By Hafsah Muheed & Sharanya Sekaram
Everystory Sri Lanka presents the first thirty stories from our ongoing work to create a compendium of Sri Lankan women’s stories — featuring those whose lives, work, and experiences have shaped and are shaped by Sri Lanka’s social, political, and cultural contexts.
From the Stories of Sri Lankan Women Archive — Kasturi Chellaraja-Wilson
Illustration by Nathasha Wickramasinghe- email@example.com
Kasturi Chellaraja Wilson’s journey to being appointed as the first female Group Chief Executive Officer of a public quoted conglomerate in Sri Lanka has been one of resistance and perseverance. It is also a story of grit, determination, and generational support. Kasturi’s unique journey of navigating the corporate world while being true to her values has inspired many women and reminds us all why representation matters.
Reflecting on her childhood and adolescence, Kasturi credits her mother with the entirety of her foundation, speaking with a deep love for the woman who held their family together — financially, emotionally, and spiritually — and ensured her daughters had the education to be independent. Kasturi paints a vivid picture of this, describing how, “when my mother wanted to give meat since my sister and I played a lot of sports when we could not afford to buy chicken, we had 50–100 chickens at home and cleaning them up after school was a chore we did.” Through this support, Kasturi explored her talent as an athlete to play basketball nationally for Sri Lanka. Kasturi wears a bangle that once belonged to her mother and symbolizes the struggle and sacrifices she made for them. She shares how, “when I used to play basketball for Sri Lanka, the tours used to come. And she has this whole dilemma of how I give, how does she give this daughter at least $50 to take on this trip whereas others had access to the money. So, she would go and pawn this set of bangles. I keep wearing it.”
As Kasturi became older, she found the strength and resilience to face the mountains that loomed above her. As she became a single mother with two young children, she drew from her early life’s core strength and values to build back up and re-enter the workforce as needed to provide for her family. Here she speaks emotionally of her deep love for her two sons, who have been the shining light in her life through the turbulence, “I’m looking at them and see them looking at me the way I looked at my mum. I’m sure they see me as a person who has sacrificed a lot, built a lot for them.” Despite the glamorous image of her projected by others, Kasturi unabashedly speaks openly about where she has come from and her pride in moving forward in her life. She recalls when her two kids, herself and the dog had to share one room, and she would sleep on a mattress as late as 2006, driven by her determination to provide a better life for her children by saving every penny and building their own house.
Kasturi has found solidarity within the Hemas family, where she would go on to make history, describing how she progressed across various senior leadership roles characterized by her ability to connect with people and be herself. “I keep my presentations or the discussion close to the floor. And it didn’t come out as too fancy. I was always encouraged to change my presentations, the way I approach things. Yes, there was some merit to things. But I always resisted that as… how do I own the boardroom the way I know best,” she muses. It has come with challenges; she says, “That was one of the areas I had to develop, how I take my thoughts and articulate in a way they understand it without losing my core.”
When the news of her appointment to Group CEO broke, two things stood out for Kasturi in the whirl of press, media, and chatter. One was the feeling of pressure of how her performance in this role would fairly or unfairly have an indelible impact on the reputation of female leadership inherited by the next generation. The second was a feeling of immense joy and emotion with the outpouring of messages from women she had, in many cases, never met. “There were two types of messages I got,” she explains. “One was from the younger generation wanting to congratulate, talk and celebrate. It was so encouraging and heartwarming to see, and they didn’t hold back their emotions…There were those who said thank you for opening doors for us to succeed. They all are aspiring more for themselves, which is amazing. Secondly, women who had given up their careers because of pressures and kids and lacked the confidence to get back into careers were wanting to get back.”
Kasturi draws strongly from the female bonds that have been her strength throughout her life. Beginning with her mother, she also leans on her close circle of friends who help her stay balanced, “Even now during this juncture when I have taken over and I do work long hours, their feedback is; Kasturi we get you have to chill, let’s meet up, and it’s like; are you taking time out for yourself.” She passes this learning of the need for a support circle and being true to yourself through her mentoring work with young women. She hopes to impart in her work and journey that being a feminine leader is possible; being a leader with a family — man or woman — and enjoying your life at the same time is possible. She hopes — starting with her children — that we all ask ourselves one key question, “One thing I learnt very early is finding your inner self. What makes you happy, what is your inner sense of fulfilment?”
(Hafsah Muheed is a feminist and a gender equality advocate working on women in leadership, sexual and reproductive health rights, diversity and inclusion; community outreach and engagement for sustainable development goals; mental health and empowering persons with disabilities for seven business units and seven communities across Sri Lanka.)
(Sharanya Sekaram is the co-founder of Everystory Sri Lanka and identifies (for now) as a Sri Lankan feminist activist, researcher, and writer — working as a consultant in the gender space. She is currently reading for a Post-Graduate Diploma in Women and Gender Studies at the University of Colombo, and you can find her on Twitter @sharasekaram and on her blog “Writing from That Sekaram Girl”)
Reference Links and Further Reading
“It’s not about being a perfect mum or a perfect career woman”, ft.lk, 9th May 2014, http://www.ft.lk/columns/its-not-about-being-a-perfect-mum-or-perfect-career-woman/4-292774
An accountant’s barrier breaking rise to CEO, FM Magazine, 2nd March 2021, https://www.fm-magazine.com/news/2021/mar/hemas-holdings-ceo-kasturi-wilson-fcma-cgma.html
A Guide to Leadership from Kasturi Chellaraja Wilson: Lessons from Startup Grind Colombo, LankaTalks, 7th July 2020, https://www.lankatalks.com/entrepreneurship/a-guide-to-leadership-from-kasturi-chellaraja-wilson-lessons-from-startup-grind-colombo/
Kasturi Chellaraja Wilson, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kasturi_Chellaraja_Wilson
“Your Beginning doesn’t define your end,” Pulse.lk, 22nd January 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X2IXYUfMtKc
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