Women’s entrepreneurship has hit a media tipping point. The question is: Is it just a passing media fad that will soon be a blip on the radar screen, or is it a fundamental economic force that’s reshaping the world? It’s safe to say that it’s the latter! Women-owned entities in the formal sector represent enterprises globally — a market worthy of attention by businesses and policymakers alike. In the present context, progressive thinking is being pushed forward by the undeniable impact of women-led and -owned businesses in the economy. This notion is what drove Tania Polonnowita Wettimuny, Entrepreneur & Managing Director of IAS Holdings (Pvt) Ltd, to establish her company, as she always possessed the quality of working hard at whatever was thrown her way.
To begin with Tania’s narrative, initially, her childhood dream was to be an air hostess, which didn’t quite go well by virtue of her height. She never desired to be an entrepreneur in the traditional sense – conceding she wasn’t particularly ambitious as a child – although, as mentioned earlier, she had the quality of working hard at whatever task was assigned to her. Later in life, she was offered to take an introductory cargo course while in school and then an internship in a logistics company. Thus, she began her tenure in the shipping and logistics sector.
IAS Holdings, as Tania represents it, was her foray into the world of entrepreneurship. It was founded in 2016 after her 25+ years of experience working for a subsidiary of a publicly-traded firm and as a local shareholder and Managing Director for one of Sri Lanka’s leading multinational logistics organizations. IAS Holdings now has a market capitalization of 8 billion Sri Lankan rupees with 200+ employees and three companies in its portfolio, one of which is Kerry Logistics Lanka (Pvt) Ltd, – a joint venture with Asia’s largest logistics company, which is also a publicly traded entity in Hong Kong. The other JV, APS Logistics International (Pvt) Ltd, is an investment and partnership centred in the United States. The third – Inter Air & Sea (Pvt) Ltd, is a proudly owned Sri Lankan brand. The company specializes in contract logistics and consulting, and it manages approximately 225,000 square feet of warehousing space for its customers. IAS Holdings recently established its presence in Bangladesh through collaboration to expand globally through existing partners or directly.
In the face of overwhelming odds or critical failures, it’s easy to lose sight of one’s aspirations. Yet, throughout history, the charismatic leaders we admire don’t give in to that temptation as they work to overcome any challenge. So did Tania at the beginning of her entrepreneurial journey. Every entrepreneur, according to Tania, will have a light bulb moment when the timing is right. It hasn’t been an easy road for her, especially given the current economic climate and the global pandemic, as she admits, “In a nutshell, it’s been a dangerous but also a very rewarding journey.”
Historically, women have had to fight harder and wait longer to hold the same positions as men — especially up the management ranks. However, in recent years, many workplaces have become strong advocates for female empowerment by actively providing leadership opportunities to businesswomen, and for a good reason. In this context, Tania is confident that increasing female presence in the workplace is requisite. Diversity and inclusion in all areas, she holds, are essential to the future success of enterprises. “We, as thought leaders, have a lot of forums and conversations about it, but it is rarely followed upon. In this area, we need to ‘walk the talk’’ and be more accountable,” she drew attention to the vicinity.
In a world where customers want everything faster, better, cheaper and tailored for their exact needs, innovation makes the difference between companies that can compete and those that get left behind. Speaking to Tania about the level of innovation she sees in the logistics industry, she maintains that it was shifting and gearing up to accept technology long before the COVID pandemic occurred. The pandemic served to compound the situation as they aspired to streamline and digitize all back-office processes as instantly as practicable for the company and industry to survive. Further, she adds that the future workplace environment would be increasingly technology-driven and data-driven, with customer and service provider connectivity being critical to staying competitive.
Tania was the first chairperson of the Sri Lanka Logistics & Freight Forwarders Association (SLFFA), the apex body of the industry. She is the first woman to hold that position not only in Sri Lanka, but in the Indian Subcontinent, and she reckons that her exemplar will invigorate other women to challenge the status quo and work hard to achieve their goals. She was just named ‘Outstanding Women Entrepreneur’ for the year 2019-2020 at the ‘Top 50 Professional Career Women Award –Tenth Edition’ Sri Lanka & Maldives by Women in Management (WIM) in partnership with IFC, a member of the World Bank Group, and the Australian Government. In Tania’s opinion, Sri Lankan businesswomen are capable of going global in the context of shattering gender preconceptions. She confidently asserts, “Without a doubt, we are; we produced the first female prime minister in the world, and that should be an indication of what we are capable of. We have done tremendously well in the areas of IT, fashion, handloom textiles and sports. We have always been a resilient and strong group of women – wearing many hats, balancing careers, households, children, blended families, ageing parents, among many other things. If we can balance so much, then going global is an absolute cinch.”
We can still dream about putting the COVID-19 genie back in the bottle, but the more likely reality is that the virus will become an endemic problem we have to get used to. Climate change is similar in some ways: a difficulty we have to plan for, deal with, and overcome every day. When Tania is asked about the pandemic’s impact on IAS Holdings, she says that, like nearly every other business, IAS has had its fair share of commercial issues. Aside from that, the safety and well-being of her workforce and their families was and continue to be a top priority for her as an individual and for the firm as a whole. The most difficult challenge, she states, was rallying everyone to work safely, embrace the new normal, adjust to diverse work habits, and think in new and imaginative ways.
Entrepreneurs create growth and prosperity — and solutions for social problems. And today’s trends show that women will be a driving force of entrepreneurial growth in the future. When asked about the company’s long-term strategic aims, Tania adds that for the time being, all her companies have learned to take one day at a time. They have long-term plans in place, but they’ve broken them down into short-term objectives because the pandemic has pushed them to focus on the short and medium-term. She went on to emphasize, “From a human perspective, for me personally, as the head of the organization, it is imperative to look after our teams and their families, our business partners and our customers. Because it is only through them that we have been able and will continue to sustain our business.”
With so many women-led and -owned businesses reaching such lofty benchmarks in the last decade, the stereotypes about female business leaders are thankfully beginning to wear thin. As more women ascend the corporate ladder or build their own businesses from the ground up, they’ll bring even visibility to the success of women.
It is no exaggeration to say that female entrepreneurs have the power to change the world. Closing the gender gap in entrepreneurship and fueling the growth of women-owned enterprises, Tania will undoubtedly continue to unleash new ideas, services, and products into the logistics industry. She ends her account with a remarkable statement to aspiring start-up founders, “When you do stumble, just keep getting up, listen to that voice inside you that knows you can do it, the voice that says it won’t necessarily be easy, but it will all be worth it.”