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Tuesday May 30th, 2023

The Sysco Labs Formula for Invincibility

Rasika Karunatilake General Manager & Vice President of Shared Services, Sysco LABS Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s economy has had a bumpy ride for several decades, but the corporate sector has demonstrated extraordinary resilience to build stable global companies that continue to grow and expand. Sysco LABS is one such company in the tech industry. In this interview, Rasika Karunatilake – General Manager & Vice President of Shared Services, Sysco LABS Sri Lanka tells us how they have built an invincible company that is thriving on a culture of innovation, enabling it to navigate the unfolding economic crisis and grow. Rasika begins by discussing Sysco LABS’s successes and proudest achievements over the years:

The last few years have been particularly challenging for organizations operating out of Sri Lanka; however, the company scaled up rapidly over the last three years while working remotely.

In terms of the products and solutions we have delivered, we have been able to deliver several key solutions that played a role in giving an organization as large as Sysco the agility of a startup. To top it off, we also established Sysco’s Global Technology Command Centre here. We have continued our record of accomplishments as an employer of choice for the top tech talent in the country. We have grown our headcount twofold, and open roles are fulfilled within just 18 days – no small feat, given that the market for tech talent is extremely competitive.

How is the unfolding crisis here, and the global economic challenges, impacting your business? How are you responding to these challenges?

Though the pandemic presented its challenges, in our case it turned out to be an accelerator for the solutions that were in the development pipeline. However, we do face challenges, especially in terms of the well-being of our employees. To address this, we created a cross-functional crisis response team which is equipped to tackle emergencies. These days, our response teams solve different concerns regarding medication and health needs for our associates and their families.

How have Sysco LABS been able to build resilience? What is your formula for an agile, innovative and strong company?

Even though we are a part of an enterprise ecosystem today, our roots are in the startup world, having scaled up from a 4-person startup to being a part of a $51B global organization. Hence our leadership and teams are naturally geared to operate with the Silicon Valley mindset within an agile operating model.

There is no ‘fix-it-all-formula’ for building agile and resilient teams, but we do invest significantly in our associates. We have focused heavily on training our leaders in Agile software delivery processes and conducted company-wide resilience training programmes. Since global travel is opening up, we are also offering more opportunities for associate travel to our global offices, allowing increased exposure.

What is Sysco LABS doing to reassure its people and motivate them to continue to deliver above and beyond client expectations?

Post-pandemic, and now specifically due to the economic crisis, mental health wellbeing is a key priority. We wanted to give our associates the best mental and emotional well-being resources, hence we facilitated access to certified therapists and psychologists. We also launched a separate initiative which trains our leaders to identify associates that require additional support and channel them to the right resource.

Physical wellbeing and its importance of it also became a mainstay in the public conscience post covid. The Sysco LABS Elite programme allows associates to subscribe to their preferred physical wellness program or sporting activity. On top of this, we have also introduced an agile benefits scheme which allows associates to customize their benefits based on their lifestyles.

However, in today’s context, mental and physical well-being are both affected by financial security. To navigate this, we have adjusted our compensation to factor in the devaluation of the Sri Lankan currency. Our associates are thus protected against inflationary effects.

How are your clients reacting to the unfolding crisis in Sri Lanka? How are you addressing their concerns?

The Sysco leaders have been incredibly supportive of our work amidst the crisis and together with our counterparts in the US, we have created a robust business continuity plan (BCP) for every Sysco technology operation that’s being performed here in Sri Lanka. We have multiple layers to the BCP; physical – having reserve locations for operations, as well as several mobility options for our teams in case of prolonged power outages.

What are some of the pressing challenges confronting the tech community in Sri Lanka? How is Sysco LABS contributing to efforts to build the talent pool, and support startups and local companies through the storm?

The biggest challenge facing Sri Lanka’s tech community is talent retention, with many opting to migrate. This is something we cannot solve alone but need to collectively solve as an industry.

To address this to some extent, we partner with the industry bodies on various capacity-building initiatives, including running our programmes, to make a career in Sri Lanka more attractive. We have just launched Sysco LABS Summit; a skill-up program for fresh graduates entering our workforce. This is a rare opportunity, even at a global level, where graduates could get exposed to the development ethos of a Fortune 500 enterprise, within a few months of completing their studies.

Apart from this, many of our mid-senior level leaders volunteer their time to support local universities and the tech ecosystem. Our associates function as judges for tech competitions and hackathons, act as mentors for final-year university students, conduct guest lectures for students and present at various industry forums. We have been instrumental in launching several industry events including ‘Engineering Nexus’ which brings the best minds from the industry together to discuss the latest tech innovations.

What are your plans for the immediate future? How will you ensure growth amidst the challenges and growing concerns about worldwide inflation spiking?

Sysco Corporation has set out a comprehensive ‘Recipe for Growth’ in an investor call recently to navigate macroeconomic conditions and Digital is a key pillar in their strategy. As far as Sysco LABS is concerned, our immediate focus is on ensuring we recruit and retain the right talent to take on these ambitious goals.