A guide to leadership from Kasturi Chellaraja Wilson: Lessons from Startup Grind Colombo

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It’s been 3 years since Startup Grind first came to Sri Lanka. In case you’re lost, Startup Grind is one of the largest independent startup communities in the world. Active in over 250 cities, the initiative aims to help entrepreneurs form meaningful connections. Its signature event is its series of fireside chats featuring key business leaders. This year, in line with its global aims, to recognize female business leaders, Startup Grind Colombo held its third event, featuring the incoming Group CEO of Hemas, Kasturi Chellaraja Wilson. Being the first female CEO of a conglomerate in Sri Lanka, she had many lessons in leadership to offer at Startup Grind Colombo.  

Beliefs that drive success

“How you define success depends on who you are and where you come from,” answered Kasturi when asked what success was to her. When she began her journey, the first priority was her family with the job coming second. Those priorities meant quality family time was more valuable over a large salary. “At any moment in life, when you feel content in your journey, not comparing it to anyone else’s, that’s my definition of success,” she said. It’s about waking up and feeling happy, having the drive to do what you do, and a sense of fulfilment with the ability to help others. “It’s definitely not about a title or the next big milestone,” added Kasturi.  

Describing her personal beliefs, Kasturi shared she held onto three closely. The first was to be grateful for having a job and giving your 110%. The second was integrity, which she described as, “The only thing you take when you leave a job. If may cause conflicts but never compromise on integrity.”. The third was to simply be yourself. Elaborating on the latter she said, “I am my unique self and I don’t apologize for it. I set high standards for myself and expect the same from others. Don’t accept mediocrity. Over time you’ll build a team that shares these same passions.”

Having been in leadership positions from a young age, Kasturi shared that the one constant was to always, “Be courageous and be excellent.” The earliest example she recalled was being the captain for her school’s basketball team. “I took that job very seriously. Even if the coach was sick, I’d make sure we practised. Friendships didn’t carry onto the court. We worked hard but after practices, we were still friends,” said Kasturi describing the role. Even today, she follows the same philosophy, where she encourages everyone in her team to pull their weight, deliver excellence, and work towards a common goal. 

Reiterating the importance of being true to yourself, Kasturi recalled when she first entered the logistics industry. Kasturi described it as an industry where leaders were typically men and expectations were inline with a male personality. Yet, she chose to go against the norms and set her own terms. “I never tried to anybody else. I tried to be the best version of myself,” she said. 

The importance of self-awareness

Kasturi Chellaraja Wilson | Startup Grind
A crucial trait required by leaders is being self-aware. (Image credits: Raw Pixel)

A crucial aspect of leadership according to Kasturi is being self-aware, but it comes with time. A crucial aspect of leadership is giving feedback. This where self-awareness becomes key. Often when her team encountered problems, Kasturi found she was able to prescribe a solution. But it was unfair because it prevented the team from growing. “It isn’t about showing off what you know. It’s about helping the team understand how to solve problems and grow in the process. As a leader, you have to moderate feedback and ensure sustained performance rather than getting a quick win for the day,” she explained. 

With this self-awareness, one learns to identify their strengths and weaknesses. Kasturi identified her key strengths were leadership, and picking up things quickly by listening. But she admitted that her weakness was that she doesn’t know everything. Acknowledging this, she brings specialists into her team to fill the gaps and work together towards a common goal. “You bring everyone together and get them on the same page. Afterwards, you let everyone do their part. It’s easier to organize things that way,” she explains. 

Helping women get back into the workforce

When asked about this topic, Kasturi reflected on the early days of her career. Prioritizing her kids, she took up a part-time job. “What I realized was that I enjoyed my mind being active. As a mum I felt that’s what I missed. It wasn’t the money or positions,” she said. Analysing the current landscape, she acknowledged the need for women in the workforce stating, “It’s an economic imperative that we get the best capable people.” 

