The ‘glass ceiling’ has been shattered in Sri Lanka and another male bastion is breached. But……..“I am a mother first and then a professional. Family always comes first,” is the simple and totally unexpected declaration from the trailblazer who has achieved this feat, as the Sunday Times sits before her for an exclusive, no-holds barred [...]


Life wasn’t all a game for this single mum

Excelling in the sports field where many a lesson was learnt growing up, Kasturi Chellaraja Wilson who is set to make history in the country by becoming the first woman to head a conglomerate talks to Kumudini Hettiarachchi

A day in the office: Kasturi Chellaraja Wilson. Pic by M.A. Pushpa Kumara

The ‘glass ceiling’ has been shattered in Sri Lanka and another male bastion is breached.

But……..“I am a mother first and then a professional. Family always comes first,” is the simple and totally unexpected declaration from the trailblazer who has achieved this feat, as the Sunday Times sits before her for an exclusive, no-holds barred chat on Tuesday morning at Braybrooke Place, Colombo 2.

For the first time in the history of this country, one of a handful of conglomerates has announced the appointment of someone from the fairer sex as its Group Chief Executive Officer (CEO) effective October 1.

The glass-ceiling shatterer is Kasturi Chellaraja Wilson and the conglomerate, Hemas Holdings PLC.

While millions of people are familiar with Hemas through its products and services in consumer, healthcare, mobility and leisure sectors, the handful of conglomerates in the country includes John Keells Holdings PLC, Aitken Spence PLC, Hayleys PLC and Softlogic Holdings PLC.

As soon as the media release went out from Hemas Holdings about the appointment along with a stunning photograph of Kasturi the previous week, viral it went on social media, securing over a million hits.

Kasturi’s journey to the summit has not been without its vicissitudes. Growing up in a middle class family as the younger of two girls in their home in Wellawatte, her father was an accountant and her mother a teacher. Their father stopped working when she was around 4 years old, for he had taken to alcohol and could not hold down a job. Her mother then worked three jobs, teaching in a school in the morning and at university in the afternoon and winding up her day with tuition at home, to keep food on the table.

“There was a lot of bickering in our home,” says Kasturi who hated that and earnestly took up sports, athletics, netball and basketball, at the convent by the sea, Holy Family Bambalapitiya, which embraced her and nurtured her potential. Bickering was also something she didn’t want in her own marriage even though she was passionate about family.

Girlhood for the sisters was usual, only marred by the differences that arose between their parents. They had their chores, for those were the days when fresh eggs were part of the daily diet and they had as many as 50 hens, with the sisters alternately cleaning the coop or feeding the poultry.

If they spent their bus-fare on achcharu, they ran all the way to HFC or cycled there. Whenever her father didn’t have a drink and that was quite often as he didn’t have a job and no money, he looked after the home and the girls, making their breakfast and bringing their lunch to school whenever they had practices.

It was on the sports field that Kasturi learnt at a very tender age that if “you are good, excelled at something, people valued you and adapted to what you needed”, something which held her in good stead in her climb up the corporate ladder.

Kasturi with the loves of her life Amrith (right) and Ashvindh (left)

Two names which keep cropping up when she talks of her school career are those of Principal Sr. Charles Koelmeyer and sports mistress Ms. Trixie Jayasuriya, while she smilingly points out that she totally lacked ambition and only won the mathematics and English prizes in class and naturally assumed she would do engineering. Her sports skills honed her leadership qualities and brought her the privilege of being appointed Deputy Games Captain in Grade 11, an honour not bestowed on any other and then the next year Games Captain.

Kasturi remembers that even in the Advanced Level (AL) she was more out of class than in, due to sports, with her mother sending a plea to the teachers to “please allow her to study”.

She had become a star netball player and a week after she sat the ALs came a postcard to her home from the chartered accountancy firm Someswaran Jayewickreme & Co., (currently Deloitte), offering her a job as an audit trainee with a starting salary of Rs. 200, a princely sum in the 1980s. “I thought it was for my elder sister who was studying accountancy,” she says, but it was for her, though she had not even done accountancy for the Ordinary Level, having kelinma halala (dropped) this subject for art which didn’t need poring over books.

Initially, Kasturi “muddled through” in this audit firm, she concedes, but her passion to do well in whatever she did saw her through, like when she was expected to do 1,000 shots during netball practice as she was somewhat of an OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) person.

Her AL results made her eligible to enter the University of Colombo for the physical science course. Her sister who had gone before her to the University of Moratuwa had not been able to handle the ragging and left.

The memories are still vivid of the first day at university. Those were the troubled times of the youth insurrection of 1988-89 and as Kasturi was walking in, a senior had summoned her with crooked finger: “Oya enna.” Glancing over her shoulder whether he was addressing someone behind her, to her horror she had realized that she was his focus.

