“A space where people from different fields come together, share their knowledge and inspiration, and support each other to reach their fullest potential,” is how Semal Luthra and Amaranath Gnanasampanthen – the co-founders of HomeTree describe the space. This duo found these words of inspiration as they were exploring the Giant Redwood Forest of California.
Amongst the tallest and oldest living trees on the planet, they were amazed by how these giants were home to a dazzling array of wildlife, all living symbiotically. The Giant Redwood Forest provides space for all to flourish through symbiotic networks.
As they looked around they saw that every tree in the forest was connected. The trees supported each other and all the other creatures in the forest. On that day, they renewed their desire to bring such an ecosystem to the entrepreneurs and changemakers of Sri Lanka.
How a Sri Lankan coworking space was born
“I was working in the UK for 5 years. Initially, as a graduate you’re really excited, wanting to make a difference at work. But within a year, work becomes monotonous, you feel disengaged, and you’re just waiting for the weekend. You’re not reaching your potential or feeling fulfilled by your work. Afterall it is where you spend most of your time. I felt that’s a huge waste,” says Semal.
Semal decided that she wanted to make work more meaningful for people. Throughout her life, spirituality and meditation helped her grow and learn from her experiences. She wanted to bring mindfulness into the workplace. This she believed would help everyone cultivate clarity and emotional intelligence in their day-to-day decisions. Thereby help them make better decisions. Not only for themselves, but also for their work, their employees, and the planet.
Amaranath was working in his family business when he came across coworking spaces in the US. “I saw them building communities with a common vision and they were having so much fun doing it! They were bringing in fresh thinking, encouraging people to collaborate. It was becoming a hotbed for startups to experiment with innovative business plans. It didn’t feel like work! Semal and I were of the thought that if we were to do something it should be something we’re both passionate about. We saw coworking as an opportunity. One to bring the doers, disruptors, and changemakers together. In doing so, forming a rich melting pot of people who are challenging the norm and innovating.” says Amaranath.
They pitched the idea at an Accelerator Programme, at Yale University. It was here Semal was doing her MBA. Their idea was accepted by the council and they were awarded a sum of money to invest in their idea and bring it to life. The Accelerator Programme also helped them refine and build their business plan.
Semal credits their vision of instilling mindfulness into the workplace as a key factor of getting into the program. The accelerator program supported them in carrying out their market research. They learned that startups wanted space. Many of them based in the outskirts and wanted to be closer to the heart of Colombo.
After that fateful walk in the redwood forest, they decided on the name “HomeTree.” They aimed to create a haven for like-minded entrepreneurs, freelancers and startups. Like the RedWood tree created one for the in-numerous species in the forest. Semal and Amaranath soon moved to Sri Lanka from the States to bring this vision to life.
Exploring Colombo’s most colorful coworking space
Located in the heart of Colombo, next to Majestic City, it is a prime location with a view of the sea. HomeTree offers a variety of spaces designed to inspire and excite by blending in a clever use of color therapy with nature-inspired themes and art from Semal and Amaranath’s travels.
As you walk in, the workspaces on the ground floor resemble a tropical garden, with almost alive paintings made specially for the space by local artists. A floor up, you’ll be surrounded by the oceanic walls washing over your minds. Another level up and you’ve stepped into summary mew with bougainvillea sprawled across the walls.
You might think it’s pretty decor. But Praveeni Senanayake or Isuri Jayawickrama – the community managers of HomeTree would tell you there was a lot of thought put behind these themes. Each floor was designed to give you a different setting. So you can choose where you want to work from depending on your mood. Additionally, the walls were coloured using color therapy principles to provide the right vibe.
Semal elaborates on this saying, “Nature and colour were our main design guidelines. We wanted to bring in the freshness, serenity and calmness of nature into the work environment. Colors have subtle effects on your mood. Green is the colour of nature, is very refreshing and brings in Harmony. Similarly, yellow boosts creativity and brings warmth to the room. Blue is a calming colour, which helps you focus and improves your productivity. So when you walk into each room, these elements come into play and give you a particular feel.”
