Think. Innovate. Lead.
Lakmini Wijesundera Co-founder and CEO Global Operations | IronOne Technologies
Having contributed to the Sri Lankan’s economy at the high est level, Mrs. Lakmini Wijesundera; Co-founder and CEO of IronOne Technologies, has been named Sri Lanka’s Woman Entrepreneur of the Year by Women Chamber of Industry and Commerce in 2016. Apart from that, she has been awarded with Woman Exporter of the Year and Gold Award Winner as well. She has been recognized for her business’ development strategies for enhancing competitiveness of her business and innovative approaches for solving business problems. She shared her honest thoughts with Exposition readers about how she climbed up the ladder to experience such great achievements.
I am honored and really happy that Sri Lanka, as a country, has started to focus and assist females to get into more leadership roles. I am really honored by the fact that I was given that title. It also made me feel that there’s a responsibility, because when you are given something it’s not like before; you are given something, to do something with it. This has given me much inspiration to go out there, be better and to make my company better. To put it shortly, it helped me a lot.
I would start by saying that I’m not even halfway through my journey yet; the point at which I am now, is almost like the start; of a new beginning. It took me a while to figure out what exactly I wanted to do. I was kind of lucky to have known that I wanted to work with computers or solutions; to begin with. Having already had my foundation, I didn’t have to look around too much. But now, in fact, I have found my way, I have found my place. I know what I’m capable of. We at IronOne, have 4 areas that are doing extremely well.
BoardPAC is a board automation solution that actually has the power and ability to be the best in the world. Currently, we are undisputedly the best in Asia as shown by many of our board meetings; in fact, large co-operations tend to work with us. I have a vision and a mission so to say. I have to say that, making BoardPAC be a global leader will automatically put Asia, Sri Lanka and its women, in the global forefront. We are on our way with that ambition; that is why I said that it’s a start of a massive global run, and we are working towards achieving it. When you asked me what it was like to have been given the title, what I could put into perspective is the fact that- what you see is an award or an achievement, but, in actuality, an “achievement” precedes hundreds of failures, hundreds of challenges. Puzzlingly, we don’t publish failures in newspapers or anything, we publish our achievements only. As a matter of fact, we have to understand that, for anyone who has achieved anything; the bigger the achievement, the bigger the failures had been. So, whoever wants to achieve has to be ready to endure a lot of rejections, a lot of hardships, because one milestone or success actually comes after a series of very difficult activities.
That is what it had been like for us, and I think we enjoyed it and thrived for it. As I always say, if something comes in our way and blocks us, we can choose to be blocked by it permanently or to make it temporary. We would need to try harder to get through that block and as we cross through to the other side, it would be very much less crowded as everyone else would be helped up by the block. That is what I constantly think of as I encounter situations of different dimensions.
IronOne has 3 areas, and BoardPAC is definitely the one I wish keep working on. We have set a target to be the world’s best board automation solution within the next 3 years, starting from 2017. We will take it there with a huge market share. ATrad is another area which is an online soft trading product. Currently, we are the dominant player in Sri Lanka. To put it quantitatively, 80% of the soft trades that Colombo stock exchange carries out, comes through ATrad. So, since we are presently dominating the market, we are doing pretty well. We have decided to go overseas; Bombay stock exchange is being integrated now. In comparison, we have about 24 brokers whereas Bombay stock exchange has over 1000; so we will be quite busy, and that is just one out of the many markets we are looking at.
I will not go into further detailing about the other products as they too are in similar paths. So, essentially, what we found is that we are not going generic anymore, we are not going to do what other people are already doing. Instead, we are trying to find some special paths and everything we do is for global dominance. We are doing something for a huge impact, we are focusing on being something more than just another co-existing software solution. I think we are here to give some good fight internationally. So everything we are touching these days, is quite special.
The core strength of IronOne is that we are a group of people who are quite passionate. Our tagline is think, innovate and lead. So starting from this, we are not doing standard stuff. We are looking at doing special things; impactful things. The whole team actually here is not for a job. I think we in fact tell them if you are going for a job, there are hundreds of companies to go and you can find a job. This is something special, if you want to be a part of this journey and create both Sri Lanka and Asia right on top, join with us.
Sri Lanka is a relatively a smaller country. India is right next to us with a population of one billion. I think that we have strengths. We are very analytical as companies who operate. Everywhere we go, the Sri Lankan is accepted much, and the Sri Lankan has acquired a very good name even within the companies in those countries. Sri Lanka has kept this name in the international industry and we have a lot to talk about technologies. So our people have to look at specializing. I see the trends like driverless cars: Standard coders, the bottom layer of software engineering will be automated. So if you are going for a driving job or come into a software, and if you just stay there for about 5 to 10 years, you will lose your job. So we have to specialize. I think we have the capability. In a sense, IronOne is in the products because again it’s innovation and specialty. I really think we can make Sri Lanka as the country known for good products. Products don’t need thousands of people. They need only about 200 people and you can dominate the market.
