Sri Lanka’s workforce is heavily dominated by men. According to the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, only 37% of Sri Lanka’s womenfolk are actually contributing to the labour force. In a country with a workforce of only 8.5 million people, encouraging more women to contribute to the economy can go a long way towards helping the economy grow.
With this objective in mind, Facebook launched an initiative in 2017 to encourage more and more women to take up entrepreneurship. After its first pilot in India, the company has now expanded the program to include Sri Lanka.
We were introduced to the program at the #SheMeansBusiness panel discussion, which was held as part of the launch of Hatch, Colombo’s newest startup hub/ incubator/ co-working space.
Conducted by Facebook, the panel featured Satyajeet Singh, Facebook’s Head of Platform Partnerships for India and South Asia, and Nisha Tillas, the co-founder of RytTrak Solutions, which is a full-service digital marketing agency based in Sri Lanka. The panel was ably moderated by Sachindra Samararatne of the Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA), Sri Lanka.
Opening the discussion, Singh spoke about what Facebook learnt during the pilot phase of the program in India. The objective of the program, at a broader level, is to help create a community where budding women entrepreneurs can receive all the help they need to succeed. Facebook contributes by helping to bring community members together through events, groups, and meetups. The company also provides these entrepreneurs with the education necessary to make sense of digital tools and services that are available to help expand their business.
Singh admitted that at first, they did not know what success would look like for this kind of initiative. However, the program soon grew to 100 startups within its first year, progressed to 250, and now has 500 small businesses in India alone. Singh’s team then decided to roll out the program to Sri Lanka.
In Sri Lanka, Facebook has conducted events and training sessions across the country (including in places such as Matara and Jaffna), in order to primarily help a large number of small-scale women entrepreneurs grow their businesses.
We have summarised the advice the panellists shared which would help other entrepreneurs.
Women Entrepreneurs Need Encouragement
Encouragement was one of the most important insights that emerged out of the discussion. Sometimes, women entrepreneurs have to overcome a lot more obstacles like work-life balance, societal roles and norms when compared to their male counterparts. When faced with all this, it is easy to get discouraged.
Hence, a good support system is essential. However, building one is much easier said than done, and you need to pay careful attention to the process itself. Tillas told us that “one good way to identify who belongs in your support system is to pick those whom you trust and also at the same time, challenge your thinking and help you to grow”
Head In The Clouds, But Feet On The Ground
“While you must never be afraid to dream big, it is also important that you stay in touch with reality, and find practical solutions to problems” emphasised Tillas. This was backed by Singh, who also added that one needs to be mentally flexible in order to grab new opportunities that come our way. Sometimes, those opportunities may not be in line with the initial goals, but the trick is to be able to do a quick cost-benefit analysis, and deciding whether to take the opportunity or not. According to Singh, that is what entrepreneurship is.
Sri Lanka Has A Long Way To Go
As the session proceeded, the discussion centered around what could be done to make the local entrepreneurship ecosystem more conducive for women. Whilst there were a plethora of ideas exchanged, one notable thing we learned was that mentorship opportunities and availability of funds are generally lower for women founders in the South Asian region. Drawing from his experience in India, Singh said, sometimes venture capitalists tend to have second thoughts on otherwise viable business ideas purely because of entrenched gender biases. Whilst this situation cannot be turned around overnight, there is potential to make things better, step by step.
Tillas spoke about how workplaces in Sri Lanka are not very ‘parent-friendly’, which drives women to sometimes quit the workforce altogether in order to attend to their kids. In contrast, parents in developed countries can make use of on-premise day care facilities, flexi-hours, and other facilities made available to parents, to balance both their careers and parental obligations.
And finally, both panellists agreed on the need to embrace diversity in all aspects, which will help create a much more vibrant culture that is more accepting and empathetic. And that is what Sri Lanka probably needs too.