Spread across three floors, HomeTree has plenty of options. These range from fixed desks for individuals to dedicated office spaces for bigger teams. Additionally, HomeTree has common areas including breakout spaces, a lounge and a cafe which helps you unwind and when needed. Inside the cafe, Praveeni proudly shows off a pack of Bouno Coffee. She handpicked it for the space. She states, “Its locally grown, supports female labourers and part of the proceeds go to Childaction Lanka – so why not?”
Designing a workspace that people love working in
Originally, when Semal and Amaranath first found their current building, it was an abandoned apartment building. Time was not kind after its tenants had said goodbye. When the duo first found it, they were unsure if it was even safe. But once they got confirmation it was, it became the perfect location. All it needed was some elbow grease to get a new lease on life.
Elaborating on the renovation, Amaranath said, “This was not fit to be inhabited we thought. It was over 50 years old. There was rust all over and some of the columns had broken off. But then we found a structural engineer that renovates old buildings. He had a look and said the building was fine. So once we knew it could be inhabited, we began renovating the building.”
Thus, work began to create a space that would become HomeTree Coworking. Throughout the process, Semal and Amaranath made sure to be as green as possible. That’s why they looked at reusing anything and everything they could. So that meant they reusing the fans, doors, and the floors that came with the building.
Once it had been renovated to be fully inhabitable, Semal and Amaranath began decorating it. According to Semal, the only thought they had was, “We wanted to create a funky working space.” But the exact definition of what a funky working space wasn’t set in stone.
So they started by looking at Amarnath’s massive collection of unique memorabilia from his travels. Much of which his mother had been telling him for ages to get rid of. From this collection, they found some of HomeTree’s more eccentric decor. But this was only the first step.
The tribal power of communities
Many of HomeTree’s elements were built in collaboration with its community. One example that Amaranath shared was their logo. “Chris from Venture Frontier walked in one day and sketched the logo for us. We didn’t even ask him!”, says Amaranath. Similarly, a lawyer cum hotelier, helped Semal plan the themes and colours for the spaces. Many such instances reminded Semal and Amaranath of the importance of the community.
Five months in and the place is buzzing with tech startups. Some we’ve met before are YohoBed and Alakazam. Alongside them were other creative startups in architecture, theatre production, and sustainability-focused initiatives.
Semal and Amaranath describe the community as a collective of individual tribes. Brought together by HomeTree, supporting each other and the wider community. “We regularly see different companies collaborating on different projects and bouncing ideas off each other”, Praveeni said.
“It is heartening to see how people come together and co-create, and all of it happening organically. Being a start-up ourselves, we learn so much from our members. One member taught us how to use Notion for project management. Another member helped us fine-tune our website. It is amazing to see the power of community come alive at HomeTree” says Semal.
What unfolds inside HomeTree
They also host a variety of events and workshops. One of the first event series was Startup Colombo Toastmasters. This was aimed at helping entrepreneurs communicate. In other words, helping them pitch their ideas effectively. Since then, HomeTree has hosted a variety of events. These range from legal workshops for startups to movie screenings.
In the coming weeks and months, it has more planned. HomeTree will be partnering with Venture Frontier Lanka for a series of talks. Callled “Why I built this?”, these talks will focus on some Sri Lanka’s most inspiring businesses. The goal being to share with you their success, failures, and vision behind them.
HomeTree will also be partnering in with Climate Launchpad. This is a global green business ideas competition. It aims to encourage and support sustainable startups in Sri Lanka. HomeTree’s Community Manager, Praveeni is leading this effort as the National Lead for Sri Lanka. And if you need to wind down with exercise or mindfulness, they also host weekly yoga, mindfulness and zumba classes.
The future of coworking and HomeTree
Coworking has come a long way since Semal and Amaranath first thought of building their own space. At the time, the only known coworking space was Business Hubs. But over the past year, Colombo has seen an explosion of such spaces.
Yet, Amaranath believes that there’s plenty of room for coworking spaces to collaborate because it’s still a very new phenomenon in Sri Lanka. But with so many coworking spaces popping up how does HomeTree stand out from the rest? Semal responded to this by reiterating their vision. It’s a coworking space focused on sustainability and mindfulness.
That means helping you feel great to make the right decisions. The decisions that support the community and the planet. She went onto describe this saying, “We want to promote a working lifestyle where you’re free to come in at whatever time you like, do the work you want depending on where your passions lie and choose to work from wherever you want.”