Disrupt 2.0: Women Entrepreneurship To Disrupt Businesses


Women’s entrepreneurship has hit a media tipping point. The question is: Is it just a passing media fad that will soon be a blip on the radar screen, or is it actually a real, fundamental economic force that’s reshaping the world? I think it’s safe to say that it’s the latter.

With those words, we were at Disrupt 2.0: Women Entrepreneurs: Disrupting Business. Quite a mouthful indeed. Held on the 31st of August 2016 at the MAS Innovation center, the event saw quite a number of influential women entrepreneurs present.

The event kicked off with a video about SLUSH.

The first speaker for the day to speak about entrepreneurship was Yusra Aziz-Eliyas, Founder/Owner of Podi Jobs on Empowering Sri Lankan Women.

She took us 5 years back to her years as an IT consultant. She had kids at a young age but she didn’t want to go back to a company. She wanted to be working from home near her kids. She looked at local opportunities and found nothing but data entry jobs. Seeing this need, she saw a startup opportunity

“Startups are created when there’s a need for it” – Yusra

“It’s important to do your research” – Yusra

So she did her research and found that women didn’t use websites a lot and the idea of freelancing was new. So she built her MVP with free google products, email and social media. Podi Jobs put their jobs on social media and people could apply for them via email.

Image Credits: Startup Sri Lanka

She then moved onto talk about the copy culture in Sri Lanka. For example, if someone builds an awesome website, you’re almost guaranteed that someone else will build a similar one.

You also need to look at your current situation. There’s the stigma that successful people are old. Then there’s Yusra who’s 28 and breaking the stigma. You don’t have to be of a certain age to be successful.

“You can start when you’re 18. There are freelancers building websites when they’re 15.”

Out of the 15% that Podi Jobs charges from a job, they invest it in women’s empowerment initiatives, stay-at-home moms, single homes, girls, etc. They can do more, but right now Yusra says they want to start small.

“We want to see each and every woman empowered”

She shares the story of a seamstress who had two kids. The seamstress thought she could manage but she needed a second job. Yusra shared the seamstress’ work with an acquaintance in the US. The people in the US were impressed. But the seamstress never had the opportunity before. So with Podi Jobs, the seamstress was now able to get her designs to the US.

As long as you’re not sharing company secrets, freelancing is legal. This is a common question Yusra shares.

“Go out there and disrupt culture”

“The biggest cultural challenge is fear” – Yusra

She then talks about the culture in Sri Lanka. We are told from a young age that we should be an engineer, doctor or lawyer, etc. If we don’t get a job like that then you’re unsuccessful.

“There’s a lot of startups dying, because you can’t find someone to help build the idea”

One of the fears was that whether the work would be delivered. Some freelancers played clients and some clients didn’t find proper freelancers. But the proper freelancers Podi Jobs has found are so well recommended, that they are sought after even by people outside Sri Lanka. When she started Podi Jobs, she was sad that despite Sri Lanka’s technological level, there was still a large untapped market.

Another fear was whether freelancers would get paid. Many of them lacked basic educational qualifications such as GCE O/L’s, so Podi Jobs countered this by operating on the portfolios. She also went onto say that products shouldn’t be country centric. Think outside the box. Since its inception in March this year, Podi Jobs has seen people from abroad seeking freelancers from Sri Lanka. Something that Yusra did not foresee happening.

Another important point is to provide a proper reply to those who apply for jobs. If a candidate is unsuited for a job then it’s important to reply and tell them they aren’t suited for the job. To this effect, Yusra makes it a point to send personal emails. This, is how companies came to Podi Jobs to solve their hiring issues.

Even Indian companies have asked for freelancers from Podi Jobs because they like Sri Lankan freelancers.

Typically, when women get married they ask themselves questions such as “Should I stay at home or get someone responsible to take care of my kids and work?”. Well, why not a bit of both?  She says that she was working while her baby was 3 months old and went on to explain that women and stay at home dads should have a chance to work while at home with their kids.