“Turning around, I went home,” she says, acknowledging that it was the first time in her life she gave up without trying which “broke me inside”.

Her mother was not a conventional thinker of those times. While pushing her daughters to get qualified so that they would be financially independent, Kasturi sheepishly explains that “Mum never wanted us to cook or wash clothes as she didn’t want us to be slaves in the kitchen”.

No 7: Kasturi representing Sri Lanka in Basketball

On a winning streak on the netball courts for Someswaran Jayewickreme & Co., Hatton National Bank had attempted to head-hunt the entire team of seven, when her employer promoted her as senior auditor and offered to pay the fees she could ill-afford for her to become a chartered accountant, which she found to be “dead boring” but set her mind on qualifications of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA).

The understanding was that her bosses would pay the course fee but she had to pass all examinations in the first shy, a challenge she took up as it was her mother’s dearest wish.

The days were packed with activity – gruelling practices as she was playing for Sri Lanka (as a member of the National Netball & Basketball Teams, captaining the latter in 1989), working and studying, all commutes by bus with the conductor (those were the days when there were regular buses) looking out for her and telling her, “Baba eh paththata yanna epa,” if there were any rough-looking characters.

“I loved those times, though I didn’t have any money. We travelled abroad for the Asian Games and got to see the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Iran,” she says, while she also passed her CIMA exams.

By 22, Kasturi took another important step in her life’s journey, entering wedlock and by the time she was 25, she was the mother of two boys, Amrith and Ashvindh.

Strongly family-oriented, the moment she became pregnant she wanted to quit her job, but Someswaran Jayewickreme & Co., made allowances for her to work part-time enabling her to be a good mother, also keeping her mind active, while playing a good game of netball too.

It was 1999 when Kasturi and her husband (they are still friends) parted company because she did not want their constant arguments to affect her sons and she returned to her parental home.

A career change came too, moving from Someswaran Jayewickreme & Co., where Kasturi had risen swiftly to Audit Manager & Director Consultancy, to Aramex Airborne Lanka and Confifi Hotels as Financial Controller and finally joining Hemas Holdings in March 2002, where she was initially General Manager Finance and then Director Finance at HemTours (currently Diethelm Travels).

Diverse roles followed as Head of the Group’s Shared Services Unit, Vishwa BPO and CPO (Chief Process Officer) before being appointed Managing Directress, Hemas Transportation, whereby her portfolio also included Hemas Aviation, Hemas Logistics and Hemas Maritime Services and subsequently Hemas Pharmaceuticals, Hemas Surgicals and Hemas Diagnostics.

Currently, Kasturi also serves on the Boards of Morison PLC, Hemas Consumer Brands and Capital Alliance Limited as a Non-Executive Director. She is also the current President of the Sri Lanka Chamber of the Pharmaceutical Industry (SLCPI), the first woman to hold this position.

Among the wide array of positions are also Committee Member of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce (CCC), Member of the Sub-Committee on Economic, Fiscal and Policy Planning of the chamber and Member of the National Agenda Committee for Logistics and Maritime of the chamber; and serving on the Boards of CIMA, Sri Lanka, and the American Chamber of Commerce in Sri Lanka.

Kasturi was among the 12 most ‘Powerful and Influential Women in Sri Lanka’ and recognized as being one of the 12 Top Women Change-Makers in the country in 2019 by the Parliament of Sri Lanka and USAID.

On July 1, Kasturi took up the mantle of Deputy CEO of Hemas Holdings, with the planned succession (after Steven Enderby) to the seat of Group CEO, come October.

Now that her sons are in Australia pursuing their studies, she laughs that her roles are reversed. All this while, it had always been family first.

“People understood,” she says, but still she was consumed by guilt sometimes that she would be in office, while her child was running a fever and in bed at home. She, however, spent quality time with them and her greatest fans are her sons.

Her profession is her major focus now – but every morning she touches base with her sons, doing Face Time.

Kasturi is quick to add that she is spiritual and we have noticed a gleaming cross and a large silver miraculous medal on her lovely chain, as she says that every morn, on her way to work, she drops by a church, any church for that matter, for five minutes.

Regrets but one she has – though she looked after her father until his death and is doing so for her mother even now, that she never verbalized the words: “I love you Dad.”

As we take our leave for she has to rush off for a meeting, Kasturi has a few words of advice for both the young and the old. “You can do anything, if you set your mind to it and you are never too old to secure a qualification.”

Kasturi is a Fellow of CIMA and Alumni of the Harvard Business School, who didn’t undertake an MBA as her sons were still small, till much later. It was at 48 that she did do a Senior Executive Leadership Program at the Harvard Business School.

“If I can do it, you can too,” she smiles.

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