jerusalem, Israel. The international travels and recognition I got representing my country is one of the most memorable moments in my life. I have been to 10 countries just representing my country as a Super Model and Beauty queen. Every time I wore the sash ‘Sri Lanka’ it gave me immense pride to be a Sri Lankan. All this was possible since I received the foundation from the fashion industry which paved the way for success in the other fields.
Bringing dreams to life!
by Zanita Careem
Q: When did you first realise you wanted to pursue a career as a jewellery designer?
I am an economics graduate and never really thought of diving into the jewellery business. However, I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. My parents were in the gem trade and I self-learned the different qualities of sapphires. We export superior, high-quality sapphires to the west, and I wanted to make these sapphires available to the locals – in the hope of designing their dream jewellery using these world-class gemstones. Thus, Aaraa and Aati was founded 4 years ago.
Q: Who are your biggest mentors in this industry and what is the best advice they have ever given you?
There have been many people who have helped me along the way and I am incredibly thankful for their support. But if I was to name an industry-level mentor, it would be none other than Naleem Hajjiar – with whom I had the fortune of spending some time during my childhood.
My Dad and Uncle regularly associated with Naleem Hajjiar and used to tell me loads of stories about him and about their experiences with him. I recall this one instance when I visited his house – he looked me in the eyes and said that there was something about me. And that has remained in my mind ever since! I always aspired to be like him! His high standard of ethics, honesty and integrity is something that I’ve always wanted to imitate. And I think that the best advice I’ve ever received from my mentors is to be honest in the trade; be ethical and make the customer your king.
Q: What was your biggest fear when starting a new jewellery piece to a customer?
Working with very high standards, the biggest challenge is to match reality with the concept given to us. Since we specialise in highly curated jewellery, it’s sometimes very challenging to bring someone’s dreams to life. But that is what makes us different, and that’s a challenge that we have been taking and have been successful in doing so.
Q: Have you ever dealt with a difficult customer?
Since we specialise in high-end, highly curated jewellery, every customer is aware of our standards and quality. It’s always lovely to work with the customers. The only difficulty we might face is in terms of their clarity i.e. if they aren’t aware of what they want for themselves. But that’s quite rare with our clientele.
Q: Who would you most likely see wearing your jewellery?
Our services are of the highest quality with the best value for money. Even on that level of standard, our products are very affordable. Our products are usually worn by married couples, corporate leaders, and mature jewellery masterpiece collectors.
Q: What are your unique designs? Where did you get your inspiration from?
We do not have readymade jewellery in the high-end category because we only focus on customised ones. But we have introduced a value-for-money collection called the Surf collection which features unique pendants using seashells. We have incorporated a sapphire – from the middle of the earth – within a sea shell – from the middle of the sea – and that, I believe, is really unique.
The inspiration behind the Surf collection was Sri Lanka and tourism because we are a lovely island with world-class beaches and I absolutely love the sun, sea and sand. Therefore, I wanted to create something for all the beach lovers out there.
Q: Which piece are you most proud of? Can you tell the story behind it?
The seashell pendants are what I am most proud of because it is unique – bringing two worlds together. Interestingly, the idea struck me when I was on holiday with my family in the southern coast of Sri Lanka. Walking along the beautiful beach, I noticed the lovely sea shells around me and was inspired to create beautiful jewellery with it. Adding sapphires to these gorgeous creations of nature make it even more special and rare.
Q: What qualities do you look for in the perfect pieces of jewellery?
It has to be handcrafted to the highest quality because there are machine-made goods that are selling for cheap. I’ve always appreciated handmade jewellery because it has the human touch. The rarity of the gemstone that goes in to your jewellery is another quality to look for. At Aaraa & Aati, all our high-end jewellery are handmade, and the gemstones are of international standard. Unlike most others, we do not try to save weight in a gemstone. Instead, our gemstones are well cut to bring out their spark.
Q: What’s your favourite piece of jewellery that you’ve made before and why?
Although we specialise in engagement rings, I have loved to make earrings with high quality gemstones – for the very reason that you need to find 2 pieces of gemstone similar in look and weight. And that’s pretty rare because gemstones are naturally occurring.
Q: What challenges do you face in your work?
One of the challenges that we face as an industry is getting high quality jewellery boxes manufactured in Sri Lanka. Not having a perfect box to showcase your jewellery after having done everything else perfectly is quite discouraging. I’m yet to find a high-quality, jewellery box producer. So if anyone reading this knows of someone who can be a perfect fit, please get in touch.
