Women, Winning – Dignitaries from AIA, Sri Lanka

A glimpse of inspiring thoughts from the leading ladies from AIA Sri Lanka.

Dilupi Lihidipita, Head of Province, Agency Distribution of AIA Sri Lanka, has earned her rightful place in the industry with her dedication and perseverance over a 24-year career in the AIA agency business. She is an experienced project manager who has handled national level agency business projects for many years while maintaining the business quality on an excellent level. She is also a highly skilled sales trainer. Dilupi is a member of the AIA Group Agency Digitalization team and works with multiple countries, developing digital tools for the agency business. She is currently overseeing the metro province’s business development and expansion. She holds a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Peradeniya and is a Certified Professional Marketer (Asia).

Tell us about a time/times when you were glad you were a woman in the corporate world?

A head of province in the insurance industry has typically been a male dominated role. But at AIA, I was able to rise up the career ladder, be enriched with hands on experience and knowledge, and embrace my current designation as a head of province, agency distribution at AIA Insurance.

Having worked at AIA for 24 years, I have over time gained vast exposure both locally and internationally across a variety of job roles which gave me many opportunities to support both men and women to develop and perform. In the field of insurance business, women can play a major role. Although faced with many challenges as a woman manager, I always believed in myself and my strengths while having faith in myself to rise as a woman leader. AIA Insurance has had ladies at the forefront all along. It is a company based on meritocracy and roles and responsibilities are not gender specific. Yet what inspires women to grow is the encouragement, trust and belief and equal opportunities provided to them. I am empowered to make a difference and be a force of positive change for my colleagues and the company. In my current role in sales management, I am challenged every day and I draw strength from those challenges. I enjoy working with our wealth planner community. In fact, being a woman is useful when it comes to using my emotional intelligence to help our wealth planners succeed. Empathy and understanding are fundamental to dealing with people, which is a big part of my job. I take pride in my achievements not only as a woman but as a professional who is passionate about inspiring the new generation of women to push beyond their own boundaries which often hold them back.

Surani De Alwis is the Business Acquisition Manager at AIA Sri Lanka, where she is in charge of individual underwriting as well as the Corporate Solution Operations. Surani has acclaimed her qualifications as a Chartered Insurer since 2013, with over 19 years of experience and immeasurable expertise in the fields of Life Underwriting, Bancassurance & DTA Operations, Life Servicing, Customer Complaint Management, Investigations, Corporate Solution Operations, Reinsurance, and Operation Efficiency Management.

Why are women’s personal obligations more problematic than men’s obligations in balancing work life balance? 

Most often than not women are called upon to multi-task their responsibilities as mother, homemaker, co-breadwinner and much more. This results in an array of expectations by society leading to a host of obligations. Sometimes women are expected to give up her career aspirations for motherhood and at other times women have no choice but to do so, since the flexibilities offered to her are limited.

As per available data, while Sri Lankan women comprise more than 51% of the population, their participation in the paid workforce in 2018, is only around 33.6%.  This clearly shows that there are prevalent barriers to women entering the workforce.  I am so happy to work for an organization like AIA which recognises the importance of empowering women to balance their personal and professional responsibilities and provide a strong support system for its women employees to pursue their career aspirations. We have a 100% return rate after maternity leave as mums are given the flexibility they need, not to forget a super maternity benefits scheme.   

Ours is a company based on meritocracy and equality. For women and men at AIA, the playing field is equal.  I for one personally experienced this when I entered motherhood.  There was a time in my career when my full-time presence with my kids took priority over my work.  However, after a lapse of a few years, I was able to re-join AIA and start from where I left off in my career progression.

Danushi Widanagamachchi, an experienced strategic, actuarial, and risk specialist in the insurance business is currently the Head of Risk at AIA Sri Lanka, overseeing operational, financial, and strategic risk responsibilities of the organization. She has over 11 years of experience in the domains of actuarial and risk management. She is also a Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) and holds a Bachelor of Science (Hons) in Physical Science from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. She is an Associate Chartered Management Accountant of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, UK (ACMA) and a Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA).

What are some traits that you had to adapt to thrive as a female leader?

I am often inclined to think of Diana Von Furstenberg ‘s quote “I didn’t always know what I wanted to do, but I knew the kind of a woman I wanted to be”.  Being a working mother and a head of a function at one of the best multinational companies has extensively groomed me to be the best version of myself. Although the journey has not been quite easy, the challenges and the daily learning has immensely helped me thrive in an emerging market. Over the years, the few traits that kept me ahead of the game were Adaptability, Tenacity and Grittiness. 

Adaptability is not easy as it sounds. It comes with a lot of challenges. A common misconception is that females, especially mothers, are naturally gifted to be more adaptable. I will not deny that, but I can also say that it is not an easy trait to master. We, especially working females, are often comfortable in our cocoons, trying to manage multiple roles at home and at work, fighting for time and afraid to adapt to the growing market. Making sure to adapt to all the CHANGES while handling all the CHALLENGES by stepping out of my comfort zone has helped me become a successful female leader.

Tenacity is also crucial in the changing business landscapes which demand female leaders to demonstrate confidence and determination in work.  I’ve worked hard to make my voice heard!

Grit is another trait I embraced in becoming who I am now at AIA I always believed that having “grittiness” to thrive in the face of adversity is necessary to be successful in the long term. These traits are not something I learned by reading books or overnight. It took years of experience and learnings from multiple mistakes. Fortunately, In my journey, I had great female and male leaders who guided me and taught me to take the right steps at the right time.