Another cultural shift we need to make is to break the thought that everything should be Colombo-centric. As an example, Yusra explained about a talented stay-at-home who was good at graphics residing in Batticaloa who applied for Podi Jobs. When asked whether she needs to be in Colombo, Yusra said no.

We should always be on the lookout to see if there is a need for a certain thing? If yes, then that’s a startup opportunity. Start simple. Look at the little details that make up the business. But think big because you can even find clients abroad.

Currently Podi Jobs has 650 freelancers, 50 jobs, 20 girls via scholarships and startups, 20 clients and lots of inquiries. There is an interest when you go against the flow.

She then asks everyone in the audience what’s stopping them from achieving what they want. Beat the culture if you want to be successful she says. Ignore the people that say you should be taking care of the family or start one or the kids. Ignore the culture go do what you want. The culture is designed to put women down says Yusra.

As a Momtrepreneur, she wants to disrupt the culture and improve Sri Lanka.

The next speaker to talk about entrepreneurshipwas Jayoumi Lokuliyana, Co-founder/CEO – zMessenger

She founded zMessenger in 2003 when she was 24 and pregnant. She quit her job and decided to startup a company with her 3 Co-founders. She started up the company at an incubator in SLIIT. The address mattered at the time because they needed funding and they also needed to hire people. This incubator had a bunch of people. When investors arrived, the other companies pretended to be other departments of the business. It was like an unofficial agreement between the companies at the incubator.

Image Credits: Startup Sri Lanka

How long till success though? Jayomi says it took her 9 years. It was 9 years of her parents constantly bombarding her company. At one point, she pretended to close the company and apply for permanent residency in Australia, just to keep her parents quiet.

She then went on to reveal some dark secrets about Entrepreneurship. The first of which was that entrepreneurship is that it’s not what you expect. You aren’t going to get a paycheck as big as you like. You’ll see your peers being successful and buying cars. Jayomi in fact, even pawned her jewellery to pay her salary. She got into Peradeniya university but also dropped out. She even worried about her relationship with her kids.

She went on to say that entrepreneurship is a late gratification. You won’t see results instantly. It took them almost 3 years to get big brands on board. Mobile marketing in 2003 was seen as way before it’s time.

Perseverance is an important train for any entrepreneur.

She then spoke about the stigma of behind women talking about technology and the disbelief that people have to it. When she was seeking of funding, she noticed how some investors asked questions such as “Are you a techie? Are you from university of Moratuwa? Are your parents entrepreneurs?” etc. After replying “No” to all the questions, she got annoyed with the responses and told her co-founder to go find investors and that she would manage clients and operations.

Another challenge was getting talent which they overcame. They carried out tactics such as giving shares to a few employees and making them directors.

Currently, Jayoumi has 65 people working under her and isn’t looking to expand to 100 purely because of the challenges associated, which she says are another challenge in itself.

You don’t have to be a man in female shoes. Women should embrace feminism.

She shared a study from the Bank of America which was about the ability to multi-task and how it is an edge that women have. She also shared another study which showed that women want to be respected.

She went on to say that you should define what success means to you. Identifying what success means to you is important when you’re an entrepreneur. Another example used was that how a female entrepreneur or any entrepreneur for that matter regardless of gender, needs a strong support network. A bad spouse can kill a business faster than a bad marketing plan.

Jayoumi concluded with a note that success is not how much you make but whether your work fulfils you.

The last speaker to speak on entrepreneurship was Deepanie Perera, Managing Director and CEO – Target Resource.

What comes to your mind when you hear the word “entrepreneur”? Answers vary from lots of money, to innovative ideas. So what’s the answer? Well, according to Deepanie, the answer is a man. Yes, that’s right. But wait. There’s more. What comes to your mind when you hear the word “microfinance”? Well, the answer to that, is a women.

