The best of both worlds

By Vashni Benjamin

Kasturi Chellaraja Wilson, Managing Director of Hemas Pharmaceuticals (Pvt.) Ltd. and Hemas Logistics and Maritime cluster were recently named by the Sri Lankan Parliament one of 12 women changemakers who has made a great contribution to the country. With a mantra of passion, authenticity, and courage, this working mother takes immense pride in having the best of motherhood alongside a flourishing career. With a background in sports, including experience playing for the national netball and basketball teams, Wilson’s journey full of unexpected turns up the corporate ladder teaches valuable lessons in doing your best, being true to yourself, and never backing down from a challenge.

The Sunday Morning Brunch got in touch with Kasturi Wilson to discuss the beginning of career, challenges of being a working mother, corporate leadership, and the journey altogether.

Your career is an inspiration to many. Where would you say it all began?

All these years, whenever I heard this question, I thought my “career” began when I became a single mother and began my first full-time job as a financial controller at Aramex.

But in a literal sense, it began when I started my first job in audit at Someswaran Jayawickreme & Co. straight out of school. I was initially recruited to play netball, but I became qualified as an accountant while employed there. At that point, however, I didn’t want a career – I just wanted to be a mother. So for me, that was just a “job”.

For a long time, I never called myself a “career woman”, but rather a “mother who had a career”. It was only after I became a single mother at 29 that I actually began to focus on building my career and that was when it really took off. Looking back now, I’ve come to realise that if not for that base qualification – experience as an auditor – and the realisation that I could be good at it, I couldn’t have started anywhere.

You attribute many of your qualities to your background in sports. In what ways has sports changed your outlook on not just work, but life in general?

Firstly, it has helped me integrate into any team with people of diverse backgrounds. When you’re a part of a team, you don’t have a choice but to learn to accept and appreciate everyone. Sports gave me the ability to adapt to any setting. Therefore, I can work in any condition with anyone.

It also teaches you to lean on others. When it comes to team sports, you cannot win alone. Likewise, when it comes to the corporate world, no single person can make or break a company. You need to work as a team in order to succeed.

When playing sports, you also learn that you don’t suddenly become good at something; you need to work hard and have the passion to do well. I am a passionate person. I wanted to do my best in sports, so I would go to the field and practise every day. The same concept applies to life as well. Through every stage of my career, I don’t turn around and think “I’m good at what I do”. I do my research and learn, and listen to people. Sports teach you the discipline of being thorough and diligent.

It also teaches you to face challenges. You need to have the courage to walk in and do your best no matter what formidable team you’re playing against. When you come from a sporting background, there is little that daunts you because you get used to working under tough conditions. And if you’ve lost or a hit a bad patch, you only get back and think about how you could overcome it.

And personally, it taught me to lead, in the school team as well as the national basketball team, where I was able to captain for one year. Leading teams is not just a title – it’s a hard task of banding a group of individuals together to help them work together and appreciate each other.

As a single mother, how were you able to manage that role while reaching the heights you have reached as a career woman?

Firstly, I was one of the lucky ones who had kids very early and therefore, when I began to focus on my career, I was still young and my kids were not too young. By the time I took on senior leadership roles, my kids were independent and that was an advantage I had. Like any working mother, I had to face the same challenges, guilt, and compromises, but as a single mother, I had the added challenge of taking on two roles to be a mother and a father to my children.

When you’re a single mother, you’re a woman who juggles these roles as well as a job and you often feel like you have nobody to share your own issues and challenges with. But what came really naturally to me was to lean on people, my parents who were there with me, and my domestics. I also learnt to lean on the organisation because wherever I worked, I would emphasise that being a mother was my first priority and that my job came next. However, as I was good at my job, they appreciated the value I brought into the organisation and they acknowledged and understood the fact that, as a single mother, I needed to be there for my children.

So I would say I managed by leaning on people and being honest about my priorities, which in turn helped them understand how they could support me in order to bring the best out of me.

When it comes to women, they often think that it’s either work or family. As someone who takes a lot of happiness in the family, do you think that compromise is necessary?

I think a certain level of compromise is necessary because you have to make your own choices and stand by them. I don’t mean big ones like deciding whether to work or not, but daily choices like choosing between attending an event or spending that time with your family.

However, keep in mind that once you make a choice, you must not regret it. For example, if you choose a work event over family time, you mustn’t complain about having to make that choice. And as you keep learning, you will reach a point where you know which choice to make.

