Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur shows way forward for Sri Lanka

Wednesday, 12 July 2017 09:53 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

DSC_1052-copyBy Madushka Balasuriya

Sri Lanka has all the ingredients necessary to make a splash on the global stage; it just needs to get its act together. Cheryl Edison was sounding a familiar refrain as she sat down with Daily FT to discuss the details of her latest visit to the island nation.

Edison, as per her website (, is a Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur and global business development expert, who has “provided go to market strategy to 47 industries, on five continents.” Suffice to say her opinion comes highly recommended.

“The talent is here, the education system is here, the resources are here. Everything is here. Everybody is merging together at the same time to make amazingly good things happen,” she enthused, before branching off into one crucial caveat. “At present payment gateways are blocked. There’s no Paypal, there’s no Stripe, there’s no way to make business. If we can get a payment system working and money can actually move around the country, and out of the country, and back into the country, there’s no stopping Sri Lanka, there’s no stopping all of the amazing ideas that are coming through the people of Sri Lanka.”

You don’t get the title of ‘Serial Entrepreneur’ by letting obstacles get the better of you though and Edison is already working on finding a solution. Set to present the keynote speech at today’s Disrupt Asia Conference, where she will also host several workshops, she is hoping to unite Sri Lanka’s burgeoning tech space behind the hashtag #letmegetpaid. Edison, who is being sponsored by the US Embassy in Sri Lanka, believes the added awareness will prove to be a catalyst in getting a long overdue payment gateway established in the country.

“It is absolutely the most frustrating thing for someone who is trying to sell SAAS (software as a service), who cannot have reoccurring payments because all of their money is going to chasing payments because there is no payment gateway. 

“In every other country that I’ve ever worked in, particularly in the US, a five-year-old kid can launch his own business - that’s how it should be in Sri Lanka. “

‘Creativity loves constraint’

Nevertheless, at present the reality is quite a bit away from the ideal. For Edison however it’s all about a shift in mindset. One man’s lack of opportunity is another man’s proverbial golden ticket, so to speak, and Edison will not bow down to the idea that starting up a business is too challenging in this day and age.

“Are new ideas and launching businesses, as of this day forward, are they easier now? Yes? Ok good, let’s stick with that. If you will hold the position that it has previously been more difficult, and now it’s somewhat easier, I’m with you,” she states rhetorically, before diving into an anecdote about a class she was attending which included about 20 entrepreneurs from the ITCA ‘Spiralation’ program.

“There was a guy who had an idea for a payment gateway and he was trying to put the money together in order to establish it but was having a very hard time. So I told him to go to a bank and establish a partnership to license his technology, but for a variety of reasons he has not been able to get it started.

“However he has the technology, so all that needs to happen is that somebody who is ready to make this happen - a bank can make this payment gateway.”

Until such time that a payment gateway is established in Sri Lanka, Edison has some ideas on how discerning entrepreneurs can navigate the tricky payment situation in the country.

“Creativity loves constraint. Because of this there are ways to move money within the country, but we have to get creative about it. I suggested to somebody in this class that they take 50 or 100 visa top-up cards and distribute them. In this way you could top up anybody you want to immediately, with your smartphone you log in and top up anybody’s card. 

“So my message to the bank would be, ‘I love you, I want to tie up with you, but if you don’t find a payment gateway, we will come up with a solution’.

“The single thing that’s different from students that I meet here from students from any other country is kind of a disconnected sense of making goals.”

Throughout her Sri Lankan sojourn Edison has met several school children and young entrepreneurs, while undoubtedly impressed she has seen glimpses of underlying issues that may prove to be of concern in today’s competitive e-commerce space. Edison has a list of five core skills that the next generation needs to focus on if it is to succeed. 

Three out of the five are fairly straightforward: Seeing things with fresh eyes; negotiation; and giving. 

“The first would be the will to see things with fresh eyes. Don’t already know. Come into a situation and ask ‘what if?’ If I ask myself ‘what if I?’ it allows me to take control of the world that I’m in.