Another issue is that Sri Lanka does not position its gem and jewellery industry the way that other countries like Australia do. Australia has done an incredible job to promote its industry as ethical sourcing mines. Sri Lankan mines are ethical too but why aren’t we promoting it? We have to start collaborating with good PR firms to position our country as a source of ethical gemstone mining and trading. And that should be done immediately.
Q: Why only teal sapphire?
We deal in all kinds of sapphires but have been primarily exporting Teal to our customers. In my opinion, there are only 2 variants of sapphires where two colours mix well. One is the Padparadscha sapphire – a mixture of orange and pink, and the other is the Teal sapphire – a mixture of green and blue. No other two-coloured gemstone looks as good.
Q: Do u have more clients who choose teal sapphires?
Internationally, the teal sapphire is a huge trend. In Sri Lanka, the younger generation is increasingly opting for newer colours, having become bored of diamonds and blue sapphires. Thus, I see an upward trend in demand for teal sapphires in the future locally as well.
Breaking the Cloud Ceiling
Dushy Jayaweera, Managing Director, Acorn Aviation
by Zanita Careem
With today’s focus on International Women’s Day, there is no better time to discuss the current status of women in one of the most critical segments of the travel industry—Aviation.
Breaking the Cloud Ceiling and at the helm of Acorn Aviation is Dushy Jayaweera, a dynamic personality in the airline industry, with seventeen airline representations under her purview, across Sri Lanka and the two regional offices in the Maldives and Thailand. She has proven that leadership skills are not defined by gender, but instead by capability and commitment.
Tell us a little bit about your journey in the Airline industry?
I have always had a fascination for the airline industry from a very young age, when as a teenager I witnessed the process and checks for departing passengers at the airport and vowed that one day I would be able to go through those barriers with ease onto the other side. Years later I debated with the thought of joining the National Carrier as Cabin Crew to accomplish this but decided instead to join the General Sales Agency of a leading Airline at their City Office.
I have not looked back since then and 40 years later, I am still in the same industry with no regrets and where professionalism, passion, dedication, empathy and hard work was the only way to accomplish anything.
Due to the pandemic that took the world by surprise in early 2020, the Tourism and Aviation industry were the first to be impacted with a tremendous downturn in business. How did this impact your work?
The downside was that the airlines we represent temporarily stopped their flights to Sri Lanka, as our borders were initially closed for all incoming passengers. We had a staff cadre of over 50, with an organizational culture of being results-driven through professionalism, integrity, and innovation. I would say that the team was stretched to deliver results while adapting to the new norm including ‘Work from Home’. We are also blessed to have created a group of world class managers who are empowered to carry out their functions with clear guidance. Many options were looked at, with identified deliverables to tide us through these unprecedented times.
Our industry is volatile with many challenges coming our way daily. The team, motivated through their Managers, firmly believe that we cannot leave any stone unturned. Looking back at the past year, it is with pride that I could say that not only have we secured new representations, but we have also ensured that we looked at new business opportunities that had not been explored pre-pandemic.
In 2018, IATA reported that only 3% of the world’s top 100 airline groups have a female CEO, meaning a whopping 97% of airlines are led by men. Why are there so few women in management positions in the Airline industry?
Ours is a service industry, which means that we are on call 24/7. This is irrespective of grade or gender. It is not easy to have a work-life balance especially when you are a female. You need to make many sacrifices, as sometimes your work comes first. Secondly, you also need a very empathetic spouse who would support you to ensure that your children also learn to understand and appreciate the commitments their mother has in her workplace. Finally, you need a very supportive work environment on the part of the company, also giving you the space and flexibility you need when it comes to focusing on your family. This is a win-win combination that is not always present in every organization. I was blessed to have a combination of all, in order to get to where I am today.
What are some of the challenges you have faced working in the airline industry?
I usually enjoy the challenges that each day has to offer and take each one of them with the thrill of overcoming each with complete perfection or at least near perfection! Being a female in my position where I am required to be a role model has not always been easy. You need to make your voice heard at many forums, which could be male dominated. The pandemic has not been easy, due to the many challenges. The responsibility of heading a regional office in the Maldives and being on the board of a JV partnership in Thailand has also had its fair share of hurdles to overcome.
