Reversing a Brain Haemorrhage

Following the war’s end, Sri Lanka has plugged its brain drain

By Isankya Kodithuwakku.

Published on January 19, 2015 with 2 Comments

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Following the war’s end, Sri Lanka has plugged its brain drain, which became an uncontrolled haemorrhage when the conflict intensified.
A tenth of those born in Sri Lanka now live overseas, an unprecedented haemorrhaging of talent caused by the long conflict. But the post-war years have been kinder. The haemorrhage has been plugged, and a trickle of talent is now flowing back to the country. Improved security was the tipping point for many returnees, but peace was not the only determinant. A desire to capitalize on post-war Sri Lanka’s growth story was a major factor, with returnees keen to get a head start on the back of high growth.

A better quality of life in Colombo, an easygoing lifestyle and the idea of home and family also appealed to some returnees. Another factor was the suddenly diminished prospects in the US and Europe following the bursting of a property market bubble that caused a global banking crisis.

The returnees we spoke to said they always kept their options open or had firm intentions about moving back. But most returned only when the opportunities Sri Lanka offered were as good as or better than those they were leaving behind. The two returnees with longer work experience also waited till they had the security of dual citizenship to fall back on.

Barring any major changes in the security situation, today’s trickle of returnees is certain to grow. However, there is a major impediment to this brain gain: the lack of an overarching support structure. Non-profits like Work in Sri Lanka are trying to provide this support, but as organisations that run on donor funding and volunteer work, what they can offer is limited. In the past, the Sri Lankan government has called on Sri Lankans overseas to return; now it needs to step up and support those doing so.

PAVING THE WAY FOR WOULD-BE RETURNEES
Nayana Samaranayake
Founder
SL2College and Work in Sri Lanka

Nayana Samaranayake was working for Google in New York when he began to look at job opportunities in Sri Lanka. He had joined the company in 2005 after completing a Masters at Stanford and been 1 of 12 in Google’s web search infrastructure team based at the California headquarters, rewriting the core search engine. After his father passed away in 2007, Nayana longed to be closer to home. His team was starting work on the next iteration of the search engine, and one lead was moving to Google’s Bangalore office, so Nayana decided to move with him. The project ended in 2010, but Nayana stayed in Bangalore working on other assignments. Soon after this, he moved to New York.

A naturally risk-averse person, he didn’t want to return to Sri Lanka without an inclination of the job landscape in the country he had left more than ten years earlier. He tried to research over the phone and email, but it proved difficult. “I’d be calling in the middle of the night, trying to catch HR people,” he says. In early 2012, when he approached his managers to discuss his future, they suggested he alternate between Bangalore and Colombo instead of leaving the company.

His difficulties understanding Sri Lanka’s opportunities from New York had shown him the lack of a support system for would-be returnees. During his stints in Colombo, Nayana started an organization to provide this support, launching Work in Sri Lanka in May 2013. The group now hosts an annual conference each December, providing a platform for would-be returnees to learn about available opportunities and network. The organization also builds partnerships with companies and hosts networking events.

During his time in Colombo, Nayana became convinced to move back to Sri Lanka and, in early 2014, he left Google. “There are a lot of opportunities that people aren’t aware of,” he says. “When I talk to CEOs of companies, I hear about all these fancy projects. People think that if they have a PhD in a tech area, they won’t have opportunities. That’s not true. There are great projects like CodeGen’s electric car project. There’s biochemistry work happening. You just have to make the move and be willing to work hard.”

Nayana now divides his time between volunteering for Work in Sri Lanka and SL2College, another non-profit he founded to support Sri Lankans who want to study abroad, but now also works with rural students to make them aware of post-high school opportunities in Sri Lanka and abroad. He has also founded a tech startup focused on the global market. He incorporated the company in mid-December 2014 to develop a product on a mobile platform and intends to hire people to work on the front end of it while he works on the back end. He hopes to launch an alpha version by January 2015.

