She is the Founder and Former Managing Director of interior design company, Westgate International. Since its inception, thirty-five years ago, she has transformed the company into a thriving business that generates over Rs. 700 million per year, and employs more than one hundred talented individuals. She launched her company at the age of twenty-four, with a team of ten employees, and initially only manufactured kitchen units. Today, Westgate has its own integrated state-of-the-art factory in Panadura, where they manufacture all the designs conceptualized by their in-house team of designers.
Educated at Visakha Vidyalaya, Colombo, she started her career training to be an Accountant. Whilst studying as an Undergraduate at the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (UK), she switched professions, and has never looked back. She subsequently, completed her tertiary education at the Ashridge Business School in UK. She is the Co-Founder of Gandhara, an up-market lifestyle store. She is the Co-Founder of Villa Republic, an upscale chain of boutique villas spread across the island. She is mother to two successful daughters; Shahili Gomes-McCoy, Founder of The Design Collective Store, and Elisha Gomes, Director – Strategic Planning, Westgate International.
My guest this week is an inimitable Power Woman. She is creative, innovative and is someone who constantly thinks out of the box. She does things her way, in her own time, in her own style. She is authentic, genuine and persistent; attributes she has inculcated in both her daughters too. ‘She Can’ and she continues to push boundaries in the creative and design industry in Sri Lanka; Dehara Gomes.
(1)What are the most important attributes of successful leaders today? A successful leader needs integrity, empathy, and resilience. On a practical level, they also need to be willing to take responsibility for their actions, set an example and inspire those around them by taking the initiative. An important part of being a leader is recognizing when to step aside and pass the baton on to the next generation; something that is familiar to me as I recently brought my daughter, Elisha, on board to lead Westgate into its next era.
(2)Where do you see Westgate in the next five years under Elisha’s leadership and guidance? Under Elisha’s leadership and guidance I think Westgate shall go from strength to strength. Having achieved a first-class degree at Manchester University Business School then a first-class Master’s from Imperial College Business School (UK), Elisha was well-equipped to join the Westgate team three years ago. Since then she has been instrumental in the company’s growth. It was a steep learning curve, but under my stewardship she has hit the ground running and I have every faith in her ability to push the company to new heights. She is young, ambitious, and very bright. Had she not been, I would not have been comfortable handing over a Rs. 700 million business that has been successful for over thirty years.
(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? When I first started my business, it was sometimes challenging because I tended to see things from an Accountant’s point of view and was often driven primarily by cost management and cash flow concerns rather than pure design aesthetics. Ultimately, I think my accountancy background helped me, as it enabled the design team and I to work together on finding solutions that were nice to look at, functional, and (critically for the client) cost-effective. This, in turn, drove our turnover year on year.
(4)How did you reach your level of success, given the country’s gender gap, especially among leadership? Sadly, the gender gap persists, but I am hopeful that things are changing, albeit not as quickly as I would like. It has not always been easy working in the largely male-dominated corporate world; however, I think I have been lucky enough to meet supportive men, including my husband, Dian, who has encouraged me to achieve independence in business. I think my success has been driven mainly by two things: my independence and my desire to build a business for my daughters.
(5)Do you ever think – “Am I crazy?" Not often, at least not as far as my business is concerned. I had a vision to create one of the leading interior construction companies in the country that I could one day pass on to my daughters. I did not think of it as a crazy ambition then, nor do I think so now, especially since I have achieved it.
(6)How do you differentiate yourself? I differentiate myself by seeking to understand the client’s needs at the outset, checking their needs as the projects develops (because needs change) and seeking to deliver on the promise. The importance of understanding the client’s vision cannot be underestimated when it comes to interiors.
(7)What is your 'why?’ To create something for my daughters, Shahili and Elisha.
Elisha, Dian, Shahili and Dehara
(8)Who do you look up to for inspiration or mentorship? Whilst I hope in some small way to have inspired my daughters, they have certainly inspired me; through them I have had the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of a younger person, for which I am grateful.
