My guest this week is a patriotic Sri Lankan, who firmly believes that ‘Sri Lanka Can.’ A graduate of the Faculty of Law, University of Colombo and an Attorney-at-Law by profession, she counts over twenty-eight years of experience in the field of Communication. She is the Co-Founder and Joint-Managing Director of Triad Group of Companies, PowerHouse (PVT) Ltd. and Derana Macro Entertainment (PVT) Ltd. She is a Director of George Stuart Group of Companies, Liberty Publishers (PVT) Ltd., HVA Foods PLC, Colombo Land and Development PLC, and Citrus Leisure PLC. She is a global local and all her companies revolve around the need to assist, promote and protect local brands and individuals. She was my main inspiration for my column - #SheCan, as she always told me from the first day we met, to always believe that - ‘I Can’ and ‘Sri Lanka Can.’
Kind-hearted, generous, affable, authentic and a realist, with a true Sri Lankan vibe; an empathetic, benevolent Power Woman, with a magnetic personality, she continues to shatter the glass-ceiling, paving the way for the youth of Sri Lanka. She believes - She Can, We Can, and Sri Lanka Can: Varuni Sonali Amunugama Fernando.
1.What are the most important attributes of successful entrepreneurs today? Getting one’s hands and feet dirty by leading from the front, ideating a solution as a way out of a problem, or to grab an opportunity, having the self-confidence to rope in team members with diverse skills and abilities who together can deliver your shared vision.
2.Where do you see Triad Advertising in the next five years, in a post Covid19 world? We are presently at the cusp of a new transformation. The Covid19 pandemic has definitely thrown us some bitter lemons but we are determined to not only make lemonade out of it, but create a completely new recipe with lemon as the base. Unlike most entrepreneurial enterprises, we have consciously taken steps to empower and entrust the next generation of leaders. Our pioneering foundation together with this globalized acumen of the new generation means in the next five years too Triad will continue to lead the integrated communications industry of this country. The only marked difference will be the addition of new media to our portfolio and the emphasis on delivering communication ideas to a digitally connected world transcending traditional media verticals. The pandemic forced us to embrace the idea that one need not commute in order to communicate. In the coming years too, Triad will push the boundaries in developing creative content that will appeal to these new audiences.
3.Do you ever think – “Am I crazy?" There’s nothing to think; I am. Just as everybody else is. Only the degree of madness differs but we are all certifiable, that’s for sure.
4.How do you differentiate yourself? Actually, it’s the opposite. I do my best to integrate and blend in. I don’t put airs and always try to be down-to-earth. If I step back and look at myself microscopically, staying humble, normal and accessible is my natural state. I believe in being ‘feminine’ as opposed to being a ‘feminist’.
5.Who do you look up to for inspiration or mentorship? The answer to this question is more like by what am I inspired. Actually, everything and everyone. I constantly learn by watching people. I also enjoy reading, so while gathering a lot of junk, I also pick up little gems of inspiration. As a child, I was greatly influenced by my father.
6.What is one decision you wish you made? I’m not generally a wishful thinker. If I wish to do something, nothing holds me back. In my professional career, looking back there is no decision that I think I should have made and didn’t. But in my personal life, my biggest pain point is that I’m infertile due to a medical mishap that took place in 1987. The only decision therefore, that I wish I made, is where I could have frozen my ovaries. Of course, back then this technology was not available here in Sri Lanka.
7.Your biggest regret? Generally I don’t regret anything. I just trundle on no matter what. The one regret that I believe is karmic is that I couldn’t be a biological mother. But, I’ve overcome that emotional trauma because I shall soon be a grandmother.
8.One mistake you have made in life? Oh, I have made many mistakes; I haven’t kept count of them.
9.How do you keep your team motivated despite conflicts and obstacles? We fondly call our team the API family. Based on typical family bonding and ties, our working relationship is very tight and based on mutual trust. The team knows that we, the top management would be there for them through thick and thin. It’s a commitment! When there is a closeness like this, there is a commitment to do one’s best. We have a practice, no sooner there is any conflict, to resolve the matter fairly and without any favour, in the most transparent manner. Obstacles make a team tag together. We as a team work hard but we play harder. This I believe is our in-built motivation and our raison d’etre.
10.What was the biggest rookie mistake you made when just starting out? I’m not at all good with numbers. So saving for a rainy day or the future wasn’t a priority. My aim was to live for the day and make the most of it. It was one helluva tussle to keep the petty cash box away from me. But later on I understood the value of financial discipline which forms the bedrock of any dynamic company.
11.Share with us a secret no-one else knows. I have a phobia of darkness and I still cannot sleep alone.
12.Was Advertising your first career choice? My discipline of study was Law. So naturally, my first career option was that. But, from the point of view of a choice, definitely it was communication because it is a vehicle to change the mindset of the people.
13.How do you stay motivated 24/7, 365 days a year? I’m a happy person by nature and I always remind myself about how lucky I am. I attribute my happiness and comfort levels to everyone who has made my life what it is. When you are a positive person, it is easy to stay motivated and inspire others. Because people flock to one another if there’s a positive energy or aura surrounding them. I believe in karmic connections and shared positive energies. I like trying out new things, and my interest levels run high when I experience new things, but I get bored and move onto a new discovery pretty quickly. My colleagues title this “Varuni’s many Sanniyas”. In short, I stay motivated by just seeing the positive in anything and minimum negativity.
