The American Chamber of Commerce in Sri Lanka held a special webinar on 11 March, consulting two very unique women who have built careers for themselves in very different industries. The webinar, which celebrates little girls with big dreams, featured NASA and SpaceEx Engineer Melony Mahaarachchi and British Business Business Bank Chief Impact Officer Shanika Amarasekera MBE. The webinar was hosted in partnership with Dilmah Tea and @LSEG in Sri Lanka.
Melony Mahaarachchi is a US-based mechanic and robotics engineer and a leader in the aerospace technology industry. She was the lead mechanical engineer for the Mars Perseverance rover which landed on Mars a few days ago. Mahaarachchi is also a Founding Partner of Cambridge Global Ventures INC and the Founder and CEO of iSTEM Without Borders, a non-profit dedicated to helping women thrive in STEM careers.
Shanika Amarasekera is a lawyer and banker based in the UK and was recently recognised for her contributions to British business and the economy by HM Queen Elizabeth II and was awarded an MBE in 2020. As the Chief Impact Officer of the British Business Bank, Amarasekera worked tirelessly during the peak of the pandemic to successfully launch the Future Fund scheme to support innovative companies with potential who rely on equity investment and were suffering. Outside of work, Amarasekera is a Non-Executive Director of Queen Elizabeth Park and at London Stadium. She was listed in EMpower’s Top 100 Ethnic Minority Role Model List in 2019.
Here are some of the key topics these two remarkable women discussed.
Coming into their own and building their careers
Mahaarachchi and Amarasekera spoke about how they found themselves in the roles that they have come to take on.
Mahaarachchi shared that she had a very “Aha!” moment soon after she moved to the US in 2004 when she visited the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History with her husband and children. On this visit, she watched a short documentary about the rover that had just landed on Mars at the time, and found it inspiring, especially at the end of the documentary when the audience stood up and cheered because it filled her with a sense of patriotism. Mahaarachchi immediately pictured herself being in a similar documentary and knew at that point that she wanted to be in the Mars programme and work at NASA.
Mahaarachchi humorously shared that if she hadn’t been inspired at the Smithsonian that day, she would have likely gone on to pursue becoming a beautician, having certified in the subject by Janet Balasuriya prior to leaving Sri Lanka.
Showing that magical moments of clarity do not always guide you on your path in life, Amarasekera shared that her journey was more incremental as opposed to an “Aha!” moment with her biggest nightmare being a “proper” job where you shuffled papers around all day. Eventually, Amarasekera realised that, in her work, she wanted to solve problems and create impact and interact with people, which led to a few career changes culminating in her position at the British Business Bank where she was Head of Legal before becoming Chief Impact Officer.
After a change in Chief Operating Officer, she was asked what interested her beyond simply being Head of Legal and given the chance to design her own role that brought in things like strategy, public affairs, sustainability, and environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG). Her desire for her and the British Business Bank to have an impact on people and the planet led to the creation of the role of Chief Impact Officer.
Dealing with stereotypes at work and in life
Being in careers traditionally dominated by men in countries where they are very much an ethnic minority, both Mahaarachci and Amarasekera explained that they had dealt with their fair share of being stereotyped.
Amarasekera shared that, in her view, stereotypes are part of human nature because humans are programmed to work with those who have similar backgrounds and thought processes, and all face their own individual experiences that form their own individual biases.
Mahaarachchi also shared that stereotypes, particularly at work, have to do with people being unfamiliar with strong women role models who are unfamiliar with what women are capable of. Stressing that her personality, by nature, was not geared towards being a leader or taking charge, Mahaarachchi shared that she has, on occasion, been dragged into situations and projects on the assumption that she could be easily manoeuvred, and has had to resolve such situations firmly but diplomatically.
Speaking of her experiences, Amarasekera shared that boundaries exist everywhere and yet can be broken everywhere through empathy and understanding the context of the people you’re dealing with, adding that once this empathy and understanding takes place, boundaries tend to disappear.
Balancing the different and numerous roles of being a woman
As women, both Mahaarachchi and Amarasekera have had to juggle many different roles while building their careers, and they both stressed that it was important to find and build a network and support system to help ease the load.
Mahaarachchi explained that when she first moved to the US, she made an active effort to connect with her neighbours, some of whom had lived in the same neighbourhood for years but never interacted with each other. Using Sri Lankan hospitality (and Sri Lankan cuisine), she fostered a support system and network through neighbourhood activities like street barbeques. Mahaarachchi also stressed the importance of finding the right partner, explaining that when you build your career, your partner is the first person to be directly affected, and their support is crucial for success.
Amarasekera shared that in order to balance the different roles expected of a woman successfully, you need to know yourself and not feel dictated to or limited by what others expect of you. She also stressed the importance of saying no, even to little things.
Amarasekera also shared that is always okay for one to change their path mid-flight, and it is very important not to stereotype themselves, and in doing so, limit themselves, but that when changing paths, one must do so wisely and look at the skills they already have that are transferable and what skills they need to change their path.
Through the Looking Glass can be watched in its entirety on the American Chamber of Commerce in Sri Lanka’s Facebook page