W@W - Gayani de Alwis (article published on a leading Sri lankan news paper Daily Mirror 10.02.2020)
Gayani de Alwis has always been steadfast in shattering the omnipresent glass ceiling and helping others do so. The first female Director for Supply Chain and Global Lead Auditor appointed from South Asia in Unilever, she is also the Chairperson of Chartered Institute of Logistics & Transport (CILT) and the Founding Chairperson of Women in Logistics & Transport (WiLAT) Sri Lanka. de Alwis has also garnered numerous accolades such as “Women at the Helm Award for Most Outstanding Female Business Leader of the Year” at PIMA National Management Awards, “Distinguished Mentor and Role Model” award from WiLAT Nigeria for her efforts in promoting mentoring globally and most recently, Women in Management (WIM) “Top 50 Professional & Career Women Achievement Award” Gold Award for her Career Achievement in Logistics and Supply Chain. We recently caught up with de Alwis who spoke of life, her achievements and her desire to empower women and promote Supply Chain as a career choice.
Tell me a little bit about yourself?
I am the eldest of a family of three. I have a sister and a brother. Both our parents have a lot of siblings so we grew up with this large circle of cousins and even now we are a closely-knit family. My mother was a housewife. Both our parents never forced us to do anything but gave us the freedom to do what we want. They always pushed us to do well in our studies. I did my primary education at Anula Vidyalaya and went to Visaka Vidyalaya for my secondary education after passing the scholarship exam. While my siblings were good in sports and extracurricular activities, I was more inclined towards studies and I played a bit of tennis in school. I would say I was a studious kid in school. I did well in my OLs and chose to do mathematics in my ALs. I was good at Kandyan dancing during my school days and have won prizes too.
I have a very supportive husband. I met him while I was studying at the University of Moratuwa. While I was in my second year on campus he got a scholarship to Cambridge University to do his PhD. We got married four years later and I joined him in the UK to continue my studies there. We love to explore different cultures and places and whenever time permits, and make it a point to travel locally and overseas with family.
After leaving Unilever and starting my own consulting career, I have devoted my time now on women empowerment and also to promote supply chain education in the country to make this profession a preferred career choice.
Growing up, what did you want to be or do?
I was good in my Mathematics. From my childhood days I wanted to be an Engineer, so I chose Mathematics stream for my ALs and I was lucky to enter University of Moratuwa to do a degree in Chemical Engineering.
I was very good in my studies, especially up to my ordinary level exams, I was always the 1st or 2nd in the class. At Visakha, we had only one Mathematics class at the outset, later it was made into two classes and it was very competitive. I was not the best in my AL, but was within the first 15 in the class. I was short of 2 marks to enter campus to do engineering. To my luck I got three marks when I put for re-corrections and managed to enter the University of Moratuwa to do Chemical Engineering!! Unfortunately, we had a long wait at the university due to the civil unrest in the country at the time and when I was in my 3rd year, I made up my mind and decided to leave for the UK to complete my degree due to prolonged closure in universities. I completed a MSc in Food Process Engineering from University of Reading UK where I got a distinction for my MSc research project.
You were a Director at Unilever. Tell me about your career leading to that.
After I finished my MSc in food process engineering from the University of Reading in the UK, I returned to SL and joined Uswatte confectionery as a Food Technologist. I worked there for 1.5 years and resigned and joined Unilever as a Management Trainee. In Unilever, my first job was in the Foods R&D department as my background was food process engineering. After a short stint, I was moved to Quality Assurance and later promoted to be the company Quality assurance manager responsible for all the factories in SL. At that time we had 3 factories; ice cream, instant tea manufacturing and black tea blending and packing operations. During this time I was also appointed as a Global Lead auditor to audit Unilever world wide manufacturing operations and corporate offices. I was the first to be appointed to this role in South Asia. In addition to my main role in SL, I had to travel extensively to audit 4 to 5 operations annually with a 3-member audit team from different countries, which I consider a great exposure I got during my auditing career. I did this role while doing my normal job for almost 10 years till 2008. In 2000, I was sent to India on a secondment to Unilever Research Centre in Bangalore, where I was working as a senior research and development manager.