I must say being a woman has helped me because you know that female or woman entrepreneur or the female exporter of the year; there is no any male entrepreneur or something. The title actually has helped me. I am not saying that the titles do matter alone. But, titles certainly did help me because; in international markets they are given a very high value. Assume someone has an award; it helps to put them in the limelight. I must say the local awards that I got starting from the women’s chamber and then, the national chamber of exports, which I have got it for the second time, two again in a row. These actually helped me to get seen by the international community. I specifically say EY, where Ernst & Young has a global a program. So it was very easy for Ernst and Young to locally nominate me for the global program and I was selected from Asia Pacific. we are doing pretty well during that time. That is helping me a lot with overseas marketing and many other things.
Also being a woman has helped me in the respect. Because, when I started my company, I didn’t really think I am a woman or I am this or that, we just focused on the working stuff. But, when you look at this office, there is a minority of women. Perhaps because these sorts of software related work is mostly done by men. So when you are a woman, I think you can be seen very much. Because, you are among the minority. So, I used every opportunity that I can get advantage. That is the way I am looking at it.
There were so many challenges. When I originally started quite a long time ago, I found it really difficult to figure out what I should do. I didn’t have a product to begin with, but I wanted to do something impactful. So we started off by offering services, but we were always on search for a potential product to develop a unique identity. Then, one by one the products came; at first, as requests from clients, and we found out that there are good solutions to sort out with a potential demand. So Atrad – Online Trading, came out as one of the first products. BoardPAC came in 2011, which is our best product for now. Further, there are others like Infosense which is a special kind of a BI platform. So, finding a product that is worthwhile, and building it was the biggest challenge. That whole phase was quite difficult because you have to find the right people and enough money to proceed, and to pay the salaries of the employees. It was challenging because I had to grow organically without sponsor. So we had to do things on our own and pay for ourselves. Now we have come to a point where we have to scale. Like I said, market dominance is about the ability to sell millions of copies to so many people. After trying various things what I found was, at the beginning, we became successful because my employees; including myself were very good as individuals. But then, we have realized that we can’t massively grow by just that ourselves being good. So the next stage has come. We have to grow in order to achieve market dominance. That means that the team has to be amazingly brilliant. It’s not only about the Sri Lankan context. Now we already have overseas staff from over 7 countries. Finding the right people, growing them and coaching them is another different phase. So, that’s my challenge for the moment. It’s not about market conditions. The challenge is within us, to find our way.
If I compare, when I consider myself as a youth, we had a hard time. Everything was difficult. So, we automatically became quite hard-working. So we are persistent and resilient. But, these days I feel that the youth has everything easily. Earlier our lives had to be planned and it was quite difficult. The youth now don’t get that training by default. It’s a thing that is missing. You all expect for quick results, which is not the real life is about. You have to wait, and you have to work on something for a longer period in order to achieve a good result. You have all the gadgets, but actually it’s a disadvantage, because you are not getting life training. I find that in the newer employees who join my organization. I am not saying all of them are likewise, but you have to show them that achieving something big means you have to be patient. The youth has to improve their overall attitude to be a perfectionist; excelling one’s self, being responsible, even small things like writing your letters without typing mistakes. It used to matter a lot to us when we were young. But then, for the youth nowadays, these are of little concern with the facilities such as texting and autocorrecting. These little things make a huge impact. Everybody, including the government, say that Sri Lanka is geographically located at a center of trade. I feel that the youth must take the advantage of this to connect with other Asian countries. Sri Lanka is too small, so we must actually take Asia as our map when we try to launch a product or a service. So, I would like the youth to see this opportunity to make benefits.
I am a purpose-oriented person. A fine purpose is what wakes me up in the morning. It is what keeps me up awake. Only when I was trying to be impactful, I found a purpose. I found a vessel to make an impact for Sri Lanka, Asia and women as well. I am a person who is interested in doing things that is meaningful. It should be mentioned that right now, I am in the middle of the craziest ride along with everybody here. That’s me. After all, this is a game that we’re playing. It is a challenge that we have to face. So we play, we strive to do something. Let’s say our goal is to make the best couple of products in the world, and we would not be able to do it for some reason, but it is all fun for us because we try our best. So particularly, I’m not a person who take things too seriously or philosophically. I try to have some fun because we are here for a short time. Hence, do something good and leave.