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TAKING OPPORTUNITY BY THE COLLAR
Sharini Kulasinghe
Vice President
York Street Partners

The fundamental change in risk perception Sharini Kulasinghe saw in post-war Sri Lanka was the main reason for her move back after 11 years in the US. During a two-week visit to Sri Lanka in 2012, she saw that companies previously focused on sustenance were now seeking rapid growth. At the time, she was at a crossroad in her life. After four years at asset management firm MicroVest Capital Management, she was as high up as she could go in the investment team, and she had started to look at other opportunities in the US. Since her work at MicroVest,had taken her to Africa, she interviewed there. Her visit to Sri Lanka was part of this search for the next step, and the growth story and opportunity she saw led to a decision to move back. She felt she could make a real difference in Sri Lanka because her work would be more impactful here than in the US. In March 2013, she joined York Street Partners (YSP), where she is currently a Vice President.

“In some ways, it’s been even better than I expected,” she says. “I really feel I have made a difference with the work I’ve done at YSP.” She highlights a deal the investment banking firm recently closed, bringing a private equity fund into a microfinance-focused finance company. The deal tallied with Sharini’s work in the US, so she was able to bring to the table her prior expertise. The nature of the deal – a private equity transaction in a public-listed institution – and its high growth potential make it one of the impactful projects Sharini foresaw.

Currently, Sharini is working on YSP’s efforts to launch Sri Lanka’s first real estate investment trust (REIT), which would transform the property market and address two major problems. Firstly, it would enable retail investors to invest in land. Currently, it is difficult for them to do so since it requires significant sums of money, but a REIT’s unit trust fund structure would enable investment using only small amounts of money. Secondly, REITs would solve the liquidity problem in the real estate market. The owners of large commercial properties often face problems exiting them, as there are no buyers, but REITs would buy them. Since REITs are a new asset class, launching them requires regulatory approval. YSP hopes to launch it within the next year. “It also adds an investment instrument, which we need from a capital market perspective in Sri Lanka,” says Sharini.

Sharini thinks returning to Sri Lanka has been productive from a professional growth perspective for most people she knows. So far, she’s seen only a trickle of returnees, but says the idea is on everyone’s radar now. She believes now is the optimum time for the move. “We’re at the beginning of the growth cycle,” she says. “If I establish myself here now, I’ll be in a stronger position in five years when potentially the growth and the opportunity will be much larger.”

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LEAVING THE COMFORT ZONE FOR THE NEW FRONTIER
Kavan Weerasinghe
Director of IT Delivery, Managed Services
Virtusa

“Never settle down in what you do,” says Kavan Weerasinghe, “because as soon as you get comfortable, things could go wrong. Always look around the corner, see what’s going to happen.” After 20 years in the US, Kavan found himself in this comfort zone. Having moved to the US as a High School and then College student, he had married and had two children, bought a home in Maryland, become a naturalised US citizen and, after starting as a Systems Administrator and Computer Architect, had become the Deputy Director of a large data centre at 90,000-employee multinational Computer Sciences Corporation. He had always thought of returning to Sri Lanka – he had even started building a house in Mt. Lavinia in early 2005, though he wasn’t sure whether for moving back or for vacationing – but he hadn’t wanted to make this change until he was successful.

In 2012, the timing was right both in those terms and in the outlook for Sri Lanka. Kavan saw Asia as the next frontier, and he had the right skill set to become part of its story. He also felt that while he could offer something to Sri Lanka, it could also offer something to him. His children, who were then three and five, were also an important factor. Kavan wanted them to grow up in an extended Sri Lankan family and experience what he did as a child.

Of course, it wasn’t an easy decision and letting go of their established life proved to be painful. Kavan also admits that the move has been difficult for his wife, who does not have the independence she enjoyed in the US. Their dual citizenship has made things somewhat easier.

After two years in Sri Lanka, he’s convinced he made the right decision. He is Director of IT Delivery, Managed Services at Virtusa, managing large operations teams that run, maintain and operate the background systems – the computers, networks, firewalls and databases – that run phone services, computers and websites. He has brought to the company a hybrid mind that can switch between the Sri Lankan and American ways of doing business and also teach a lot of young people. He has learnt a lot himself.

“I’ve been able to infuse knowledge about communication, about processes, about being disciplined in what you do,” he says. “The young people here are very technically talented. What they lack is the ability to close. Once you impart that knowledge about very stringent processes, they become so much better. Not just working hard, but working smart. A service-oriented mindset is important so that they take care of not only a client’s immediate issue but also the issues he could face in the long term and build a partnership.” The move has also been positive for the children, who love it here. “It’s been amazing for them,” Kavan says.

