She is the Group Managing Director and Local Partner of IAS Holdings (Pvt) Ltd; a company that represents many global transportation and logistics companies in Sri Lanka, and has four subsidiaries and one hundred and fifty direct staff. In 2014, she was ranked as one of the ‘50 Most Powerful Businesswomen’ in Sri Lanka. In 2016, she was the recipient of the Gold Award for Supply Chain Management, by Women in Management, in association with IFC; a member of the World Bank Group. In January 2021, she was awarded the ‘Outstanding Women Entrepreneur’ of the year at the ‘Top 50 Professional-Career Women Awards’ by Women in Management, Sri Lanka. She has been honored with a felicitation by the Zonta Club 111 of Colombo, for her contribution to the field of freight forwarding and logistics in Sri Lanka. Armed with a Degree in Business Studies from the Open University of Sri Lanka, she is currently, reading for a Degree in Economics. She was the first female Chairperson of the Logistics and Freight Forwarders Association, Sri Lanka, and was also the first female President of the Sri Lanka-Italy Business Council. She is the immediate Vice-Chairperson and the current Treasurer of the Council for Business in Britain (CBB), and also serves as an Executive Committee Member for the Sri Lanka-German Business Council. She is an active member of the Women’s Chamber of Commerce (WCC), Women in Logistics and Transport (WiLAT), and the Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association (WISTA). An alumna of Hillwood College, Kandy, she moved to Colombo from Kurunagala, at the age of eighteen, to commence her journey in the corporate world.
A workaholic by nature, she has perfected the delicate art of achieving, a somewhat perfect, work-life balance. She cherishes her time spent with family and friends, and she is a self-professed neat-freak and perfectionist. Being physically active and sticking to a workout routine is a big part of her DNA, to the point where it’s almost an obsession. A vegetarian for the past twelve years, she enjoys home-cooked food, and opts for delicious, homemade meals. Her story is based on resilience, a positive attitude and a little bit of impatience thrown in!
‘She Can’ and she is an astute and assertive businesswoman. Spiritual, generous and compassionate, she is persistent, and persuasive, and knew right from the start that she wanted to be a leader in the shipping and logistics industry in Sri Lanka; Tania Polonnowita Wettimuny.
What are the most important attributes of successful leaders today? The role of leadership and management has changed tremendously from about twenty years ago and will continue to change at a phenomenal pace. Some core things will always remain relevant, things like creating a vision and executing on a strategy. However, we will need a new type of leader to guide us through the next ten years and beyond. In my opinion, there are a couple of trends impacting future leaders and these will be critical factors in determining if they will be successful or not. The ability to embrace technology and how this will impact their organization; keeping up with the pace of change; purpose and meaning of an organizational team and individual level; globalization and the ability to work across different cultures; the importance of upskilling, retraining, adapting, diversity and inclusion. Last, but not in any way least, and something very important in my personal work ethic, is the emphasis placed on morality, ethics, and transparency. If leaders get the combination of these factors right, they have a long and successful road ahead of them.
Where do you see the company in the next five years under your leadership? I would like to see the younger generation, the ‘millennials,’ being groomed and prepared to take the company to greater heights on a local and global scale, irrespective of whether their career progression is with us. I think it is our duty to make them ready to take on the business world, so that we can produce quality talent on an international level. I consider our group of companies still at a startup phase. Hence, my personal vision for the next five years is to focus on scaling, increasing our customer base, our offerings, and growing the company itself. I am confident I have the support of my team who will continue to be on board with me, which means that we will all be successful together.
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. There have been several times my ideas have been shot down. But, one instance that will always remain in my mind is when I worked for my previous company, I was very keen to provide a unique solution between one of my customer’s and my company, the logistics service provider. This particular customer was a large-scale apparel company and the Joint Venture I proposed was very lucrative for all parties involved. So, when I was trying to get an appointment to meet with the main decision-maker of my customer, particularly with one of the owners of the company, my family and some senior colleagues of my previous company kept saying that what I was proposing would never work. But something told me to ignore the naysayers! My husband helped me to get the appointment I needed. I persisted, trusted my instinct, and pursued my idea with the correct business aggression. Today, that JV is still functioning extremely well and is a one-of-a-kind in the logistics industry. It is important to listen and respect the ideas of the people around you. But in the end, I firmly believe that you need to go with your own gut!
How did you reach your level of success, given the sector’s gender gap, especially among leadership? No job should be determined by your gender. If you are knowledgeable, passionate, committed and believe that you are the right person to do that job, then this so called ‘gender gap’ should be thrown out of the door and window! Being a female never held me back in integrating myself into an industry that has traditionally been male dominated.
Do you ever think – “Am I crazy?” Of course! Million times, every single day! If I hadn’t made the crazy life-changing decisions I made when I was young, I would be married and happily living a suburban family life in Kurunegala. But instead, I jumped head-first into the rat race of the city and the business world, I haven’t regretted it a day in my life, but I do believe I am crazy for doing so!
