The Cargills International Women’s Day Festival – The Change Makers, presented by Table by Taru and Kaleidoscope with Savithri Rodrigo and partnered by United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), successfully completed the second session on 8 March in commemoration of International Women’s Day.
Day two featured women who have chosen to challenge conventional career paths and now lead their disciplines with tenacity and purpose.
Introducing the panellists for the evening, host Savithri Rodrigo said: “Nobody ever understands what a pioneer is doing until it’s done. The criticisms are many and the path is rough, and only those travelling that path will actually know why the world is replete with women pioneers who have paved themselves a very rough road to travel.”
The panellists featured were pioneers in their respective industries who have travelled a rough path to make it. Triad Joint Managing Director Varuni Amunugama Fernando, Hemas Holdings Group CEO Kasturi Chellarajah Wilson, and Sri Lanka’s first hip hop artiste Ashanthi de Alwis were the esteemed panellists for the event.
Now is the time to encourage women: Kasturi Chellaraja Wilson
To start off, Rodrigo questioned the panellists if they ever felt like they were carving history when they first embarked on their journey.
Wison commented: “I never looked at myself as a career person. When I ventured down that road, it was not a first for me, but it was simply me doing my job. When I was given the CEO position, I was more stressed about how I could do my job versus how the world perceived me.”
She said she never saw the impact she made on the country, but what kept her going was the younger generation who ensured to remind her that she gave them hope for a better future.
In the world, there is an argument of whether it is necessary to add the word “female” into a title. As the first female CEO of Hemas, Wilson commented: “When there were less women exploring the unknown territory and achieving certain things, then people just wanted to voice out that a woman had achieved something significant. But what actually happened was that women were profiled not for their abilities, but for their gender.”
She added that now is the time we encourage women’s leadership opportunities and highlight the qualities, drive, and skills women bring to the table.
Wilson, along with juggling her duties as a CEO, is also a single mom. Talking about her experience, she added: “The good thing about it is that I don’t have to answer to anyone but my kids. I control my time; it’s split between my work and my children.”
She also said that many husbands tend to disregard their wives’ issues, saying it’s their problem to deal with. So as a single mom, that kind of negativity is not something Wilson has had to deal with, although she added that making all the decisions in the family is a very mentally taxing task.
However, she added: “I believe in romance; I believe in the constitution of marriage; I believe that once you’ve established a good dialogue and communication, you can build a partnership with the right person.”
I wanted to build a dream: Varuni Amunugama Fernando
Making a statement, Fernando said: “I have a background of working with egoistic men; I worked with a father who has a huge ego; I’m married to someone with a lesser ego, but ego nonetheless; and my partner in business has a massive ego. With all of that, I learned that there are so many things a man can do, and there are many more things a woman can do. The hand that rocks the cradle can rule with a first of iron with a velvet glove.”
She observed that women have more passion and empathy, and a soft skill is what we bring to the table.
Elaborating on why she decided on the field of advertising as a career, Fernando stated: “I realised that communication was one way to really change the mindsets of Sri Lankans. I wanted to change the perception of ourselves, the community, and the country.”
Talking about the change she made in advertising, she commented that at the time, she saw a gap in the industry for an indigenous communications company. “We wanted local brands to understand that their manufacturing was perfect and products were superb, but they’re not building the dream, which is what we wanted to help them with.”
I wanted to get my voice out there: Ashanti de Alwis
Ashanti de Alwis, who is now an internationally recognised artist, commented that when she started out, she didn’t feel like she was doing anything special. “All I knew was that I had a passion for music and I wanted to get my voice out there and create my own sound,” and for her, it was about her drive and passion for the arts.
She said that when she started out, her role models were male, Bathiya and Santhush, adding: “I saw the way they conducted themselves and the way they spoke to writers and creatives, and thought that I could do that too.”
Her journey was not easy; as a female artist, she wasn’t taken seriously, even with the support she had growing up. It took her years of hard work and dedication to climb up the ladder and make her way to the top.
At the discussion, she also touched on the topic of bullying and harassment, revealing that 10 years ago, she had a stalker who pushed her to the point of reaching out to the authorities because she never felt safe. As a female musician, these are risks they have to undergo to make a name for themselves in a very cut-throat industry.
De Alwis explained that she was awarded a grant to create content for women and girls, and while thinking of a concept, she realised that suicide and depression rates in Sri Lanka are some of the highest in South Asia. “I tried to analyse why that was and created my new concept from there. That is when I began creating socially conscious music.”
She further revealed that her next music video will be on intimate partner violence and will be coming out soon, adding that when she immerses herself in music, it comes from a place that is very personal. “For this project, I went and spoke to the counsellors at Women in Need and was horrified to hear some of the stories. After a lot of research, I will join hands with the UNFPA and launch this song soon.”
PHOTOS SAMAN ABESIRIWARDANA