I must say there’s a lot of potential in younger generations. Even when I go out there to speak with those people overseas, they prefer to know about Sri Lankan people’s abilities. There’s a huge market need for IT people for most of the companies when compared with other sectors in the industry. I would like to encourage people to get involved with jobs overseas as well because Sri Lankans have the potential to take up to that challenge. For example, compared to India and other countries, Sri Lanka has more potential to work with overseas customers. So, capacity is there. The job market should be good.
Actually, I did not have any. I just wanted to finish off my secondary education at school. I thought the real life would begin after this whole school thing ends. In fact, I found mathematics and other certain subjects which were easy for me and interesting. So as a child, I didn’t imagine that I am going to do anything in particular. Frankly speaking, I was an introvert. I didn’t really want too much attention on me either. I am even surprised looking at myself now. Anyway, I always wanted to do something which was interesting. Unlike other children, I did not want to save the world. I have had no particular vision like that. I just wanted to enjoy the life.
After I completed my studies, I went to England. I worked at 2 companies back then, and came back to the homeland. When I was working at Lankabell, I came across software development, and I wanted to start something on my own to explore things.
Quite challengeable to be exact. But, the real challenge was to create something really valuable. Becoming a CEO was not quite difficult with all the authority followed with the position itself. But, making a company to be successful where I am a CEO was a tough journey. I don’t see myself on any gender specification. We come here and we just do it. Regardless the gender specification whoever fits in the job, gets on with the job. Tough decisions that I had to take when recruiting the accurate person for the perfect job was one of the main challenges I faced being the CEO of my company.
We have thousands of clients as of now. Not a single opportunity was a bed full of roses. Specially, the first ones. Sometimes, it took us several years for a single project, but still we kept on going. Let me mention you one of the experiences I came across, once when I was in India and visited the Airtel, the secretary told me that, “You know Lakmini I have seen a lot of products and your competitor products. But when other people come, meet me and when I give them a challenge they don’t come back. But you always do. You always come back with a response.” He appreciated that our products are better than that of our competitor’s. Airtel is just an example. There are many other reputed companies which were really satisfied with the quality of the service and the products we offer in our company.
Socially what happens is women carry a lot of burden in terms of children and the social work. Their time is limited. But when it comes to me, I put a lot more effort on work rather than my personal life. Actually, I don’t have any kids of my own. If I had any, I don’t know whether if I could have this much of free time to concentrate on the work. Definitely, the society is changing; the men and the whole society are taking more ownership of family units. But, what happens traditionally is that women play a major role in such situations implicitly. In the meantime, you won’t be able to concentrate to do something very serious when you are within a time constraint. You can’t afford excuses like taking leaves for a kid’s sickness in an environment like this. Definitely, this can be a direct challenge for women. In my perspective, things like female awards and all are awarded in order to encourage women to draw their attention more towards the industry rather than being framed only within the family concept or domesticity. Actually, I am very lucky to say that as my family obligations are quite very low, it offers me the real freedom needed for my work to be balanced easily.
Like I said earlier, our motto is “think, innovate, and lead”. Everyone who comes here is not for a job. We work like its life and death. That is the kind of work that we have here; team that we can rely on. Ability to rely on people is extremely important as much as talent. The word “team” is a broad concept where its culture lies as a network. We consider ourselves as a family. For me, the main criterion when recruiting a person is the attitude. It’s true that capability, talent, skills, personality and many more qualifications matter in order to fit in to a particular job. But if the attitude is there, all the other qualifications come around implicitly. To be more precise, it is the correct attitude, not the smartness or the talent that will survive in this field in the long run.
With a quick flashback to my university life, what I think I achieved mostly is to learn to give focus, and to stick to something for a certain period of time. Moreover, networking and working with other people as a university undergraduate helped me to improve all the social skills now I’ve gotten within myself. If I talk about the studies to be exact, I know for a fact that it is the same as of now with regard of being an undergraduate of a university. But for software engineers, may be a little less because, some of those coursework can be used now. Usually, we relearn everything when we come to the Industry. Mainly, the technological things. University education gives you the basics for you to stand up and walk towards the society whereas the real life gives you the experience in a much harder and a rougher way than that of a university. In the university, it is just a project for about maximum of one-year or so. But in the real scenario, it is your life we are talking about. I learnt that I can do anything; the confidence within myself in the university itself. My advice for university undergraduates like you is; engage in a lot of extracurricular activities and gain confidence. Because, after the graduation you will have only two options. That is to start your own company and become an employer or become an employee in someone else’s company. Actually for both, you need the confidence. In fact, I talked about the attitude previously. Part of it is the confidence. Even if the person is without any skills, if he is confident enough, he will learn the skills gradually and continue with his work easily.