(9)What is one decision you wish you didn't make? I wish I had been more forthright in branding Westgate as a market-leader in the industry earlier on in my career. I wish I hadn’t waited until thirty years in to make that statement! It was true a long time ago.
(10)Your biggest regret? I regret not making Westgate a household name, but I am confident that Elisha will succeed in this.
(11)One mistake you have made in life? One mistake I made was not realizing the potential in the export market sooner.
(12)How do you keep your team motivated despite conflicts and obstacles? I always tried to motivate my team in two ways: leading by example and mutual respect. In practical terms, I sought to provide fair remuneration, facilitate family time (particularly important for workers living away from their children) and encourage a two-way dialogue between team-members and management. Many members of the team have been with Westgate for over twenty years, and I would hope to have made a positive difference to their lives during that time. Certainly, I am grateful to them for their contribution.
(13)What has been the highlight of your career so far? Without doubt, the highlight of my career so far was handing the leadership of Westgate to Elisha at its peak. I started the business thirty years ago with the intention of creating something for my daughters. Being able to exit the company and leave Elisha in-charge, whilst confident in the company’s future success, was a very humbling experience.
(14)If you could go back and tell yourself one thing before beginning your career what would it be? I would take greater risks early on, not depend so much on organic growth and seek strategic partnerships and investments sooner.
(15)What was the biggest rookie mistake you made when just starting out? I should have recognized the need to recruit professionals for different disciplines (i.e. finance, marketing and innovation) much earlier in my career. Instead, for the first few years I hired people wearing multiple hats. In my experience, this rarely pays off.
(16)Where do you see yourself ten years from now? I am now semi-retired, and both my daughters are taking over the family businesses; Westgate, Gandhara, Gandhara Investments and Villa Republic. Of course, I still support them and offer advice from time to time, but as the years go by, they will require less guidance. Ten years from now I shall be travelling the world with Dian and enjoying our well-earned retirement. I have my first grandchild on the way, but ten years from now I would hope to have a few more.
(17)How do you stay motivated 24/7, 365 days a year? I travel (when possible), spend time with my daughters, socialize with friends and family. Also, I go to the gym. Exercise is very important to me!
(18)How did you balance being a mother and a professional? What have you sacrificed (both personally and professionally) at each stage of your career? For me it has always been my family first, my business second. Growth of the business was sacrificed initially as I had to nurture two young toddlers in the house. I dedicated a lot of time to raising my daughters, supporting them through school and sporting endeavors. I also supported my husband throughout his career at MAS Holdings and, later, Hela. Given his involvement in sports and business, I had to travel with him and support him to sustain his growth. Somehow, I found a balance. I think my business would have been more successful had I had more time to focus on it, but I do not regret the decisions I made.
(19)What is the best and worst decision you've ever made? Best decision: to do an executive education at a business school to make the transition from a management accountant to becoming an executive. My leadership programs in the subsequent years made me more versatile to think outside the box. Worse decisions: I didn’t acquire other interior companies when I had the chance to consolidate them into a bigger company and I didn’t move into exports.
(20)What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership? I believe women need to be more visible in more senior roles. Future generations need to see women making decisions and steering companies in order for them to have the confidence to know they too can do the same. I think men play a big part in this: I have been fortunate enough to be surrounded by men who are supportive of women empowerment, but it is not true for all women. As a country, we need to acknowledge that things could be better and move forward with a purpose.
(21)What woman inspires you and why? Michelle Obama for her straight talk.
(22)What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you? I think the biggest challenge will (continue to) be juggling motherhood with career. Women need to feel empowered to take time off to have babies without sacrificing their career.
(23)How do you want to be remembered one day? I want my daughters to remember me as a loving mother who always sought to do the best by them (even if sometimes it was not immediately apparent and we argued); I want the Westgate team members to remember me as a fair employer who recognized their contribution and value; I want my friends to remember me as a kind person and a good addition to any dinner party!
(24)What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders? Seek out ways to support other women!