Two years later I returned to Sri Lanka in 2002 and I was offered a role in supply chain as raw material buying manager. I consider this as the turning point in my career. Although that was not my specialization and the area was totally new to me, I accepted the challenge. From then onwards I worked hard to learn the basics of Supply chain management and within a period of 5 years, additional responsibilities were given to me where I was able to prove to the management of my competence in managing all areas of the supply chain department. In 2008, I was promoted to the Board as Director Customer Service responsible for supply chain, the position I held till July 2013 before I took early retirement to pursue my consulting and lecturing career. I was the first female supply chain director to be appointed to Unilever in the whole of South Asia and it was a proud moment indeed for me.
Tell me about your role as the Chairperson of Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport SL
While I was at Unilever, I was associated with Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT) SL and in 2011, I joined as a chartered member, since then there was no turning back. I was invited to join the CILT council in 2011, during Mr Saliya Senanayake’s Chairman tenure. I was actively involved in various sub committees as a member and as sub committee Chairperson. I also held the vice chairperson position for 4 years before getting elected as the 21st Chairperson of CILT in 2018. I am the second female Chairperson to get elected to lead CILT after 27 years! The role is very challenging as the expectations are very high among the membership and corporate partners. I feel that we have raised the bar through various value adding initiatives to our membership. My passion is to develop capable professionals for the industry. I will be completing my two-year tenure at the AGM on 31st March 2020.
CILT’s main objective is to promote the art and science of logistics and transport. We are the only chartered professional body in the country for professionals engaged in transport, logistics and supply chain. We cater to Professionals engaged in passenger and freight movement including infrastructure development in land transport, aviation, maritime, supply chain and logistics. We conduct educational programs, accredited education institutes, mentor young professionals, policy advocacy etc., to promote women representation and young professionals, WiLAT and Young Professionals Forum (YPF) under CILT have been formed. My role is to provide leadership and be accountable to drive this agenda of the institute. CILT has a dynamic and a supportive council consisting of senior industry leaders, academia and officers from the public sector who are all volunteers committed to support the professionalism in the industry. CILT is a globally recognized 100-year-old professional body supporting to develop professionals in supply chain, logistics, and transport. Our main objective is to promote the art and science of logistics and transport. CILT is present in 36 countries with over 35,000 members. Currently we have a membership of over 1500 members locally from public and private sectors, academia and military.
Last year CILT ventured outside of Colombo and set up a branch in the Central Province, we see active engagement from the branch there. We also intend to set up branches in Southern, Northern and Eastern provinces as well in the future.
You're also WiLAT Global Vice Chairperson and you are overseeing South Asia
Let me give a bit of a background on the formation of Women in Logistics and Transport (WiLAT) in SL. Globally CILT identified the low levels of women in logistics and transport and wanted to increase more women representation in the industry, hence the birth of Global WiLAT in June 2013 in Colombo. Sri Lanka was one of the pioneering WiLAT fora, on 21st March 2013 which I co-founded with Namali Siyambalapitya ahead of the global launch. I was elected as the founding Chair in 2014 and continued my tenure till 2016 before handing over to my successor. WiLAT SL is an active organization in global WiLAT and our initiatives have been adopted globally. Especially our “Ignite” mentoring program which is in its 6th year running successfully in SL and many other countries. Globally WiLAT is focusing on four strategic thrusts; Leadership, Entrepreneurship, Mentorship and Empowerment. I was appointed as the global WiLAT lead for mentorship strategic thrust. In 2018, with the formation of WiLAT Global Steering Committee I was appointed as the WiLAT Global Vice Chairperson responsible for South Asia. Currently WiLAT is present in India, Pakistan and in Sri Lanka. Plans are underway to set up WiLAT in Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal and other Indian Ocean Islands. My role is to support and drive initiatives in the countries and to set up new branches in South Asia and support to increase the footprint of WiLAT globally.
