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Tuesday April 23rd, 2024

How John Keells Group’s DE&I Vision is Changing the Corporate Landscape

A group of leaders representing some of the key industry verticles of Sri Lanka’s largest listed conglomerate, John Keells Group, share insights into the Group’s commitment towards diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I), particularly in empowering women, increasing female participation in the workforce, challenging societal norms, and creating an environment that fosters growth and leadership opportunities for women.

Playing a pivotal role in championing diversity within the organisation and sharing their insights with the Echelon team are Eneeshya Perera, Senior Strategist, Corporate Finance & Strategy and Senior Assistant Vice President, John Keells Group; Dilshani Edirisinghe, Head of Marketing – Beverages, Ceylon Cold Stores and Assistant Vice President, John Keells Group; Sriyangani Dhanapala, Director, Brand Development, Cinnamon Hotels & Resorts and Assistant Vice President, John Keells Group; Ranella Jayasuriya, Head of Private Label and Direct Imports, Jaykay Marketing Services and Assistant Vice President, John Keells Group; Dilini De Alwis, Chief Operating Officer-APAC Region, John Keells IT and Assistant Vice President, John Keells Group; Anushka Cooray, Senior Counsel, Group Legal and Senior Assistant Vice President, John Keells Group; Nayana Vithanawasam, Assistant Vice President – Pricing and Risk, Union Assurance and Assistant Vice President, John Keells Group; and Nelomi Tissera, Head of Treasury, Group Treasury and Senior Assistant Vice President, John Keells Group.

What are some of the John Keells Group’s initiatives aimed at achieving gender parity and women empowerment that you’ve been a part of? 

Eneeshya: I’ve been fortunate to be a part of the ONE JKH core team that drives our diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives, working towards increasing female participation in our workforce and value chains, increasing career opportunities for persons with disabilities and ensuring inclusivity of the LGBTIQ+ community, which allowed me to further explore my passion for empowering women. One such initiative is our SanNap programme, which I spearhead, through which we provide sanitary napkins to all female employees of the Group, free of charge, and advocate the prioritization and de-stigmatization of menstrual health.

I was also a part of the team that launched the 100-days of equal parental leave, a groundbreaking initiative aimed at recognizing the importance of both parents’ roles in early childcare thereby challenging societal norms, providing support to partners in the workforce outside of John Keells by creating an environment to aid more mothers to return to work, and eliminating discrimination associated with recruiting women due to potential instances of maternity leave. It is encouraging to see the benefits of this initiative materialize gradually, especially the notable increase in instances of paternity leave being utilized.

Why is it important for Sri Lankan corporates to support women in the broader communities? 

Dilshani: Across all sectors of our Group, we have a myriad of long-term sustainable initiatives that support the socio-economic empowerment of women in the communities in which we operate – be it education or livelihood development. When women are empowered to be self-reliant, the resultant economic and social impacts have a ripple effect on their families. At Ceylon Cold Stores, we have implemented programmes in our value chain with this aim. Under Gunadamin Elephant House we’ve established the first female-led plastic collection centre aligned to our Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) strategies, creating over 200 job opportunities in the informal sector. Additionally, through our frozen confectionery business, we’ve launched “Dinannee,” employing women in our distribution network and providing them with the necessary infrastructure to be self-employed as key drivers of our sales channels. These initiatives not only empower women in our communities, but also celebrate their significant contributions to the Sri Lankan economy.

As senior women leaders within JKH, can you share personal experiences or insights into how you’ve overcome challenges and barriers in your careers, and what advice you have for aspiring women leaders? 

Sriyangani: The John Keells Foundation (JKF) provides us with the opportunity to champion projects they implement. As the Project Champion of JKF’s “Final Step” University Soft Skills programme at which I am also a trainer, I engage with undergrads from local universities. Being a local university graduate myself, I know first-hand that one of the main challenges young women face during this time is the lack of guidance and mentorship to venture into the corporate sector. I share the stories of my decade-long journey at JKH and the access that I’ve had to experienced professionals for mentorship in hopes that I encourage aspiring female leaders in our universities. 