14.What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership and entrepreneurship? It’s our own minds. Even before we dream, we set our obstacles. Most often imagined and spurred on by negativity. The hand that rocks the cradle can also rule the world with an iron fist in a velvet glove. We must just want to do it.
15.What woman inspires you and why? Every positive action of a woman inspires me because I learn from that. It’s the pessimism that I abhor. I don’t like to look only at role models, renowned icons or socially-endorsed power women. I’d rather be inspired by the “real” women in diverse situations. Their authenticity, vulnerability and humanness give rise to unique solutions. Typical do-gooders, those who talk without action and harbingers of negativity are furthest from my list of inspiring women.
16. If you could go back and tell yourself one thing before beginning your career what would it be? Enjoy the moments. Then the journey will be exciting. Don’t over plan, over dream and over indulge. Always think of why you are doing what you’re doing. It’s finally the purpose that counts.
17. Where do you see yourself ten years from now? I’m now 52 years old, and happy to be aging gracefully. I like the mentoring role I play with the younger API team members. Whilst I appreciate the amazingly innovative ideas of the new generation, I believe, we should stick around in the industry a tad longer so that we can inculcate the right values and corporate ethics that are paramount for sustained growth. I can’t see my life being very different to now in ten years. I’ll be as involved, as passionate and may be even more eccentric.
18.How do you handle negativity and criticism especially from keyboard warriors and online trolls? I’m amazed as to the kind of negativity, hate, sarcasm, criticism and judgement imparted by keyboard warriors and online trolls. I pity them because in my mind they’re losers and obviously unhappy people who feel life has been unfair and unjust to them. The saddest thing is they do not understand that they are mere puppets of the medium which encourages subliminal robot-like mentalities that are subservient and easier to manipulate. Speaking especially of these types of despicable entities in a local context, I feel sorry for them because in fact they’re mostly misguided youth. Their little learning, minimum exposure and inferiority has driven them to pass judgement. If only they take a moment to value, appreciate and see the positivity in being alive, they will surely transform.
19.What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you? Their addiction and dependency on social media recognition and acceptance. They’re losing out on living the good life. This artificial world is stunting individuality, common sense and most of all the ability to be “real”. The scariest part is that these vulnerable girls are letting their minds be taken over by bots and commercially driven neo-colonial rulers and they don’t even know it. The Sri Lankan family bonds, our roots and our inborn desire to do good is the only salvation.
20.What advice would you give to the next generation of female entrepreneurs? Entrepreneurship is not the route to make a quick buck, work less and become famous. Entrepreneurs are a unique breed of people who think of creative solutions that can have a commercial impact. As Sri Lankans who have got so much from our motherland, we have a duty to give back. We have a duty to contribute our best to build this country for the next generation. So first, if you have a dream, convert that into a viable plan, action it without just talking about it, generate funds to kick-start without waiting for government handouts and don’t follow the herd. Start small. Think smart. Navigate the flow. Be humble and share when you do succeed.
21.How did you balance work and family given that you were married almost at the start of your career? As I said, I’m the lucky one. I’m so grateful that my husband Rohan is my supporter, my promoter, as well as my companion. We got married in 1993 after knowing each other since 1987. I even went to university whilst living with Rohan. He has always been supportive, but has also been firm about what his expectations of our family life is. I take the greatest effort to ensure I don’t neglect my home front and I don’t compromise on my family time. I’m lucky I have two partners and colleagues who have always valued my commitments and supported me to balance my life.
22.Do you really believe ‘Sri Lanka Can’ or is that just a slogan you like to use. Right in my gut, this has been one belief we have never wavered from. We founded our company on this belief with the commitment to build local brands and to change the mindset of Sri Lankans to be positive and patriotic. Our forefathers have proven that we could. I have the greatest faith in our President HE Gotabaya Rajapaksa; I believe that he will transform our country and give us citizens the opportunity to conquer a new world. Sri Lanka Can. And Sri Lanka will.
23.Social Media: A blessing or a curse? I sincerely wish it was the former because it can be a grand medium for sharing information, gaining knowledge and improving one’s self. But sadly, it has become, on the most part, a curse and a bane to the country, especially the unsuspecting youth. When we had only the traditional media to communicate, like newspapers, TV, radios, etc. information was one-sided. With social media and user generated content, there is the opportunity to engage, entertain and enter into a live discussion. Instead, however, this medium is now mostly used to sling mud, cyber bully, carry out dark-web illegal trade, and in short ruin people and the nation. This may be an unpopular statement, but I wish the government can censor this medium and expose social media culprits and criminals with penal action. Today, the world largest democracy has failed. So, what more?
24.How do you want to be remembered one day? As someone who was humble, kind, caring and was willing to share. It is commonly said that one shouldn’t seek appreciation from others and that the individual must love herself. Well, I for one want to be loved, respected and appreciated by all.
25.Share with us a memorable childhood memory. My childhood was filled with happy adventures. I was constantly bullied by my sister, who I adore, and try to emulate even today. Siripa Road where I grew up, had a gang of youngsters, and most of our days were spent playing on the road. I remember vividly the day my father got me a bicycle and I could join in formation riding up and down the lane. That feeling when he first let go of the bike for me to cycle ahead all on my own is very symbolic of my life, where guidance, freedom and discovery converged to give me the most exciting experiences a girl could wish for.