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Saturday May 25th, 2024

East or West, women-headed startups face obstacles in a man’s world

ECONOMYNEXT – Women entrepreneurs face different challenges and more obstacles than their male counterparts, when breaking into the world of business a webinar that brought together three women, who head startups in India and Germany heard.

Yet, the three panelists were in agreement that being resilient and pushing against those obstacles is the way to go about making a dent in what is predominantly a man’s world.

It is about adopting a two-way system explained Shika Shah, Founder and CEO of ALTMAT, India. One is the ‘structure and mechanism to weaken the glass ceiling, and the other is giving more power to the women trying to break it. Either way, it will make a change.’

Elly Oldenburg, Manager of DEI in Germany while stating that women entrepreneurs in her country have better access to capital and expert advice, pointed out that even so, ‘women get more questions about how they can manage risk.’ This is why there should be more stories about successful women, she added.

The webinar held on November 9 and titled ‘Women Startups: Breaking the Glass Ceiling’ to mark India Week Hamburg, was organized by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) South Asia along with the German Indian startup Exchange program (GINSEP) and the German Asia-Pacific Business Association.

The speakers at the session were Shah, Oldenburg and, Sowmya Thyagarajan, Co-Founder/CEO of Foviatech GmbH, who straddles both countries. Julian Zix, Project Lead GINSEP at German Startups Association, Berlin, Germany, moderated the session.

Women entrepreneurs prefer businesses in the Health and Green economies, Zix said. In both India and Germany women branching out into their businesses face similar obstacles, particularly when seeking funding, he added “It is with the Angel funders that women face issues with less than 5.2 percent of them getting funding.”

He said there were around 35,000 startups headed by women in India and around 9,000 in Germany. “In both countries, the percentage of women entrepreneurs is less than 20 percent compared to men with 15 percent in India and 17.7 percent in Germany.”

Delivering the opening remarks at the webinar, Consul General for India in Hamburg John H Roulngul said his country was working on creating funds and a conducive ecosystem for startups. “Startup India” is the third-largest such ecosystem in the world with an estimated value of Euro 1.5 billion.

He pointed out that men remain dominant in the start-up area and there has been only a 1 percentage increase in the number of women entering this field in the past decade. “Women also tend to go into Social Entrepreneurship or ventures which are science-based,” he said.

Despite their lower numbers,there were notable successes. He pointed to Anisha Singh who created and heads Mydala which is one of the biggest companies doing local transactions in India. The company has 38 million registered users.

Thyagarajan, whose company is engaged in transforming healthcare and transportation through smart automation and digitization programs explained that she meets the challenges by using her “Indian brain and Indian genes and my German training and I try to balance the two.

I don’t think of people as men or women, I go with my own judgment of the situation.” Quoting Friedrich Naumann, she added ‘“if we want to be truly Liberal then we must free ourselves.”

Asked whether she has faced bias when dealing with investors she says there is no gender bias as such.

“It all depends on our product. There are so many other products out there and it all depends on the product I am selling.” But, she acknowledges male investors do direct more difficult questions to women.

Thyagarajan’s family was not into business. Her father was a banker her mother was self-employed and a homemaker. It is the latter she credits for both inspiring her and providing the seed money for her enterprise.

Being in Germany, she also has support from organizations such as the German Asia-PacificBusiness Association (OAV) as well as friends and family. “There’s one investor who is in his ‘seventies and is in a wheelchair.”

Oldenburg who switched from working full-time at Google to a part-time position to pursue her dream of running a business is a co-founder of ‘encourageventures’ that supports a network of 59 women find funding and business opportunities. Through her other business DEI, she trains those who want to become entrepreneurs.

Her decision to be less involved in the safe corporate world was met with queries she says. She spent three years trying out different options- coaching, mentoring, and as a consultant to startups, when she decided to move out of being fully engaged in the corporate world, Oldenburg explained.

But that gave the opportunity to shake things up a bit from within and outside the corporate world, she added.

There must, she said be more women in leadership roles, adding that the challenges faced by women and other marginalized groups are the same. When women make a pitch for a startup the questions posed are different from those asked of the men.

It is an ‘ unconsciousbias’ Oldenburg claims, pointing out that women are asked about the risks involved and about managing costs, men are asked about the market for their products. Therefore, it is necessary to have more objectivity when deciding who should receive funding.

Investors will listen to a presentation by a woman entrepreneur and then ask if they are sure, says Shah, who points out that even if the first questions are weird, women need to be firm and unfazed when responding.

Though hailing from a business family, Shah says she was the first woman in her extended family to become an entrepreneur. Her family is in the recycling business.

It is trying, Shah, says to be asked whether she is the sole owner of her companyand whether the actual owner is her father. But she uses such instances to sharpen her negotiating skills and turn the situation to her advantage.

It is best to avoid ranting about the unfairness of it all and not let it distract from the purpose.If the first attempt at obtaining funding fails, women must go back and show their achievements she explains. When the investor is shown that a, b and c have been achieved, that is displaying “soft power’, because the other side would not expect you to achieve that.

