LIFE DOWN FIFE ROAD, COLOMBO -  This is about handloom helping build lives, no run-of-the-mill story. It is about a special person who through the old and ancient art of weaving is empowering women all over the island to stand strong, proud and independent. Sandra Wanduragala, 59, is on the verge of a handover. Her [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Sandra’s goal: Enriching and empowering rural women


Sandra at her favourite haunt - the shop down Fife Road. Pix by Amila Gamage

LIFE DOWN FIFE ROAD, COLOMBO -  This is about handloom helping build lives, no run-of-the-mill story. It is about a special person who through the old and ancient art of weaving is empowering women all over the island to stand strong, proud and independent.

Sandra Wanduragala, 59, is on the verge of a handover. Her baby Selyn is to be taken over by her real-life baby (daughter) Selyna Peiris. The journey for Sri Lanka’s only Fair Trade handloom company has lasted 25 years. It is by no means over, but it is time for the next generation to have a say.

“I will continue for another three years but will be involved in some way even after that,” says Selyn-founder Sandra. A life devoted to uplifting women from Kurunegela to Trincomalee and Negombo to Batticaloa will not be discarded arbitrarily.

Her heir(ess)-apparent, Selyna, says half-in-jest that she hopes her mum will take up politics. This had once been Sandra’s aim. She had toyed with the idea of continuing the tradition of politicians in the family – among them her great-grandfather was G.E. Madawela, a member of the Ceylon State Council under British rule and the first senator from Kurunegela.

But that idea was soon shed. A pity for the founder of Selyn has the integrity and honesty of a saint (one of her favourite persons she draws inspiration from is Mother Teresa). Perhaps these attributes makes her over-qualified to become a politician where the art of rabble-rousing and not statesmanship is what matters today.

“Initially my mind was on politics but it didn’t materialise. I thought it was not for me there as there is a lot of backstabbing and cutthroat competition. I thought I could do something more meaningful through my own initiative. I’m glad I didn’t go down that road,” Sandra smiles roguishly, during a meeting with the Business Times at the company’s Fife Road shop.

International school

We bet the thousands of people who rely on Selyn for a livelihood is also glad that she didn’t do down that road littered with vipers and other critters with two-forked tongues. Also happy will be the thousands of schoolchildren from her other major achievement which was establishing the Royal International School, Kurunegala.

It all began because she was bored of being a lawyer. More than three decades ago, Sandra felt she was missing out on life by just being a notary public and trying to become a pundit in rent and civil matters.

“I had an active practice (I still have it), but it wasn’t interesting. I discovered I wasn’t made only for that. I needed more involvement with people,” Sandra revealed.

Having quickly discarded her political ambitions, she was soon confronted with an opportunity when a Dutch treat landed on her lap. The government of Netherlands was looking for entrepreneurs who would help empower rural women during the regime of President Ranasinghe Premadasa. They came knocking on her door, almost by chance, for previously her husband Dr. Newton Peiris had been involved in exporting handloom.

“We didn’t have any workshops and it was just buying and selling. That enterprise closed down but our company was registered (at the Export Development Board) as one involved in the handloom industry and we were selected for a development programme run by the Netherlands.”

“It was my destiny. An opportunity came my way and I took it. It was only after I took it that it dawned on me that I needed to do something for women in the rural areas and create a facility which would keep them in their homes. It was important as they needed to be with their families,” recounts Sandra.

She started small with just 15 women in her village of Wanduragala in Kurunegala. This was in 1989. A novice to the industry, Sandra learned the finer points of the trade after visiting the Netherlands and Germany as part of the programme. She found that she had a flair for entrepreneurial work and the small workshop flourished. The development initiative was a success for the Dutch government.

Selyn connects with 1000 women

Two years later she opened up her own business – Selyn – naming it after her first-born Selyna who she was feeding on her lap when her husband asked what the name of the new company would be. Today nearly 1,000 women, many working from home, produce a fine range of handloom fabrics, homeware, fashionwear and soft toys. The nimble fingers of skilled artisans create 100 per cent cotton handmade products for Selyn which has become a household Sri Lankan brand.

“I couldn’t manage the business as well as my profession and my two children (son Ravi). So I asked my youngest brother Hillary Wanduragala to help me in the business. He has been an immense support in the day-to-day running of it and plays a huge lead role. I owe him a lot for he stood by me. We have together made Selyn a success. It is not my own achievement. Selyna is there to carry it on for us now.”

Sandra  is a true daughter of Kurunegala. Not only did she have a hand in the business from the outset (it being named after her), but she also had an impact on the establishment of the school with Sandra and her husband Newton wanting their children to be schooled close to home and in an English environment.

So the second part of Sandra’s success story was born – Royal International School, Kurunegala. It was a school where English was the medium of teaching for all students from three-year-olds in the Montessori to 18-year-olds doing their A-Levels.

“Selyna was the first admission at the school,” says Sandra proudly. “We wanted kids from Kurunegala and the surrounding areas to be able to learn in English at a reasonable cost and not having to leave their homes and go to Colombo or Kandy.”

Like Selyn which encourages women to work from home and now empowers them, the school also had small beginnings before becoming a sturdy oak growing over the last 25 years. It today has 2,800 students. Many of its alumni are ever-grateful for Sandra for starting this initiative which her son Ravi now oversees under her guiding hand.

Humble being

Modest and unassuming, you can still sense a lot of pride in what she has achieved. “I’m just a humble woman who has given her life to what she believes in,” she says. “When I look back I don’t remember anything other than working for what I believed in. My father always told us ‘do good for the sake of doing it and don’t expect anything in return’ so we are kind of following that. I don’t expect anything in return but there is a lot of satisfaction knowing that you have been able to make a difference in other people’s lives.”

She has achieved that goal. On her last birthday, a former student of hers posted on her Facebook page the following message: “Madam you have been my role model. You have changed my life so much, my heart has no bottom to tell you how grateful I am”.

Sandra is happy she has made a difference. “I believe that life should be worthwhile. This drives me. I have chosen to live a life which is not normal. The normal woman would choose to stay at home, or do a job content with only looking after her children, and doing some social things and having friends.”

“It has been a different life for me, working, thinking, planning, taking risks, and motivating people, getting them to work, creating products and lifting them. It hasn’t been easy as I have taken a lot of burden on my shoulders, but this has been my choice.”

Having forsaken a normal life in the hope that she could be someone special has been hard and challenging for Sandra but as she says “my passion keeps me going and at the end of the day I will leave something behind for society to remember me by. This is the path I have chosen.”

Saint of Calcutta

She has read the biography of the Saint of Calcutta from cover to cover and is inspired it by it. At the same time she feels a sense of shame for “I have not even achieved one-tenth of what Mother Theresa did”.

What a great politician Sandra would have been. But she is convinced she was right to spurn the idea of going into politics.

“I believe I have done more taking this path than becoming a politician. It is tangible, and I can see what has been achieved. I’m the decision-maker and I don’t have to depend on anyone else what to do. If I was a politician I would have to be guided by someone else’s vision and beliefs.

“By being involved with Selyn, I have had an insight into the problems rural women face. And this is what motivates me. I really don’t believe people (the government) understand what is needed. People sit in Colombo and know nothing. The people who are elected from the area are mostly men and they don’t understand what needs to be done. I am happy to do this as a private individual.”

But if she did run for office from the Kurunegala district, there is no question as to who the people would vote for.

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