“The second thing is negotiate. Negotiation is at the heart of collaboration and collaboration is at the heart of all new businesses.

“Give. Don’t wait to be given. Give. Offer. Contribute; be the first to give and don’t wait to be asked. Do the right thing, because you can.”

Fear of engagement

However, it’s in the final two that Edison feels Sri Lankan students may be required to come out of their shells rather somewhat more. In terms of engagement, she feels that students have been fearful of engaging with her, something she says needs to be nurtured. While she adds that they also possess a “disconnected sense of making goals” when compared to students from other countries.

“The single thing that’s different from students that I meet here from students from any other country is kind of a disconnected sense of making goals. The ability to make a goal and achieve a goal, one goal a day, no matter how big or small, that’s the difference between someone who succeeds and someone who is just dragged along from one day to the next.

Asked to elaborate, Edison adds: “The school system has been expertly created to give information, help me absorb information and then to retrieve that information from inside of myself and then give it back. That means that people outside of me are giving me my goals. It tells you, ‘Your goal is to take this information and use it in this way’.

“Instead you should engage, and say to yourself, ‘now that I know this what does it mean I can do, what does it tell me that is possible?’ Engage with the information.

“What I find when I get in front of groups in Sri Lanka - which is very different from anywhere else in the world - is that I stand in front of people and I begin to speak, I begin to have an engagement, and they’re watching me like I’m on TV. They’re not present, they’re not engaging.” Despite these observations, Edison’s confidence in the Sri Lankan IT sector stems in fact from her firsthand experience with the youth of the country. On her first visit – which lasted for 10 days last year - Edison met with the National Institute of Education, as well as several universities, where she hosted several workshops. This time around she’s here for three weeks and has already conducted workshops and seminars both in Jaffna and Colombo. The most intriguing of which are Makerspaces.

“It’s through Makerspaces that people who are entrepreneurs but don’t yet know that they’re entrepreneurs discover that they too can have a startup.”

Asked if she coined the term, Edison admits to being unsure. Be that as it may, she most certainly made them what they are today. “A Makerspace brings together creativity, community and commerce. It is a place attuned to local needs with equipment and activities. The outcome is an increased sense of belonging, a rise in the incubation of new business models and innovation, and far-reaching economic development,” states her website. Edison takes that description a step further.

“Makerspaces can be anywhere, they can be in a library, they can be in a school, they can be in underutilised properties anywhere in country. It’s through Makerspaces that people who are entrepreneurs but don’t yet know that they’re entrepreneurs discover that they too can have a startup.”

Edison has one of the largest Makerspaces in the US, coming in at roughly 24 acres. In Sri Lanka, she hosted one at the American Centre in Colombo, another in Kandy, while most impressive is the one in Jaffna, which is going to incorporate a YouTube studio. Each is specifically attuned to its local community, she explains. “In Jaffna a YouTube studio is the ideal thing to build because you can shift videos without having all the need to ship things. “Here in Colombo the Makerspace has many itty bits and raspberry pi’s. Coding schools and coding classes are also here, along with 3D printing where you can make things. That makes sense for here in Colombo.”

Edison reveals she has high hopes for a gentleman named Hasith in particular, whom she says has launched a business, Igniter Space, dedicated to a younger demographic - kids aged 5-16 - where they build and learn “how things work.” This, she says, embodies exactly what a Makerspace should be.

“I believe that it is an international, global company that’s just about to succeed. I can imagine a television show that’s international, I can imagine kits that are made in the cottage industry around the country. I can see that this ‘making things’ approach can become part of the brand of Sri Lanka, because at the end of the day that’s what is missing here.

“It allows you to go from knowledge, which Sri Lanka is so good at now - huge amounts of knowledge - to engaging with things and actually innovating, and making start-ups to get empathetically involved with things. That’s what a Makerspace does.”

Pic by Shehan Gunesekara