Kasturi Chellaraja Wilson | Startup Grind
Kasturi argues it’s essential companies offer options for working mothers reminding, “There’s no cookie cutter option.” (Image credits: Business Insider India)

“But I understand that when women become mothers, it’s necessary to take time off. It’s a unique moment in life. Even if you’re not a mother, there are other obligations. So there needs to be flexibility and understanding,” she added. During her interviews, Kasturi emphasized that she was a mother first with the job being second. “But I was good at my job. You won’t find me slacking,” she reminded. 

Giving her best at the job, Kasturi pushed to give all working mothers at Hemas flexibility. The goal was to offer them room to enjoy doing their job while also enjoying being a mother. To that end, the conglomerate offers different options because “There’s no cookie-cutter option. You need to understand each person’s different wants and needs.” Hemas currently offers both maternity and paternity leave along with a space where mothers can bring their kids and domestic help to the office with a workstation closeby. “We can’t solve everything but these are the things we can offer as a suite of options,” commented Kasturi on these initiatives.

Kasturi Chellaraja Wilson | Startup Grind
The COVID pandemic has shown us that offering flexibility to working mothers with options like working from home isn’t impossible. (Image credits: Vlada Karpovich)

She argued that it’s vital that organizations offer options to women in the workforce to unplug and then plug back in. The COVID pandemic has shown working from home isn’t impossible. But the real-issue Kasturi highlighted was, “When a person takes more than 6 months full-time leave, without being connected to its ecosystem, they’ll find the company has evolved. The challenges it faces would be different and various decisions were made. So there’s an issue where they may have to explore a different role or take a backseat to catch up.” 

Working with mentors to grow as a leader

Kasturi Chellaraja Wilson | Startup Grind
Throughout her career, Kasturi had different mentors and worked with a coach to help bridge the gaps and help her prepare for new leadership roles.

When asked about the impact her mentors had on her, Kasturi shared how her first boss helped pay for her CIMA education. A qualification, which she credits for opening many doors for her. Another person she credits for success is the Non-Executive Chairman of Hemas, Husein Esufally. He had always given her feedback and pushed her to explore non-traditional roles, despite Kasturi hailing from a finance background.  

Kasturi went on to share that over the years, she’s had various mentors for different reasons. She’s also had a coach assigned to her by Hemas. Their job isn’t to offer solutions. Rather, these coaching sessions aim to help one evolve, prepare for their next role, in order to create the impact they wish. “After a certain point in life, it’s not just about yourself. It’s about working with others and what they think of you,” adds Kasturi.  

Closing thoughts for the next generation

Kasturi Chellaraja Wilson | Startup Grind
For the youth, Kasturi emphasized the need for continuous learning, encouraging them to speak up and share new ways of thinking (Image credits: Wired)

Towards the end, Kasturi shared a few words of wisdom for the youth entering the workforce, “Don’t stick to a single opinion. Be open to fresh thinking. I believe the youth of today should be creative, excited, and insightful.” She explained the importance of continuous learning and reiterated the need for collaboration. Ultimately it’s all about the consumer. That’s whom anyone should focus on if they wish to succeed in business. 

“Often corporations are tied up in processes. They can miss evolving consumer needs. So if you’re passionate about something, bring it to the table and make your voice heard. Never think your idea is silly because you’re young. We want young people to come in and push new ways of thinking.” – Kasturi Chelleraja Wilson

Shifting towards achieving dreams, she encouraged everyone to dream big. To achieve large dreams, ask others to visualize what happens after the dream becomes real. “Once you get everyone to imagine what the world will look like after the dream is achieved, they’ll work towards it. It should be a collaborative journey where we all grow together,” Kasturi explained. 

With that, another edition Startup Grind Colombo came to an end. Hosted by Sharanyan Sharma, Chapter Director of Startup Grind Colombo and Semal Luthra, the moderator for the event. It was sponsored by ICTA and organized in partnership with several community partners with ReadMe joining as Digital Media Partner. If you’re interested in Startup Grind, you can check out their Facebook page and stay updated.

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