Tue, 22 Jun 2021 Today's Paper

Kasturi Chellaraja

20 March 2021 06:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}



She is the first female Group CEO of a Public Quoted Conglomerate in Sri Lanka and the recipient of the Trailblazer of the Year Award 2021 by Women in Management (Sri Lanka).  In 2019, she was recognised as one of the twelve 'Top Women Change-Makers in the Country' by the Parliament of Sri Lanka and USAID. She is the first female to be elected as President of the Sri Lanka Chamber of the Pharmaceutical Industry (SLCPI) and is an Executive Director of HEMAS Holdings PLC. She was the Former Managing Director of HEMAS Pharmaceutical (PVT) LTD, HEMAS Surgical and Diagnostics (PVT) LTD, HEMAS Transportation (PVT) Ltd and the HEMAS Maritime Cluster. She is a Non-Executive Director of HEMAS Consumer Brands (PVT) Ltd and is a main Committee Member of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce. She is also a Member of the Sub-Committee on Economic, Fiscal and Policy Planning of the Ceylon Chamber Commerce, and she also served as a Member of the National Agenda Committee for Logistics and Maritime of the Chamber. She is a Non-Executive Director of Capital Alliance Limited and a Non-Executive Director of Morison PLC. She was also a Non-Executive Director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Sri Lanka, and a Non-Executive Director of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA), Sri Lanka. 

She started her career in 1987 as an Audit Trainee at Someswaran Jayewickreme & Co. and was shortly after appointed as an Audit Manager in 1989 and as Director Consulting in 1993. She was the Financial Controller for Aramex Airborne Lanka from 1998 to 2001 and the Financial Controller for Confifi Group from 2001 to 2002. She joined HEMAS Holdings PLC in 2002 as General Manager – Finance, for HemTours and shortly after, was appointed as Director Finance. She went on to be appointed as the Head of Shared Services in 2005 and Chief Process Officer in 2007 for HEMAS Holdings PLC. 

An alumna of Holy Family Convent, Colombo, she successfully completed the Senior Executive Leadership Program at Harvard Business School in 2018. A Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA), she was the Captain of the National Basketball team in 1989 and was also a Member of the National Netball Team. She is a Member of the National Sports Council and she was the recipient of the Career Role Model: Woman of the Year Award in 2013 by Women in Management, Sri Lanka and IFS; member of the World Bank Group. She was the recipient of the Women Super Achiever Award 2013 at The World Women Leadership Congress Awards, India, and she was ranked in the Top 50 Business People A-List in 2018 and 2019. A single-mother, both her sons, Ashvindh and Amrith, now live and work in Melbourne, having graduated from prestigious universities in Australia. 

With her never say no attitude, she continues to shatter the glass-ceiling in Sri Lanka. A sports and wellness enthusiast, her day begins at 5:00am with a strenuous one-hour workout followed by a quick stop at the Church, prior to commencing her day at office at 8:00am. Despite her hectic schedule she still finds time every week to feed one hundred under-privileged citizens living on the streets of Colombo, and to also feed her beloved street pooches living in and around Independence Square, Colombo. She still plays Netball, practices Yoga, and has started surfing in Weligama at the age of fifty-two. She finds time every week for an hour to mentor Young Professionals and University students. 

‘She Can’ and she is the definition of an empowered, courageous, kind, compassionate, empathetic Power Woman. She has a magnetic personality and she is undoubtedly the Sri Lankan Trailblazer of the Decade.  If there is anyone ‘that can’ it is her; Kasturi Chellaraja.


1.What are the most important attributes of successful leaders today? (1) Being open to learn constantly. (2) Have a vision of what you want to leave behind as a legacy and work on shaping it. (3) The ability to listen and hear.

2.Where do you see the company in the next five years under your leadership and guidance? My vision for HEMAS is for the Group to be a local company which has a global mindset, and where we create products and services which bring joy to families living in Sri Lanka and the region, driven by a workforce who are passionate and bold.