However, this industry gets to you and personally I tend to multi-task and have disciplined my thought process to always look for options and have a positive mindset as I take my responsibilities seriously.
What are some of the perks that come with working in an industry which is perceived as being extremely ‘glamorous’?
The industry has opened the doors for many opportunities at a global level, one of which is that I am a member of Skal International, which is an international organization of Travel and Tourism Professionals. Membership in the organization has been a rewarding experience as it gives you so many opportunities to interact with different nationalities across the globe. Being elected as a Director to the Asian Area Board which overlooks 44 clubs in the Asian region has enabled me to gain insights to the thinking of many like-minded professionals in the region.
Additionally, the multi-representation model we have created in our Company, also gives me a very rewarding experience of getting to meet and interact with Principals of varying cultures and business processes. In short, you are continuously learning, while having the opportunity to travel overseas and visiting many countries which adds onto your travel journal, enriches your personality and level of confidence.
Would you affirm the statement that ‘Diversity adds value’?
Employees will have different characteristics and backgrounds; they are also more likely to have a variety of different skills and experiences. The Aviation Industry, especially in the General Sales Agency business, keeps us on our toes as we need to be creative, be quick at problem solving and decision making, be innovative and have higher employee engagement and retention. I am a firm believer that this combination within the organization drives results as well as ensuring that the reputation of our company continues to grow.
How have you served as a role model for other women in business?
I have hopefully paved the way for women in leadership roles through my achievements in the various forums that I have associated myself. I was elected as the first female President of the Sri Lanka-Malaysia Business Council which was previously a thoroughly male dominated council. I was entrusted and empowered to lead this council which is under the aegis of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce. This breakthrough also ensured that my successor in this council was also a female. I was also the first female President of the Sri Lanka Travel Trade Sports Club comprising members of all the verticals of the Travel, Leisure and Aviation industries, which is undoubtedly a male dominated area. By breaking through these cloud ceilings, I have ensured that women would get the opportunity to continue to follow in my footsteps.
In addition, I am also a Past President of the Sri Lanka Association of Airline Representatives and Skal International Colombo. Being at the helm of the various associations and business councils in addition to my responsibilities in office and at home, is not an easy task, as this too adds to fine tuning one’s many multi-tasking skills that needs to be developed.
To say there is a scarcity of women in aviation would be an understatement. Yet, women have made some noteworthy and important strides in this arena as well, that are worth recognizing and Dushy is one such individual who has overcome the challenges and successfully broken the ‘cloud ceiling’
Leaving no woman behind
As International Women’s Day falls tomorrow (March 8), we spoke to several trendsetting women whose physical disabilities have not dampened their spirits but spurred them to overcome their challenges. These courageous women urge all fellow Lankan women to join hands with them in a journey of empowerment.
by Randima Attygalle
“I gained knowledge with my ‘Head’, skills with my ‘Hands’ and developed good attitudes with my ‘Heart”, says Manique Gunaratne, Manager, Specialized Training and Disability Resource Centre of the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon (EFC). The vision impaired internationally renowned advocate’s words echo poet Maya Angelou’s words of inspiration, ‘a wise woman wishes to be no one’s enemy; a wise woman refuses to be anyone’s victim.’ Manique who lost her vision in her late twenties to Retinitis Pigmentosa is today a committed leader improving the lives of persons with disabilities. A highly skilled ICT professional who trains people with disabilities to be IT- savvy, her efforts to enhance the quality of lives of such people have been recognized by various global platforms to be having a significant impact on inclusive economic development as well.
Driving the EFC’s Specialized Training and Disability Resource Centre which rests on the concept of ‘nothing about us without us,’ Manique translates it to all her efforts in empowering women and men with disabilities to be independent in society. “I’m really happy about who I am today. As a woman with a disability I was able to reach the top professionally. Today I’m committed to empower my fellow women, so that they can also enjoy a leadership role.”
Working strongly on the ‘5-Ds’ is her success, says Manique who urges all women to take a cue from her mantra to overcome challenges. “Dream- Desire- Determination-Dedication and Discipline’ can do wonders,” she reflects. Women without disability can play a huge role in joining hands with women with disability to become proactive partners of a journey together, she believes. “Always include women with disabilities in all your agendas because they are part of you.” She goes on to note that women with disabilities should also be included in all policy-making committees and task forces. “Even the National Committee for Women does not have a single woman with a disability. We need to change this trend,” she says.
