Listening to Ramya Weerakoon as she tells her tale of triumph through tragedy, it is obvious that she is a woman who was determined to succeed, no matter what. Seated in her Kadawatha office, Ramya is perfectly turned out and speaks ever-so-softly, but her strength and determination shines through.
Ramya, who recently turned 70, was widowed at an early age. Her late husband Major Noel Weerakoon was the first officer of the Sri Lanka Army to be killed in action. He was shot while heading a special mission to Anuradhapura, transporting weapons and leading a contingent of soldiers to maintain law and order over the civil unrest in the North Central Province. Noel was ambushed by the insurgents and was killed, leaving Ramya widowed at 25, with a young daughter and expecting her second child.
Determined to build a life for her children, despite many challenges and naysayers, Ramya harnessed her entrepreneurial skills to set up a batik business, which was once a hobby. The operation, which started small in a room in her parents’ house in Kurunegala, has grown over the years due to her hard work and sheer perseverance, and today comprises many businesses and five garment factories under Ramya Holdings.
Ramya has also won many awards over the years, including Woman Entrepreneur of the Year in Sri Lanka and at the Asia Pacific Entrepreneurship Awards in 2012 and Best Woman Exporter awards.
Following are excerpts of an interview with the Daily FT:
Q: You recently launched your biography titled ‘Triumph through Tragedy,’ outlining the challenges you have faced over the years. Could you tell us about your journey?
It is a story where I lost my husband when I was 25. He was an Army officer who was ambushed by the terrorists during the insurgency in 1971. My elder daughter was two-and-a-half years old and I was expecting my younger daughter.
I thought I should do something, firstly to keep myself occupied and also because I always had entrepreneurial ideas in my mind but my husband did not want me to work. I had done batik as a hobby while I was in Colombo with him and I thought I would start it on a commercial scale, which my father also discouraged, thinking that I would not be able to handle labour and marketing. But I was bold enough – I got a few girls, trained them in the technique and I started making batiks in 1973. With my kids hanging on to me, I still managed to carry on the work.
I started this operation under Ramya Batiks. Then I ventured into the export market in 1976 by attending trade fairs in Europe. By 1980 I bought the land in Kadawatha, built a house and moved here by 1982, got the girls in Colombo schools and closed down my batik workshop in Kurunegala. I am from Kurunegala and I was with my parents at the time.
"It was very difficult at the beginning; no one believed in me, not even my parents. As a result, I had a very hard time to convince the banks and the government officials. But I took a lot of risks and went ahead
When I started, though it was a limited liability company, my father was never active in the business. One bank said, ‘you being a woman, it will be a liability to the bank if we give facilities to you’
I feel with my being in the business, I was able to help many underprivileged people and serve the community, those who are less fortunate, by providing them with shelter and healthcare and giving them encouragement in their desperation, giving them support mentally by telling them my story. I feel this is what I have achieved, which I am continuing to do
We should have a mission and we should work towards it in an ethical manner, managing in a very honest way. Women should be courageous, have a lot of patience and balance the family and business together. It’s difficult for a woman, unlike for a man – she has to balance both without disturbing either"
Then I devoted more time for the children and later I thought again that I should start something. After doing some research, I entered the garment industry under Ramya Apparels, which was a limited liability company established in 1987 and I took my father as the other Director. Commercial operations started in 1988. I started with 35 machines; now we have five factories with 5,000 employees and giving sub-contracts to many other factories. We have also developed a self-employment system.
When talking about our products, when we started we were doing anything and everything but now we are specialised in ladies wear and that too very high-end, upmarket products. From the apparel sector we have now gone into our own label called Aditi. With the Aditi label we have gone into the local retail market and opened our first outlet at K-Zone Ja-Ela. This month we are opening in Colombo at The Arcade – Independence Square, the former Auditor General’s office.
In 1998, we diversified into horticulture. We grow ornamental foliage and plants and export. In 2009, we ventured into another arm of Ramya Horticulture, the tissue culture production facility. We have a land in Ambewala, where we initially started horticulture but we found that growing flowers for export was not viable so we converted it into a strawberry and vegetable farm. With horticulture, we went into the local market under the label Amari, because I could see a lot of potential, especially with many people now interested in landscaping and going green. Amari also provides decorative plans for desktops and offices, etc. In 2011, we started The Plains, a holiday resort which we are now in the process of expanding. All the companies operate under Ramya Holdings.
Q: Your achievements are all the more extraordinary since they came at a time when women were not at the forefront in the corporate world. How did you make it to the top?
It was very difficult at the beginning; no one believed in me, not even my parents. As a result, I had a very hard time to convince the banks and the government officials. But I took a lot of risks and went ahead.