Image Credits: Startup Sri Lanka

One thing that pushed her to be an entrepreneur was the fact that she faced a glass cubicle. So becoming an entrepreneur was a matter of survival. Now she has to do the same for her clients.

She then shares 3 facts:

  1. Women are born managers
  2. They are new engines of growth (women entrepreneurs)
  3. They are rising stars of economies in developing countries.

She then shares some of the challenges women face such as gender bias, stereotyping, personal issues, culture issues, survival, etc. Overcome these issues and they have to compete and thrive.

She then talks about characteristics of women entrepreneurs which include

  • Goal and achievement orientation
  • Self-confidence
  • Presistence
  • Hard Working
  • Internal locus of control
  • Multi-tasking but do so without losing sight of the bigger picture
  • Impatience
  • Risk Taking
  • Profit orientation
  • Service orientation
  • Ethical leadership

She then spoke about factors that influence women entrepreneurs such as:

  • Personal internal motivation
  • Personal external motivation
  • Financial motivation
  • Lifestyle balance

She then shared statistics about female entrepreneurs. For example, by 2018, 7.7% of women will be hired by women entrepreneurs.

She then spoke about social entrepreneurship. A new breed of entrepreneurs who are leaders committed to both good business and positive social change.

Some examples:

  • Safe lamp initatied by Dr. Wijaya Godakumbura
  • Sarvodaya Fusion
  • Blood transfusion equipment for Thalassemia patients developed in Sri Lanka that cost Rs. 4,000/- vs Imported equipment that cost Rs.75,000/-

Her recipe for success was:

  • Initial research and planning
  • Sound business idea/market gap identification
  • Prior experience or knowledge of the industry
  • Management ability
  • Cashed up (equity, debt, angel)
  • Strong home front support systems
  • Personal characteristics:
    • Perspective
    • Determination
    • Determination
    • Determination

The challenges and barriers:

  • 82% probability of surviving beyond 6 months
  • 52% probability of surviving beyond 2 years
  • 39% of surviving beyond 3 years

Other challenges include:

  • Stereotypes for women’s jobs
  • Poor management
  • General lack of management experience. Communication skills poor, lack of knowledge, lack of financial structure
  • Lack of business education and knowledge
  • Under-capitalizations
  • Lack of initial planning
  • Responsibility towards family, society and work

She concludes by sharing with us how robots are disrupting the world.

The last session for the day was a Panel discussion with all three speakers, moderated by Lakmini Wijesundera, Co-founder Director and CEO – Ironone Technologies

Jayomi shares that she prefers having freelancers over permanent staff when starting out. This is due to challenges of permanent staff like EPF and ETF. Jayomi says if freelancers are working then go ahead and use them. But if there are tasks that need to be delegated then you should have permanent staff. But if freelancers work, then it helps keep overheads it’ll help you in the long run. Deepanie adds that you shouldn’t outsource core work to freelancers.

Image Credits: Startup Sri Lanka

Entrepreneurship is a tough thing whether you’re a man or a woman says Lakmini. What happens though, is the ratio of women vs men. But she says times are changing. In the past it would have been unlikely for a woman to run a business. But todays speakers show that women can indeed run businesses and its more likely in the future. The social stigma forums are changing, but the forums like this are helping women entrepreneurs. But end of the day, you have to look at your resources and get what you want.

Jayomi says that we need to increase entrepreneurship awareness among the youth. She has spoken with A/L students and university students and has seen that that many of them look at working for companies. She speaks of SLASSCOM’s youth entrepreneurship program which she’s encouraging her kids to take part. She suggests that entrepreneurship forums rising and awareness increase will help eliminate the current women: men entrepreneurs.

Yusra says that gender stereotyping starts a long time ago in culture. She talks about how her CEOs of both genders can learn from each other.

Image Credits: Startup Sri Lanka

With that, Disrupt 2.0 Bootcamp: Women Entrepreneurs: Disrupting Business came to a close. In closing, the audience was given a teaser for the next startup bootcamp which would revolve around how to build an MVP.


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