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HOME: THE ONLY OPPORTUNITY THAT MATTERED
Dr. Ranjiva Munasinghe
Director & Chief Operating Officer
Argylex

Ranjiva Munasinghe spent eight years in the UK, obtaining three degrees in mathematics from Warwick and Cambridge. When he finished his doctorate, he realized he was homesick and, without any thought of building a career and life in the UK, he returned to Sri Lanka. “I missed my friends and family, and wanted to do something for the country,” he says. “The lifestyle here is very nice. When you’re abroad, you’re always an outsider. Whereas, here it’s actually home. At the time I came back, the war was still going on, but there was still some kind of hope that things will get better and opportunities will be there.”

Ranjiva joined Amba Research soon after he returned to Sri Lanka, and he stayed at the company for the next eight years, doing financial modeling in the quantitative finance division and later building a data analytics team. He also lectured financial mathematics part-time at the University of Colombo and still supervises Master’s students’ dissertations.

Recently, he left Amba to join Argylex, a data analytics startup. Argylex leverages the data held by their clients or third parties to extract hidden insights to help achieve clients’ business goals. It is this kind of work that allows websites like Amazon to suggest products to customers or Facebook to suggest friends. Argylex also analyses sentiment on social media. Ranjiva’s long-term plan is to support Argylex’s growth and help it succeed, like he did at Amba.

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BOUNCING BACK FROM RECESSION
Dush Ratnayake
Proprietor
Delish, Bellissima

The US recession interrupted Dush Ratnayake’s promising career in the mutual funds arm at Citigroup in Columbus, Ohio. He worked at Citi for a year and a half during the grace period US immigration permits foreign students to work while on their student visa. At the end of this time period, a company needs to apply for a work visa on the student’s behalf to continue his employment. Confident that his performance at Citi would merit a work visa, Dush had started building a home in Columbus. Unfortunately, the recession hit. When Citigroup was rescued by the US government, one clause in the bailout package was a freeze on applications for new work visas. Dush found himself with no work visa to continue legally working in the US.

Returning to Sri Lanka, Dush initially dabbled in finance. He had known he would become a chef since he learned to cook at age seven, but he had been spooked by the instability of money after seeing his family lose its wealth when he was a child. Step 1, he had decided, would be to study and work in finance. Once he became proficient handling other people’s money, he could start his own restaurant.

His first venture was Kottu Station, which he ran with a friend while still working full-time in finance. They sold the business after one year, and Dush started Joos Bar and then Eclectic Café at Goethe Institute. He now runs Bellissima, a bake-to-order venture specialising in high-end desserts, and his most recent venture is Delish, a restaurant down Havelock Road, which he started with his brother Gayen. He also hosts MTV Sports’ ‘Dine & Unwind’.

“If you’re an entrepreneur, this is definitely the right time to move to Sri Lanka,” Dush says. “Western markets are still down. They’re not the place to start a business. The Asian markets are the place to be.”

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THE TIES THAT BIND
P K William
Head of Sales, Strategic Enterprise
Accounts Management
N-Able, Hemas Holdings

The idea of returning to Sri Lanka was on PK Williams’ mind from the time he moved to the US. Although he initially went to study Operations Management to eventually take over his father’s aluminium extrusion business Alumex in Sri Lanka, each time he considered moving back, the US offered a greater opportunity. When he graduated in the late nineties, he found himself in the dotcom bubble. IT jobs were a
dime a dozen, so PK decided to join the IT world for a few years.

Two years soon became five. By this point, he was on track for a green card, which seemed a better deal than returning to Sri Lanka. He visited home almost annually and, having been removed from its violence, he found it difficult to stomach – on more than one occasion, he missed a suicide bomber by a whisker.

When PK had his green card in hand, it seemed impractical to let go of a chance to obtain US citizenship too. He stayed on and received his papers just in time to vote for Barack Obama in his first run for the US presidency.

Then the war in Sri Lanka ended. During a visit in 2010, PK started to seriously consider moving back. His sisters and friends in Sri Lanka seemed to be enjoying life, and he felt that he was missing out. He had all material necessities, but no work-life balance. His father had by then passed away and Alumex had been sold to Hayleys, so PK began to explore job opportunities in Sri Lanka. He started to talk seriously about moving back with his wife. In early 2011, they decided to return and moved before year-end.