Conversation is important and necessary, both with your organisation and your family, because you must make it clear why you are making these choices. Sometimes the choices are tough, but as long as you are able to ensure to your organisation that you will get your work done and are open and honest about your capabilities, things will fall into place eventually. But yes, there are compromises needed to be made.

You stated earlier that your company played a big role in your climb up the corporate ladder. What are some aspects that helped make your journey easier, especially as a woman?

The first thing is that they accepted me for who I am – a woman who is talented but is, first and foremost, a mother. They were sensitive about my needs and cared about the other roles I played, which in turn motivated me to give my best.

The next thing is that, at Hemas, there is generally no gender bias. It’s more about performance. Even when I was appointed Managing Director for transportation, they didn’t think that the role was for a man nor did they worry that I as a woman wouldn’t be able to handle it.

They trusted my ability to take up the challenge, think differently, drive the team, and produce results.

Despite that, they were mindful of my situation and didn’t expect me to compete in the same footing as a man, and therefore, they didn’t put me in a position where I would have to make an uncomfortable choice between my work and kids.

Every person comes with their own obligations and at Hemas, they make an attempt to understand the person to ensure that they are able to manage both aspects of their life.

Do you think other companies in the country are taking these steps and if not, in which aspects do you think they should bring about change?

I think companies are trying to improve the gender imbalance; they understand that there is a big fallout rate when women reach the midpoint in their careers. One of the reasons is that when women have kids, they choose motherhood without realising that they have a choice of having the best of both worlds – motherhood and a career. Up to now, most of the policies have been based on old-school thinking, but many corporations are adjusting and moving towards flexible hours and working from home when necessary – one of the key reasons being retention of talent, especially targeting women.

As a country, we are working in the right direction, but it’s a two-way street and women too need to adjust their needs in order to make compromises on both sides.

If you look at the roles of leadership in many of our country’s institutions, the percentage of women in those roles in comparison to the population of women in the workforce is quite disappointing. Where do you think the problem lies?

If the dropout rate is high in the middle management level, there is understandably even less who make it to the senior management level. And even at that level, the environment and culture is different and women are not often seen as being capable of holding a leadership role. Sometimes women too feel intimidated because at that level, it is essentially a boys’ club.

Furthermore, many women choose to be homemakers and at times have no choice but to do so, therefore losing out in the competition. The situation, however, is changing and in comparison to how it was 10 years ago, there are more women coming into these roles. But it’s not a problem that can be fixed overnight; it concerns institutions and culture, and women too need to understand the choices they make. There’s no simple answer to the problem.

You, along with 11 other amazing women, have been recognised for being a changemaker by the Sri Lankan Parliament. Is it something that the younger version of you would have predicted?

I probably thought I would be well-known for sports, but definitely not a business setting such as this. That being said, I was always someone who fought for the underdog and stood up for those who were bullied, so I wanted be a changemaker in that aspect, but this was definitely unexpected.

Being named a ‘changemaker’ without doubt makes you an inspiration to many people, especially young women. What are some words of wisdom or advice you wish someone told you when you started off your career?

Nobody actually gave me any wise words, but my mother did tell me that I needed to have a qualification to be independent someday.
As for me, I would like to tell them not to be too focused on what they want to achieve and where they want to end up, because if you are too focused on a specific path, you may not see the opportunities that rise from alternative paths. And when you are fixated on a certain result, you forget to do well today, which in turn may put your future at risk.

Also, don’t restrict yourself saying that certain roles aren’t for you. Throughout my career, I didn’t have a set goal, but I knew I wanted to do my best in whatever I undertook. I myself had some self-doubt when it came to the change of my role into technology and transportation, but I took that opportunity to learn. When I was offered my current role in pharmaceuticals, I didn’t even hesitate because I knew that if I didn’t know something, I could always learn. I also learnt to be self-aware and know my capabilities because I could always get help from those who knew more as long as I did my part.

If they wanted to emulate your success, what are three things they cannot go without?

It’s about being passionate in whatever you do, being authentic, and embracing any challenge thrown at you.

Something you’ve emphasised quite often in previous interviews is the idea of ‘being yourself and not changing for others’. On the contrary, there are a lot of people who preach change and ask you to be adaptable to change – to have a ‘do whatever it takes to get there’ mentality. What is your take on that?

I say that because I believe that my greatest strength is wearing my own skin very well. The experiences I’ve gone through and the things I’ve learnt have made me who I am today, and I see no need to deny that. I have a very strong value system – integrity is important to me and in my opinion, being authentic is the best way to succeed because it’ll help people understand where you come from and they will know that you are genuine. I may not be the ideal human being, but I see no need to package myself into a version that people will like because, at the end of the day, that is not the real you.