Shah, whose enterprise is engaged in producing a cotton like material out of plant waste for clothes, upholstery for vehicles, shoes etc. also says that depending on the culture, women entrepreneurs face different challenges. In developing countries, a woman’s success is measured by her ability of being a ‘good wife and mother.’

Describing why she chose this particular field, Shah says during her undergraduate studies in India, she realized that the textile supply chain is an extremely polluted industry.

Studying for her Master’s in the United States, she had been assigned a project involving agriculture, prompting her to consider using agricultural waste to produce textiles. Most are unaware she says that clothes contain plastic and polyester. Her company uses stems and leaves of agricultural crops to produce the cotton-like substance to be used in the textile and other industries.

Thyagarajan advises women venturing into the business world to change their mindset and to move away from being low-risk-takers, while Shah believes that to succeed, it is best to decide which battles should be fought. Getting distracted by the unfair practices of society will not help therefore, women must pick which battles they must fight.

The passion to change the world requires courage and support from all quarters says Oldenburg; ‘It takes a village to raise a child, and it is the same with a startup- a network of women supporting women to change structures, mindsets and to break the ceiling.

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Sri Lanka to find investors by ‘competitive system’ after revoking plantations privatizations

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka will revoke the privatization of plantation companies that do not pay government dictated wages, by cancelling land leases and find new investors under a ‘competitive system’, State Minister for Finance Ranjith Siyambalapitiya has said.

Sri Lanka privatized the ownership of 22 plantations companies in the 1990s through long term leases after initially giving only management to private firms.

Management companies that made profits (mostly those with more rubber) were given the firms under a valuation and those that made losses (mostly ones with more tea) were sold on the stock market.

The privatized firms then made annual lease payments and paid taxes when profits were made.

In 2024 the government decreed a wage hike announced a mandated wage after President Ranil Wickremesinghe made the announcement in the presence of several politicians representing plantations workers.

The land leases of privatized plantations, which do not pay the mandated wages would be cancelled, Minister Siyambalapitiya was quoted as saying at a ceremony in Deraniyagala.

The re-expropriated plantations would be given to new investors through “special transparency”

The new ‘privatization’ will be done in a ‘competitive process’ taking into account export orientation, worker welfare, infrastructure, new technology, Minister Siyambalapitiya said.

It is not clear whether paying government-dictated wages was a clause in the privatization agreement.

Then President J R Jayewardene put constitutional guarantee against expropriation as the original nationalization of foreign and domestic owned companies were blamed for Sri Lanka becoming a backward nation after getting independence with indicators ‘only behind Japan’ according to many commentators.

However, in 2011 a series of companies were expropriation without recourse to judicial review, again delivering a blow to the country’s investment framework.

Ironically plantations that were privatized in the 1990s were in the original wave of nationalizations.

Minister Bandula Gunawardana said the cabinet approval had been given to set up a committee to examine wage and cancel the leases of plantations that were unable to pay the dictated wages.


Sri Lanka state interference in plantation wages escalates into land grab threat

From the time the firms were privatized unions and the companies had bargained through collective agreements, striking in some cases as macro-economists printed money and triggered high inflation.

Under President Gotabaya, mandating wages through gazettes began in January 2020, and the wage bargaining process was put aside.

Sri Lanka’s macro-economists advising President Rajapaksa the printed money and triggered a collapse of the rupee from 184 to 370 to the US dollar from 2020 to 2020 in the course of targeting ‘potential output’ which was taught by the International Monetary Fund.

In 2024, the current central bank governor had allowed the exchange rate to appreciate to 300 to the US dollar, amid deflationary policy, recouping some of the lost wages of plantations workers.

The plantations have not given an official increase to account for what macro-economists did to the unit of account of their wages. With salaries under ‘wages boards’ from the 2020 through gazettes, neither employees not workers have engaged in the traditional wage negotiations.

The threat to re-exproriate plantations is coming as the government is trying to privatize several state enterprises, including SriLankan Airlines.

It is not clear now the impending reversal of plantations privatization will affect the prices of bids by investors for upcoming privatizations.

The firms were privatized to stop monthly transfers from the Treasury to pay salaries under state ownership. (Colombo/May25/2024)

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300 out of 1,200 Sri Lanka central bank staff works on EPF: CB Governor

ECONOMYNEXT – About 300 central bank staff out of 1,200 are employed in the Employees Provident Fund and related work, Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe said, with the function due to be transferred to a separate agency after a revamp of its governing law.

“When it comes to the EPF there is an obvious conflict of interest. We are very happy to take that function out,” Governor Weerasinghe told a forum organized by Colombo-based Advocata Institute.

“We have about 300 staff out of 1,200 including contract staff, almost 150 of permanent staff is employed to run this huge operation. I don’t think the central bank should be doing this business,”

The EPF had come under fire in the past over questionable investments in stocks and also bonds.

In addition, the central bank also faced a conflict of interest because it had another agency function to sell bonds for the Treasury at the lowest possible price, not to mention its monetary policy functions.