How do you differentiate yourself? Very simple; by being myself. I think every person is different and unique. We are equal in some ways but different in many ways. I do not compare myself to anyone nor do I compete with anyone. The only person I compete with is myself, to be better and do better. I look up to people and learn from them. But at the end of the day, I know who I am and use that to my advantage.
What is your ‘why’? My ‘why’ has constantly changed at different phases of my life. Right now, my biggest reason that I wake up and do the things I do is because of the love and support I have from my family, and the commitment I have made to my colleagues. I would not be where I am if not for all of them. Having said that, the constant purpose or the ‘why’ that has remained in my life consistently is my belief in God. Going to church gives me a lot of strength and inner peace. I am grateful for life itself and all the opportunities God has bestowed upon me.
Who do you look up to for inspiration and mentorship? I am inspired by all the people, especially women, who have made something out of nothing. There are so many people who despite many challenges, be it family commitments, financial burdens or physical disabilities, have taken their lives head on and learnt to deal with anything that comes their way. I look at myself, and think how fortunate I am to have so many opportunities in my life. I have always been blessed with a fantastic support system, both professionally and personally, and the luck to move forward. I am motivated by the blessings I have been given in my life, and continue to be granted daily. There are so many aspirational women in today’s business world, in different lines of business, that I am truly in awe of; there are too many to mention, but they lead their teams and conduct their business with grace and business acumen worthy of any global leader. I am also in awe of the generation of female leaders before us. They tend to be a forgotten generation, but it is important that we realize that it is because of their hard work that the path was paved for our generation. People like Mrs. Rohini Nanayakkara and Mrs. Mano Alles were very successful Sri Lankan businesswomen and I really look up to them as mentors in my life. They are knowledge powerhouses, and we have a lot to learn from them.
What is the one decision you wish you hadn’t made? One of the decisions I wish I had not made was sticking to one company for a long time early in my career. I should have taken other opportunities, both local and global, that came my way. I feel like if I had taken them, I would have gained much more exposure and experience. But then again, not taking those opportunities have helped me to get to where I am today, so I look back at it with mixed emotions. Life is full of bad decisions but ultimately that is what molds you into yourself! Despite some futile decisions, I have learnt from them and moved forward, eventually learning to let go of the regret. Mastering the craft of learning from your failures is a hallmark of any Entrepreneur.
Your biggest regret? Not pursuing my studies further when I was younger. However, it is never too late to learn, and I am glad to say that I am now focusing on the areas that I need to improve. I am completing my FCMA Strategic Management Case Study, and pursuing a Degree in Economics at a foreign university. It’s a balancing act with time, but I am someone who can study for 9-10 hours at a stretch with nothing thrilling me more than juggling all these priorities in my life.
One mistake you have made in life? Not taking time to ‘just be’ in my younger days. When you are young, the world is your oyster and I feel I should have really taken advantage of being carefree and having no responsibilities. Instead, I dove headfirst into my career, my personal relationships and taking on the world, when maybe, I was a bit too tender.
I encourage young people to take time and enjoy their teenage and young adult years. Do not rush into the business world because once you are in it, it is a long and stressful road ahead. Educate yourself, volunteer, travel if you have the means to before you commit to a lifelong career.
How do you keep your team motivated despite conflicts and obstacles? I believe strongly in honest and open discussions as I am very direct at most times. I foster an ‘open door’ culture at work, and I hold what is discussed with me in the highest confidentiality. I set a standard of equal opportunity and fairness to everyone who works with me which is known to all my colleagues and that is what makes them comfortable to speak to me. I encourage them to approach any challenge with the mindset that anything is possible if we work towards it with commitment and passion. Together we can achieve more and everyone benefits in the end.
What has been the highlight of your career so far? Becoming the Chairperson of the Sri Lanka Logistics and Freight Forwarders Association which is the apex body of the industry and the first female to hold that title in the Indian Sub-Continent and maybe, perhaps also in Asia. I am happy and humble to lead the way for many generations of females in the future. Girl Power!
If you could go back and tell yourself one thing before beginning your career, what would it be? I was very naive at the beginning of my career, and in some ways I still am. I always see the good in everyone, but if it’s one thing I could have told my younger self, it would have been to be careful who you place your trust in. Work politics and cut-throat competition is a real deal in the business world, and not just a myth, I knew nothing of this when starting out! Something I found hard to digest (and still do) is that some people will forsake humanity in order to be successful and powerful. I wish I had been given lessons in the art of weeding those people out! I learnt quickly that my happiness and success depends on no-one but myself, and I carved out my own path.
What was the biggest rookie mistake you made when just starting out? At the start of my career, I accepted every single invitation I received, with the goal of networking with people, especially because I was not from Colombo and felt the need to know the business community in Colombo! I didn’t realize that some functions were completely unrelated to my job and I really didn’t need to be there. Even today, my friends and close colleagues make fun of the time when I used to hand out my business card to anyone and everyone, even people who were severely intoxicated and wouldn’t even remember where they were the next morning! I guess you live and learn!