Zarah Jurianz is the Head of Investments at AIA Sri Lanka with over 15 years of investment management expertise. She assists the company’s Chief Investment Officer in the creation and execution of investment strategies. Zarah is a Chartered Financial Analyst and a member of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants in the United Kingdom as an associate member and holds a Master of Business Administration from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura’s Postgraduate Institute of Management. She also has a BSc (Special) honours degree from the University of Colombo in ‘Finance, Business, and Computational Mathematics’. Zarah is the Investments Department team leader, responsible for investment income, research on the economy, industry, and specific counters, deployment of investment governance frameworks, and portfolio oversight.

Shaming and cultural norms are a few pointers on issues that effectively stagnate a woman’s chance to take risks and shine. If it was up to you to change this, where would you start?

Sadly, sometimes, it is women themselves that run down other women!  Therefore, I would firstly encourage each one of us to think hard about whether we have any unconscious bias against women, even as a woman. We may not even realise this, but we often fall prey to gender stereotypes that are embedded in our culture.

For example, it is widely assumed that women are more submissive, relational, caring and nurturing whereas men are assumed to be more aggressive, decisive, logical and technically superior to women.  I would encourage each of us to be more conscious of gender bias when hiring, mentoring, promoting, paying, giving leave or in our day-to-day work.

Secondly, I would try to influence the next generation, so that they can initiate change. Shaming women and the current ‘cultural norms’ should not be the norm they grow up with. For example, we should have equity in the responsibilities we give our children and change the stereotypes of “that’s girls work” or “boys will be boys”. Women are equally capable as men to be successful. Our children’s upbringing and our culture should reflect that.

I must add that I am fortunate to be working for AIA which prides itself on being one of the ‘Best Workplaces for Women’ in Sri Lanka and has done a lot to encourage and enable women to advance in their careers. 

Overlooking the talent acquisition strategies for the entire organization Chalini Guneratne, AIA Sri Lanka’s Head of Human Resources, provides leadership and guidance on the company’s new expansion projects and other strategic initiatives. She assists the Director of HR in the Leadership Growth Program. In addition to ensuring a healthy succession plan inside the business by directing the People Development strategy for the entire company, she is actively engaged in creating a supportive culture of continuous learning and development. She has had the opportunity to work in both local and multinational firms throughout the course of her 15-year career, where she has established HR services for companies as well as improved and implemented superior HR procedures in others, earning an acclaimed degree from Sri Jayewardenepura’s Institute of Management (PIM).

Are you content with the level of women that are springing into the role of leadership in their respective sectors? What unique advice would you like to give those who look forward to that?

Yes indeed, we are seeing an increase in the number of women leaders springing into leadership roles during the past years. Even in Sri Lanka, we have many examples of women leaders who are leading large corporates and have become inspirational icons. 

Now more than ever before, the role of a woman has taken a greater shift where the responsibilities are demanded from multiple fronts. But as Indra Nooyi once said, “If you always have an eye on a future goal; you stop paying attention to the job at hand, miss opportunities that might arise, and stay fixedly on one path”.

At AIA we have a merit-based culture that promotes diversity and inclusion. With the intention of building an inclusive culture we have created many initiatives to support diverse needs at different levels; be it flexibility, family, friendly arrangements, focused development etc. I am fortunate to say that I am a recipient of many support schemes the company had implemented, and it has supported my ambition of reaching greater heights, whilst being a wife and a mother. Straight on the heels of returning to work from maternity leave, I was given the opportunity to take over an expanded role as Head of HR following the completion of a very successful leadership development programme. The mentorship and guidance I received, empowered me to have the confidence to take on my promotion during a crucial time in my personal life.

Living through this experience, my advice for all aspiring leaders is to find your inner passion and continue to be curious. Encourage yourself to experience and learn new things every day and connect yourself to the minds and the pulse of people across all functions. This will certainly help you achieve your end ambition. In fact, all along AIA has supported me in becoming what I am today. 

Shashrika Peiris, as the Assistant General Manager of the Agency Command Center, oversees AIA Sri Lanka’s Agency Strategy & Financial Operations, which includes agency strategy creation, compensation design, agency digitalization, management information development, and agency loans and payments. She has over 10 years of expertise in agency operations and finance after having joined the organization as a management trainee in 2011. She is an Associate Member of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (UK) with a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) in Finance from the University of Colombo.

Times aren’t easy and are made especially hard for women. What kept you going despite the difficulties and helped you come to this position allowing you to be a role model for other women?

Women are born with many challenges in life, but one has the choice of turning them into opportunities. Women often get pushed back by social norms of having to be tender, sensitive and accommodating rather than competitive and fearless.

Since my childhood, I have practised being focused and task-oriented. My unwavering determination to do the right thing and my empathy towards the surrounding helped me accomplish my professional and personal goals as a woman leader. 

I was also privileged to join a truly Great Place to Work as a management trainee and it’s a priceless reward to get shaped under great leaders to reach where I am today as a professional. The support I get from my family is a blessing and keeps me motivated to do what I am doing with an added zest.

Finally, as women, we will have tough days that will make us want to give up, but for me, I’ve always taken that time to rest, recharge and pounce back at my challenges with more energy than ever before and I’ve never been a quitter.

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