It wasn’t easy. Moving their entire lives, including their pet dog, was a lengthy process. It took several months for PK to find his ideal job, several more to get used to Sri Lanka’s work ethic and another two years to really adapt to Sri Lanka’s day-to-day nuances, especially the indiscipline when it comes to driving and standing in line at the bank. Looking back on his first three years in Sri Lanka, the only thing PK would have had different is a better support system when he returned.

“A lot of Sri Lankan IT companies and even the government were promoting for us to come down,” he says. “But there was no assistance, no support system. If there had been a support system, I think a
lot more people would consider returning.”

Would-be returnees now have a network they can lean on. They can also depend on organisations like Work in Sri Lanka and the American Alumni Association, both of which PK is active in. These groups work with Sri Lankan companies and assist returnees to find employment. They also provide networking and mentoring support. But PK thinks a more overarching support structure is necessary.

Whenever PK hears someone considering the move back, he tries to convince them. “Now is the right time,” he says. “Some people try to play it safe and try to wait another five years or for political stability, until everything is where it needs to be. But I think the train may have already gone by then.”

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2 Comments

There are currently 2 Comments on Reversing a Brain Haemorrhage. Perhaps you would like to add one of your own?

  1. Great to hear the success stories especially of my friends- Kavan and PK. Unfortunately there are others like me that moved to Sri Lanka before the war ended (after being in the US for 16 years) and ended up returning to where my contributions are valued. For those contemplating a move back should also consider the downside like what I encountered. Of being a no body and being treated like one in a society where there is still the ‘frat brother’ mindset is very apparent.

    So with all the conferences etc that are organised to glorify the returnees job prospects/opportunities, I hope those who are in two minds about returning, weigh the pros and cons carefully so they don’t end up being in my shoes …….being disappointed wishing they had never given up on their careers!

  2. Dear Sharini
    I would like to take a few minutes of your time to introduce you to an exciting hotel development opportunity and invite you to visit the project. Some years ago we undertook substantial works on an outstanding piece of land near Ella in Sri Lanka for the construction of a mansion type, exclusive hotel/residence. It is situated on a cool mountain less than two miles (as the crow flies) to the East of Ella. It has stunning 360-degree views that include the Namunukula Mountain range, Mini Adams Peak, Rawana falls and often looking from above the clouds down to the plains 1000m below and on towards the Southern coast.

    A considerable amount has already been invested in developing beautiful gardens, entrance, road, electricity supply, own water supply, the planting of palm and fruit trees, etc; so that the extensive gardens would be already matured for when the mansion/hotel started operating. Other works on the gardens include the building of paths to a number of features and quiet areas. The widespread gardens are linked by nine sets of quarts topped stone staircases. The upper area of the site has been leveled and aggregates stockpiled, ready for the construction phase.

    The location coordinates are Lat. 6.8710 / Lon. 81.0755 and the area is of 412 perches (1.042 hectares). The extensive grounds include an area for large car park and a proposed hotel footprint of 45m x 17m. The proposed mansion/hotel consists of 20 large bedrooms over 3 floors including banqueting hall, large reception area & open fronted lounges along with many exquisite features such as the rooftop lotus observatory, tennis courts, infinity pool, internal waterfalls, etc or 12 large bedrooms over 2 floors if going for the uber-luxe residence.

    We have been waiting over recent years for the tourism sector to develop and it has now exceeded all expectations. This project is situated in what is becoming one of the fastest growing tourism destinations in one of the fastest growing economies. This could be an ideal project and opportunity in which to create Sri Lanka’s premiere uber-luxe residence/hotel. Taking into consideration the location, potential and with the substantial investment/works undertaken so far, we believe the current project value to be around 450,000 LKR per perch.

    We are now seeking an investor to partner with us in accomplishing this exceptional venture. If you (or anyone you know) may be interested in exploring this further, please email me RoyDixon@MountainLodge.lk as soon as possible. I will be in Sri Lanka and available for meetings in Colombo on the 8th, 9th & 12th of Feb. 2016 then in Ella from the 15th to the 21st Feb.

    I would appreciate your time and welcome the opportunity to meet you in Ella, so we could visit the site in order to explore the project as well as understand the proposed features. This will give you an idea of the beauty, scale and potential of what is probably one of the most exciting, creative and lucrative hotel development opportunities.
    I very much look forward to hearing from you.

    With warm regards

    Roy Dixon
    Current developer and owner

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