What role does diversity and inclusion play within JKH’s corporate culture, and how does it contribute to the organisation’s success and innovation?

Ranella: Understanding the business case for DE&I and recognizing that an inclusive work culture brings out the best in people is the foundation of ONE JKH. If you look at female participation in the workforce in the supermarket business, over the last two decades, it has seen a significant increase. At Keells, the 51% female representation was achieved through a range of interventions that included infrastructure changes at our stores as well as planned initiatives to encourage women in non-traditional job roles. Initiatives like the hybrid work culture at head office, piloting female-empowered stores, recognizing exceptional contributions by women through awards such as ‘She Inspires’ and meritocracy in the recruitment process have contributed to recruiting and retaining female talent.

In the context of women empowerment, could you highlight any partnerships or collaborations that JKH has engaged in to increase female participation in the STEM fields? 

Dilini: Those with STEM backgrounds not only support Group business in IT, research & nanotechnology, and data & advanced analytics but we see them also leading businesses supporting creativity and innovation in our products & services and decision-making. Women in STEM roles across the globe account for less than 20% and JKIT is looking at different ways to encourage women into these roles, especially at a young age. We strive to provide equitable opportunities for women pursuing STEM. Our annual programmes include ‘Formula 1’, which selects candidates from universities for comprehensive training in SAP, Microsoft technologies, software development, quality assurance, and functional areas. Upon completion, participants are integrated into our workforce. Additionally, we offer internships to STEM students, with the possibility of absorption into our workforce. These are continuous engagements that provide students with the ability to learn and pursue their careers.

What role can corporate policy and legislature reforms play in increasing female participation in corporate Sri Lanka? 

Anushka: Female participation in the corporate sector is essential to achieve and sustain Sri Lanka’s economic and growth strategies. To accomplish this, inclusive corporate policies need to be supplemented by a contemporary legislative framework that encourages female participation. These policies and framework must reflect not only the role of females in the corporate sector but also their need to balance a myriad of responsibilities outside the workplace. 

Our Group has focused on several external and internal mechanisms to increase female participation. I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of such interventions, including lobbying for change in the regulatory framework and developing internal governance policies aimed at providing females with access to both conventional and unconventional jobs, assistance with childcare services and flexible work arrangements.

As a leading corporate entity in Sri Lanka, how has JKH empowered women and contributed to their growth and leadership? 

Nayana: At Union Assurance, we continue to make strides in closing the gender gap in our workforce. Currently, 51% of our workforce consists of women while representation of women at senior management levels was 18% as of last year. There are clear targets and development plans in place to improve diversity at the senior management level.

The company was recognized as ‘One of Sri Lanka’s Most Outstanding Women-Friendly Workplaces’ at the Satyn Magazine CIMA Women Friendly Workplace Awards 2022 for all its initiatives. It was also a category winner of the ‘She Thrives Award’ in acknowledgement of the Company’s female-friendly culture. “Inspire” is a DE&I initiative that takes place monthly where inspirational women share knowledge, experience, and best practices with the UA community with special editions such as the Banca edition which focuses on females in the salesforce. 

While research indicates that increasing female participation in the workforce will increase the GDP of the country, what can organizations do to empower the next generation of female leaders? 

Nelomi: Considering the recent brain drain in Sri Lanka, it is essential that organizations actively seek methods to optimize the existing workforce and enhance the potential talent pool. Providing access to a wider job market, facilitating training and development opportunities for female employees, recognizing the value created by the female workforce, and appreciating the roles played by them in non-traditional jobs are important methods to empower the next generation of female leaders. Additionally, embracing cultural diversity, creating an inclusive environment, encouraging stay-at-home mothers to join the workforce, and collaborating with childcare facilities are critical aspects to consider.