Where do you see yourself ten years from now? Well, politics has always intrigued me, despite vehement protests from my family! I’m going to try and get my way with that, but if not, I will be semi-retired for sure. Spending time on things that I have always been passionate about. Doing charity related to children, providing meals to the less fortunate, and helping institutions that work with people overcoming severe mental and physical trauma.
Share with us a secret no-one else knows? I would love to dabble in politics one day. That is something not a lot of people know about me!
How do you stay motivated 24/7, 365 days a year? I have always been a self-motivated person. I learnt at a very young age that happiness is yours and yours alone. It is detrimental to depend on an external force, be it a person or a thing, for personal happiness and motivation. I wake up each morning and I choose to be happy and motivated. True story!
How is it being part of a ‘blended’ family? Initially, I was very nervous being a part of a new family, but I have learned to carve out the role I play in the lives of my two stepdaughters. It takes a village to raise children and my stepdaughters’ mother was very supportive in helping me blend into being a part of their lives. I am very grateful to her for this as it made the process a whole lot easier for them, and for me. We may not share the same DNA and we may not agree on things at times, but to me, whatever you call us, we will always be family. All that matters to me is that we are happy and united! It’s been an interesting and fulfilling experience to say the least!
What is the best and worst decision you’ve ever made? My husband and I decided early on that we were happy with the way our family was set up and we chose not to have children of our own. It was not an easy decision for me since I love kids, but we were both on the same page and decided together. However, we are blessed and fortunate to have many children in our lives; two stepdaughters, two nieces, three nephews, godsons and goddaughters, kids of our friends and most recently I have also become a grand-aunt to my nephew-in-law’s sons. The best decision of my life was to take the leap into becoming an Entrepreneur. It has been a long and hard road but I am grateful for every minute of it.
What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership? One’s own mindset. The barrier to any leadership role, whether male or female is your mindset. If you have a positive mindset, you can create any opportunity, any platform and any support system. The belief in yourself and not succumbing to the fear of failure will eventually lead you to success. Adopting this positive mindset is pivotal to any leadership role.
What woman inspires you and why? On a global platform I really admire Indra Nooyi, the Former Chairperson and CEO of Pepsi Co; ranked among the top-most powerful women in the world. I think she hit the nail on the head, when in a famous interview she said a woman’s biological clock and her career clock are in total conflict with each other. As women, we cannot have it all. She said we pretend that we can but in reality, it is very, very difficult for a woman to achieve a work-life balance. I admire her for being business savvy and her pivotal role at Pepsi, and for her brutal honesty about the opportunity cost of women achieving business success. She was brave enough to admit that it came at a price of not being able to be there for her children when they needed her most.
What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women after you and why? Most women right now have an amazing network of support through family, in-laws, and domestic help, so that they can choose to go back to their careers if they want to. I’m not sure this support system will be available for the generation of working women in the future. As people become increasingly independent and start living life on their own terms, they will not want to be tied down to any family commitments when they get older. The entire family dynamic is evolving and this may prove a huge challenge with the only option being hired help. This will have a significant impact on women re-starting their careers after childbirth. Overall, I also think the loss of emotions and the experience and joy of dealing with people face-to-face will be a huge challenge in the future. Right now, everything is online, exacerbated by the pandemic. We are working remotely, meeting remotely, educating ourselves and our children in virtual spaces. Who knew this is what the world would come to! As a result, we have become impatient as a society.
We want things done yesterday. We want information literally at our fingertips. As a part of a team, especially being a woman, it is so important to stick to your core value of empathy. Hone your emotional intelligence. Don’t ever allow the art of dealing with people to be taken away from you. AI and automation can never ever replace the human heart, even in the world of business.
How do you want to be remembered one day? Someone slightly impatient, short-fused (soda bottle Tania!), yet kind, compassionate and giving. A caring daughter and sister, a supportive partner to my husband, an ultra-cool step mum, doting ‘nandi’ to my nieces and nephews, and an amazing friend. Family is everything to me and if I can receive these titles from them, then I will leave this Earth happy! As for my professional life and the teams that have supported me over the years, I want to be remembered as a colleague and not just a boss! Finally, I want to be remembered as a gamechanger for females in the world of Logistics. If I can leave this legacy, my work here is done!
What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders? Do not ever let your gender determine your career. If you want to do something or join a particular industry, go for it! We as women are unique beings, able to handle anything that comes are way. Do not stress about trying to balance your career and personal life. No one can have and do everything. Rally a support system for yourself and just give it your all. You’re a Rockstar for handling everything and do not let anyone tell you otherwise. Do not compromise, own your own life, keep your head held high, be humble and keep smiling. You are strong as anybody else around the table.