3.How did you move forward when everyone kept telling you that your suggestions or ideas won't work? I’m sure at one point during your career your ideas would have been shot down? Sometimes it’s natural for people to say an idea won’t work because we all have preconceived notions that there is a way of doing things.  For me, the only way I push through is because I feel that every problem has a solution.  I have always been bold enough to try things that traditionally someone else would not try, whether it’s closing a deal or solving a problem. It could purely be because I believe the dots don’t always line up the way you envisage it, but it gets connected as you go down the road, and I am willing to navigate and change accordingly. So, when people do pushback, in my younger days, I would have been hot-headed and stubborn and would have said I am going ahead anyway and would do it, and if things had gone wrong apologized for it later.  But now that I am older and mature, I take time to explain the approach as the intention is to get everyone on the same page. 


One mistake you have made in life?
Plenty. I think I have made more mistakes than right ones and I have learnt from each of them.

4.How did you reach your level of success, given the sector's gender gap, especially among leadership? For me level of success is something which I define to myself internally versus a title. Each role I took on was challenging, and it kind of switched on a light within me that allowed me to understand what skill I needed to put in to do my job within that challenging environment. I always see what I can offer versus worrying too much about what has been done before. As you get into a role it’s natural to initially worry how you would fit into that previous person’s shoes.  It’s a fine balance between doing more of the same or changing everything and finding faults with what the other person did. I always take time to study what has been done before and hold onto what is good. It takes a person who is bigger to hold onto the good practices and processes left by the predecessor. You have to be confident and stop trying to be somebody else. 


5.Do you ever think – “Am I crazy?" All the time. I think I was crazy when I took my first job as an Auditor when I was thinking of being an Engineer. I was crazy when I wanted to give up work when I became a mum. Thank god I had a sane boss who hammered some sanity into my head. I was crazy to take on the CIO role when I was an Accountant. Was I crazy that I kept saying I was a mother first when I was in a corporate world? How would it have look to the others? Was I adding fuel into the maternal bias story? Because I was a mother first, was the world perceiving my commitment to my job less? 

Was I crazy to go backpacking in Norway, sleep in a tent in the freezing cold? Sometimes when you make those decisions you don’t know what you learn out of it, you simply have the chance to open your horizons. 


If you could go back and tell yourself one thing before beginning your career what would it be?
In the beginning there were many moments that I sat and cried alone and felt despair. I would go and give that young girl a hug and say that everything will be ok and things will work out.


6.How do you differentiate yourself? I am always true to myself. I am aware of all my derailers, I am too straight, I get annoyed when people are inefficient and dishonest, and I am not shy to show my soft side.  I own my complete package. It is not something that people associate with when it comes to a persona of a leader.  However, what differentiates me is I have made so many mistakes and I own those mistakes. I am not shy about it.  I feel usually people are scared that society will judge them, so you portray yourself as how you think they would want to see you versus portraying yourself as who you are. 


7.What is your 'why?’ During my life the ‘why’ has been changing. As a kid, why I got qualified is because I needed to please my mum so she would give me permission to play basketball, and represent Sri Lanka. Why I didn’t want a career is because I wanted to be there for my kids and enjoy those moments with them. Later on, ‘why’ I wanted a career was to be able to provide a better life for my kids. And now once again the ‘why’ is different. Over the years, I have been pushing myself, and I have grown and learnt to give up biases I have inherited or have been forced on me. I have been able to spread my wings because HEMAS gave me a culture and an environment which was gender blind. The reason I come to work is because I think this is my home, as a person I want to be better every day, and I want HEMAS to grow.


8.Who do you look up to for inspiration or mentorship? My mother, Marina. She was from a generation before women were celebrated, yet she did three jobs to provide for her family and was the best master chef in town. She made a lot of sacrifices and took on a lot because she wanted to educate my sister and I. She always told us to focus on our studies, school, and sports. I am inspired by her strength and I feel she is stronger than me, and she taught me that if you dig deep enough you can achieve anything. I have seen her pawn all her gold bangles just to put food on the table and she never complained, for her it was another day in her life because she had two kids to bring up. I also get inspired by people who touch humanity; Mother Theresa was one. I look at people who give selflessly and impact the less fortunate.  I get inspired by the sacrifices they make and how they take the time to do things that matter to others. In terms of mentoring, I reach out for advice from a lot of my colleagues in different areas who have reached their own successes. As a practice I do ask for advice and seek out for alternate opinions. 


9.What is one decision you wish you didn't make? I think the fact that I took Amma’s advice too much to heart and didn’t learn to cook. She always told me not to be a slave to the kitchen and I took that very literally and didn’t sight the kitchen. I now encourage my sons to learn how to cook.  

