At the youth session of the Sri Lanka Economic Forum held last Friday, timely and mindful exchanges took place between the panel and two Harvard alumni on the areas of local entrepreneurial support and brain gain. The panel included Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Nobel Laureate Prof. Stiglitz and Deputy Foreign Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva. Drawing on his professional experience, Jayamin Pelpola (Harvard Business School alumni and a venture capitalist investing in the Silicon Valley and South Asia) questioned what plans the government has in building a comprehensive framework to develop the entrepreneurial and new venture start-up ecosystem in Sri Lanka.
Responding to this, Deputy Minister de Silva, a trained economist, said the support mechanism for new venture start-ups is still underdeveloped and their access to financing is severely restricted. He further added that the government has a role in addressing these gaps with small but relevant steps being taken in the 2016 Budget. Commenting on Sri Lanka’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, Palpola added, “In Sri Lanka, we have good young talent. In the Silicon Valley sometimes we see a bit of what you call ‘too much money chasing too little value’. That’s because some ideas are globally scalable and their IP is protected. We can channel these financial flows to Sri Lanka’s entrepreneurial ecosystem if we work on three things – firstly, transfer the skills, networks and education of our diaspora, secondly, improve our IP protection, thirdly, be more tolerant of failure and risk especially when you engage smart young people.” Responding to Palpola’s question on what technologies and new developments should Sri Lanka prioritize, Prof. Stiglitz suggested that Sri Lanka should focus on improving access to education through technology. He cited the success of massive open online courses (MOOCs) in both the developed and developing countries. Pelpola added, “Using technology in education is an area we lag significantly, even compared to the rest of emerging nations. MOOCs for example, bypass the need for huge capital expenditure while distributing knowledge to the masses, as opposed to moving masses towards the centres of education. We can draw from these learnings in enhancing the delivery of our education.” Drawing on her personal experiences, Pushpi Weerakoon questioned the lack of a proper mechanism to effectively integrate foreign educated graduates into the workforce, going beyond personal and professional connections. As Prof. Stiglitz agreed on the importance of such a mechanism, to drive the point home she described the challenges she navigated in finding a suitable role that utilizes her skills upon return. Weerakoon, a student and personal advisee of Prof. Ricardo Hausmann, graduated in May 2015 with a Masters in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) as the prestigious Edith Stokey Scholar and Mason Fellow. Presently she is the head of Projects at American Chamber of Commerce. Weerakoon added, “Part of the broader solution could be an online centralized registry at the President’s or Prime Minister’s office to which the individuals returning could feed information. Our foreign missions could also take a greater interest in the Sri Lankans educated abroad and have an in-house collections point abroad, which feeds into this centralized system. This registry should be accessible by the public and private sector. To retain high-skilled foreign educates, the government will have to establish a strong investment climate, adequate compensation and opportunities in the public sector. Even though financial incentives are important, that itself will not encourage returns. There will have to be coherent research policies formulated, strong public-private linkages and competitive funding for innovation.
Incentives offered in other countries in addition to recognition and appreciation include favourable tax treatment of returning human and financial capital, land grants to set up new companies and temporary performance subsidies. We could take guidance from the policies in Latin America, including Mexico’s CONACYT and Colombia’s COLFUTURO programmes.”
Furthermore, she commented, “Having said this, we should be also mindful that many of us are recruited by multinational companies even before our graduation ceremony, since they visit the universities to catch the best brains early. But this does not mean our country should miss out on foreign domiciled knowledge, technology or finance. If the government establishes a system conducive for diaspora based on good relations, better facilitative environment, greater utilization and appreciation for their services, we could make use of the brain mobility as brain gain rather than a drain as countries such as Taiwan, Israel, India, China and Chile have done.”
It was refreshing to see the youth engage candidly with the panel and share their innovative ideas taking a stake in the country’s development.