Q: What are the positive and negative reactions you have encountered along the way?
My father realised around 1998 that I could do something and he encouraged and admired me, which gave me a lot of strength. My father was the man behind me. As for negative reactions, there were certain instances in the banks. When I started, though it was a limited liability company, my father was never active in the business. One bank said, ‘you being a woman, it will be a liability to the bank if we give facilities to you’.
My daughters are the livewires of the business and also my sons-in-law, who are in the business with me. Now I am only about 50% involved, not in the day-to-day operations. I set the background and the base for them and they carry on.
Q: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I feel with my being in the business, I was able to help many underprivileged people and serve the community, those who are less fortunate, by providing them with shelter and healthcare and giving them encouragement in their desperation, giving them support mentally by telling them my story. I feel this is what I have achieved, which I am continuing to do.
Q: How do you stay inspired and continue on your chosen path?
For the betterment of other people and to give more employment. When I have money, I can help more and more people. I am also able to develop villages and communities; I have helped hospitals and schools. We do a lot of CSR work.
Q: Going back to the early years, could you tell us about your childhood – where you grew up, about your siblings and parents and what life was like?
| Name: Kanthi Ramya Manel Weerakoon
Designation: Chairperson – Ramya Holdings. Companies under Ramya Holdings are Trendywear, Ramya Horticulture, The Plains Holiday Resort, Aditi Infinity and Amari Class Garden Solutions. The group provides direct employment to over 5,000 people. Major export markets are the USA, UK, Switzerland, Middle East and Far East countries.
- Awarded for Best Export Performance in Handicrafts in 1980 – Export Development Board
- National Productivity Merit Award in 1993 – National Institute of Business Management
- Woman Entrepreneur of the Year 1997 Gold Award – Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce
- Priyadharshani Award in 1997 for Outstanding Women Entrepreneurs of South Asia and Pacific Countries in New Delhi
- Large Category Industry Gold Award 1997 – Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce
- Best Woman Exporter Silver Award 1997 – National Chamber of Exporters of Sri Lanka
- Best Woman Exporter 1998 Gold Award – National Chamber of Exporters of Sri Lanka
- Women in Excellence 1998 for International Women’s Day March 1999 for Entrepreneurship – Ministry of Women’s Affairs of Sri Lanka
- Best Woman Exporter in 1999 Gold Award – National Chamber of Exporters of Sri Lanka
- Woman Entrepreneurship Award for the Asian Region – La Caixa 3rd IWEC Awards – New Delhi 2009
- Woman Entrepreneur of the Year – Asia Pacific Entrepreneurship Awards 2012
- Membership of Professional Societies:
- Immediate Past Chairman of the Apparel Exports Association – 200gfp – Sri Lanka
- President – Floriculture Produce Exporters Association
- Executive Committee Member of National Agribusiness Council
- Management Committee Member and Member of the National Chamber of Exporters – Sri Lanka
- Past Chairperson of Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce –
- nPast Vice Chairperson – SAARC Chamber of Women Entrepreneurs Council (SCWEC)
I am the eldest of three and my family was very conservative. My father was in public service and my mother was a housewife. I studied at Holy Family Convent, Kurunegala. I did my Advanced Level in Science; I wanted to do medicine but my mother did not encourage it at that time. She thought a girl staying at home after 25 years was not acceptable so it was a proposed marriage. My brother and sister reside in Australia.
Life was very closed up. It was after Noel’s death that I broke all the barriers and came out. I got myself educated by my travel abroad. After ’76, I kept on travelling every two to three months, meeting people and getting more knowledgeable.
Q: Could you tell us about your family?
My daughters are Thushari and Mahika. Thushari did her bio degree and masters in natural rresource management and she is controlling Ramya Horticulture. My younger daughter is an Attorney-at-Law and she is running Trendy Wear. Both are married and I have three grandchildren.
Q: What does a day in your life today entail?
I work every day, but I come in around 9 or 9:30 and go back home by around 1 p.m. I don’t travel on business anymore and I no longer like to travel on holiday anymore, unless it’s a must. I was the Vice Chairperson of the SAARC Women Entrepreneur Council so I used to go to the SAARC countries for various forums, which I have addressed. I don’t like to travel now, neither abroad nor in Sri Lanka. The Plains was first built as a holiday home for us before it was commercialised and it is a very beautiful place but I feel at home I can do my meditation.
Q: Looking back, do you have any regrets?
Not at all.
Q: What is your advice to corporate leaders today?
We should have a mission and we should work towards it in an ethical manner, managing in a very honest way. Women should be courageous, have a lot of patience and balance the family and business together. It’s difficult for a woman, unlike for a man – she has to balance both without disturbing either.
Pix by Sameera Wijesinghe