10.Your biggest regret?  I could not tell my father I loved him. Growing up, our family dynamic was such that while I respected and loved him as a daughter, I could not have that feeling of closeness or warmth towards him. This meant I never told him that I loved him.  Also, there is one more thing which is not necessarily a regret; my kids are now adults and are away, looking back I wish I had more moments with them when they were growing up. 


11.One mistake you have made in life? Plenty. I think I have made more mistakes than right ones and I have learnt from each of it. 


12.How do you keep your team motivated despite conflicts and obstacles? First, I need to be motivated, thereafter it’s about giving the team a higher purpose which is more than the conflicts and obstacles that will bind them together as a team. I believe alternative viewpoints are a healthy sign of a diverse team. 


13.What has been the highlight of your career so far? It was a deal in maritime, where we were the underdogs. There was so much external interference from people of influence that finally my boss told me I was free to back off if I was not comfortable. There was a team of four who were not willing to give up on something we clearly felt passionate about. 


14.If you could go back and tell yourself one thing before beginning your career what would it be?  In the beginning there were many moments that I sat and cried alone and felt despair. I would go and give that young girl a hug and say that everything will be ok and things will work out.


15.What was the biggest rookie mistake you made when just starting out? When I joined HEMAS there was a culture of addressing the CEO as Mr. Hussein. I didn’t realize this and went and called him by his name, Hussein, and the others were very shocked by this.  However, Hussein took that as an opportunity to get everyone to drop the Mr. title.


16.Where do you see yourself ten years from now? I would still be working somewhere, but I will be one of those crazy ones pushing myself to explore the world and doing things I have always wanted to do, but have not done. Be it surfing or rock climbing. I can also see myself mentoring young ones and working with different universities, and maybe being a grandmother. No pressure on my kids. 


17.Share with us a secret no-one else knows? My close friends know everything about me. I am a very spiritual person and I go to church every day. Also, I can be crazy and do a really funny dance I call the ‘Kadana dance.’


18.How do you stay motivated 24/7, 365 days a year? I have learnt to understand what makes me happy, and I focus on those, a big part of my happiness and fulfilment is being able to help others. I guess learning the art of feeling fulfilled is important.


19.How did you balance being a mother and professional? What have you sacrificed (both personally and professionally) at each stage of your career? I have never claimed to have balances being a single mother and a professional, as I have never done it. It was the perfect imbalance. I think the biggest sacrifice is what my kids made. They had to get used to not having a mom around at times when they needed me. They had to grow up to understand that they sometimes had to go to the doctor alone because their mother was not there. I think they sacrificed more than me. I think what really matters was that we communicated, and they understood why it happened.  They are great human beings, and somehow, I know I did something right.


20.What is the best and worst decision you've ever made? The worst decision I made was in one of my hot-headed moments, I told my bosses off and walked out of a job. The reason I did a job was to provide for my kids and my parents, and I walked out of a job without having another one. However, it turned out to be the best decision I made because soon after I joined HEMAS.


21.What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership? Having self-belief and the courage to push through the biases people have formed. 


22.What woman inspires you and why? Sulochana Segera, Chairperson of Women in Management (WIM). In 2010, she founded WIM as she wanted to make a difference and started working with the grassroot levels. Each of us came into the limelight because of her, we have all been in the corporate sector, but nobody actually went out of their way to showcase and highlight professional and career women. What is inspiring is that she did it for others and not for herself. She has an amazing personality, she is straight, humorous and owns her skin very well. 


23.What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you? Women nowadays want more for themselves, and that is a good thing. The challenge will be how do they get their partners, families and eco-system to support them so they could balance their life. There is a challenge for each of us who have sons, we have to bring them up to be equal partners in a marriage. 


24.How do you want to be remembered one day? When I am buried, I would want people to say that I impacted them in a positive way. I want to be remembered as a person who tried to touch many people, not my title. 


25.What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders? There will be many moments in your life where you will fall or you will be pushed back. If you wish, take the time to complain, feel sorry for yourself, and mourn. But you have to pick yourself up and continue as your future is more than that moment. Every time you fall, remember that there is a reason. It’s the universe telling you that there is an alternate way, so find your light and move forward. 


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