Self pity is our worst enemy, and if we yield to it, we can never do anything wise in this world,
said Hellen Keller, the American author and disability rights activist. Inspired by these words, Vasantha Padmini from Ambalangoda has turned adversity into opportunity. Vision impaired from birth, Vasantha, 53, a mother of three, is a professional Hindi translator and a gifted musician. She has translated nearly 15 books of reputed Indian authors to Sinhala. A lover of Latha Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle and Mohammed Rafi, Vasantha sings and plays the violin.
With bare minimum resources both as a schoolgirl and later as an undergraduate at the Kelaniya University where she read Hindi, Sinhala and Translation Methods, Vasantha lobbies for wider study material in Braille both at school and university. “Every vision impaired person should be able to access all his/her subjects of choice in Braille,” says Vasantha recounting her student days experience of learning with the help of her mother and friends who used to read the notes out to her. Her determination to master Hindi at the university with just a handful of Braille material offers inspiration to many who would easily abandon their dreams.
Vasantha who became a visiting lecturer of Hindi at the Kelaniya University was fortunate to see her younger daughter following her footsteps. “Although I could not become a full-time lecturer due to my disability, my daughter completed my dream for me by becoming a Hindi lecturer. My elder daughter is a teacher and my son runs his own business,” beams Vasantha.
A woman who believes that learning transcends age, she is now learning the ropes of the ‘virtual world’. She is constantly updating her knowledge with the help of the on-line Braille material. “Keeping one’s mind engaged helps to overcome physical disability,” says this gritty woman who is working on several translations. She met her future husband when she was teaching music at the Batapola Central College and has proven herself a successful wife and a mother. Her husband and three children, all blessed with vision, make her world complete. “However, not everyone with a disability is as fortunate as I,” reflects this multi-talented woman who is vocal about the rights of the less fortunate. “Life is unpredictable, anyone can become disabled at any time, hence women without disability should be more sensitive to the needs of the disabled. What is required is not sympathy but empowerment so that their sisters could become equal partners contributing to national development.”
Time has certainly made watch-mending Nisha Shariff from Kandy a resilient woman. A wheelchair user, Nisha runs her watch repair business in the Kandy town. Having learned the trade at the Ragama Rehabilitation Centre, Nisha strives to share her knowledge by mentoring others. “There is still no other vocational centre which trains people to repair watches despite this being an essential service. If any such centre is willing to use my skills, I’ll be more than happy to share because this is a skill which can easily be acquired by especially those with disability,” smiles Nisha. She has her own loyal customers whose first impressions of her is quite amusing. “First question they ask me is where my husband is, assuming I’m only an assistant. When I say I have no husband and I run the shop, they are quite impressed,” she chuckles.
Having set up We for Rights, an organization dedicated to the cause of those with disabilities, Nisha’s ultimate dream is to see it expanding across the island. Having learnt the alphabet only at 18, she reads and writes Sinhala well. She is also fluent in Tamil. A woman ever willing to challenge herself, Nisha is self-studying English with the help of online teaching material. Her latest challenge is teaching watch mending to a young boy with an intellectual disability. “He has progressed considerably,” beams Nisha.
An activist who labours to galvanize like-minded men and women to empower those with disabilities and help them to stand on their own feet, Nisha is critical about discrimination at every level. “Very often women with disabilities are treated only as exhibits; policies are made for us without our voices being heard. It is very sad that even on Women’s Day, there is hardly national level representation of women in our predicament. We are confined largely to Social Services which should not be the case because we are active partners in the economy and our expertise should be made use of at every level.”
An accident in Germany where she worked 17 years ago paralyzed Nelum Perera. Wheelchair bound, she sought refuge in art. “I’ve always been good at drawing but I never pursued it seriously. It was only after my accident, and when I was 50, that I started learning art professionally,” recollects Nelum who works with both acrylic on canvas and water colours. Lack of disable-friendly toilet facilities is one of the main bottlenecks which prevents her from exhibiting her work at leading art exhibitions in the country. “I’m often pushed to become only a spectator at these exhibitions as there is no suitable infrastructure for people like us to sell our work at open fairs,” says Nelum. She also finds it difficult to source her art material due to high prices. “I’d be grateful to anyone who can visit me and purchase my work or help find potential buyers,” adds the artist.
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