Women have been shattering glass ceilings and achieving success now more than ever. Is this something you have noticed? Do you think women still face considerable challenges?
I am still not convinced fully whether women are getting their due place at the top. Female labour force participation in our country is 36%, where as the global average is 48.5% and South Asia is at 27%. In the logistics and transport industry female participation is abysmally low at 3%. More young females are passing out from the Universities than the males at 60%, but however, we do not see the same increasing trend being reflected at the workplace. So before we think of shattering the glass ceiling, I feel we must manage the sticky floor and the leaking pipeline! We need to get more women to enter the world of work, equip them with the right skill set and the mindset and retain them to take on higher roles with confidence to reach the top. In SL, we see only 8% women in boards of companies. But I must say, there is awareness now more than ever before and a more focused approach and a push towards getting more board ready women to take up higher positions in organizations. Women Directors Forum (WDF) of Sri Lanka Institute of Directors (SLID) which I too am part of was formed in 2019 is making an effort to create awareness and capacity building to develop board ready women. Chartered Accountants of Sri Lanka too recently launched the ‘Board Ready Female Members Directory’ to promote more female representation across boards in corporate Sri Lanka. While all these efforts are positive news and should improve the situation, still conscious and unconscious biases and stereotyping exist. We must shatter stereotypes before shattering the glass ceiling. If we are not given a seat at the table, we should bring a folding chair and sit at the table!
I also would like to request all successful women leaders who have reached the pinnacle of their careers to support another. This will help to develop a continuous pipeline of young talent to enter the industry and work their way to leadership positions. Let’s be someone who lifts the spirit of another.
Speaking of challenges, was there a challenging time or instance in your life? And how did you deal with it?
During my early days at Visakha, I was bullied. That was a low point in my life but I came back strongly by enrolling myself in Tennis and that gave me courage to face the unknown new school environment. At the university, my performance was average, but after moving to the UK I was determined to perform well, and I succeeded in my efforts.
I studied engineering knowing the challenges that I had to face and after I moved to supply chain the same situation prevailed. But personally I was not deterred with these challenges. From our childhood days my parents treated all three of us alike, and instilled confidence in us irrespective of our gender. But life was not rosy, as a young female manager, I had to face some challenging situations where some of my colleagues who are older and more experienced than me at the beginning was not happy to work for a female boss. But I must say that was short lived, once they got to know me better they aligned with me. I am a highly people oriented person so I have the ability to connect with people at any level without any power distance. I moved to supply chain by chance at Unilever, so I had to learn this profession from scratch, as I did not have a background in supply chain management. I worked long hours learning the ABCs of the profession by working closely with the operational teams and I was able to get the overall exposure within a short period of time. My people oriented skills coupled with my passion to learn new things really helped me to overcome the challenges and develop a close bond with the teams.
What advice would you give career women in Sri Lanka?
Women are playing leading roles in society. Why should a career be an obstacle course for women, but a 100-meter dash for men? Being a woman should not ever be considered as a barrier for our progress. We are unique; we have our innate capabilities that differentiate us. Make your choices early and instill confidence in yourself to achieve your goals in life with passion and commitment.
Start by doing what is necessary, then do what is possible and suddenly you are doing the impossible. Don’t ever give up and be someone who lifts the spirit of another.
Who or what inspires you?
I was always inspired by the gregarious qualities of my parents who always taught us to work hard and never give up no matter what. My own achievements in life inspire me the most. I am passionate about what I do and it energizes me to reach my true potential. I love challenges in life as it gives me opportunities to test my resilience.
What is your greatest achievement so far?
With sheer hard work, dedication and commitment for being the first female director of supply chain in South Asia in Unilever.
What's one mantra you live by?
Believe in yourself, no one can make you feel inferior without your permission… Lead with a Purpose, Passion, and Presence
Where do you see yourself in the next 10 years?
I am a strong believer of women empowerment and would like to see an improvement in economic participation of women in the country. My passion is to groom more young women through mentoring to reach higher levels in organizations and shatter the glass ceiling.