“There has been a lot of allegations on the management of this fund. This is the biggest fund of the private sector; about 2.6 million active, I think about 10 million accounts.

“When it comes to EPF, obviously there’s another thing. We obviously have, in terms of resources, on the Central Bank, that has a clear conflict because we are responsible for the members.

“We have to give them a, as a custodian of the fund, we have to give them a maximum return for the members.

“For us to get the maximum return, on one hand, we determine the interest rates as multi-policy. On the other hand, we are managing public debt as a, raising funds for the government.

“And on the third hand, this EPF is investing 90 percent in government securities. And also, interest rates we determine, and they want to get the maximum interest. That’s a clear conflict, obviously, there’s no question.”

A separate agency is to be set up, he said.

“It’s up to the government or the members to determine to establish a new institution that has a trust and credibility and confidence of the members that this institution will be able to manage and secure an interest and give them a reasonable return, good return for their lifetime savings,” Governor Weerasinghe said.

“The question is that how whether we have whether we can develop that institution, whether we have the strong institution with accountability and the proper governance for this thing.

“I don’t think it should be given completely to a private sector business to run that. Because one is that here we have no regulatory institution. Pension funds are not a regulated business.

“First one is we need to establish, government should establish a regulatory agency to regulate not only the EPF business fund, there are several other similar funds are not properly regulated.

“Once we have proper regulations like we regulate banks, then we can have a can ensure proper practices are basically adopted by all these institutions.

“Then you can develop an institution that we who can run this and can be taken back by the Labour Department. I’m not sure Labour Department has the capacity to do all these things.”

While some EPF managers had come under scrutiny during the bondscam and for questionable stock investments, in recent years, it had earned better returns under the central bank management than some private funds that underwent debt restructuring according to capital market analysts with knowledge of he matter. (Colombo/May24/2024)

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Desperate Sri Lankans seek risky foreign jobs amid tough IMF reforms

ECONOMYNEXT – After working 11 years in Saudi Arabia as a driver, Sanath returned to Sri Lanka with dreams of starting a transport service company, buoyed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s 2019 presidential victory.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and an unprecedented economic crisis in 2022 shattered his dreams. Once an aspiring entrepreneur, he became a bank defaulter.

Facing hyperinflation, an unbearable cost of living, and his family’s daily struggles, Sanath sought greener pastures again—this time in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

“I had to pay 900,000 rupees ($3,000) to secure a driving job here,” Sanath (45), a father of two, told EconomyNext while having a cup of tea and a parotta for dinner near Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi.

Working for a reputed taxi company in the UAE, Sanath’s modest meal cost only 3 UAE dirhams (243 Sri Lankan rupees). Despite a monthly salary of around 3,000 dirhams, he limits his spending to save as much as possible.

Sanath has been in Abu Dhabi for 13 months but had to wait six months before driving a taxi and receiving no salary.


“I had to get my UAE driving license. I failed the first trial, and the company paid 6,500 dirhams on my behalf, agreeing to deduct 500 dirhams monthly from my salary,” he explained.

“So far, I have repaid only 3,000 dirhams.”

To raise the 900,000 rupees for the job, Sanath borrowed money from friends and pawned jewelry.

“I don’t know if I was cheated by the agent, but I must repay that money and also send money for my family’s expenses,” he said, glancing at a photograph of his family in a Colombo suburb.

Working night shifts in busy Abu Dhabi, Sanath said, “If I can secure 9,000 dirhams monthly through taxi driving, I will earn 3,000 dirhams in the month after deductions for the license fee and any traffic fines.”

Sanath came to Abu Dhabi with seven other Sri Lankan men through an employment agency in the Northwestern town of Kurunegala.

“Only two of us have withstood the tough traffic rules and payment deductions for offenses,” he said. Some of his colleagues are still job-hunting, while others have returned to Sri Lanka.

Sanath is one of around 700,000 Sri Lankans who have left the island in the last two years due to the economic crisis that forced the country to adopt difficult fiscal and monetary policies, including higher taxes and costly borrowing, exacerbating the cost of living.


From January 2022 to the end of March 2024, at least 683,118 Sri Lankans migrated for foreign employment through legal channels, according to the Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau.

They have sent $11.31 billion in remittances through official banking channels during the same period, central bank data shows.

Many Sri Lankans leave on visit visas, hoping to find jobs later, often guided by friends already working abroad. The economic crisis has pushed them to seek better opportunities abroad, despite the risks.

Sri Lankan authorities struggle to stop such risk-takers, who sometimes resort to illegal migration, despite warnings about human trafficking.

In Myanmar, 56 Sri Lankans caught in an IT job scam were detained earlier this year, and the government is still repatriating them.

At least 16 retired Sri Lankan military personnel have been killed in the Russia-Ukraine war after being misled by unscrupulous recruiters. Officials estimate that over 400 retired military officers may have left for similar reasons.


In March, Foreign Minister Ali Sabry warned against visiting any nation on open visas, urging Sri Lankans to emigrate only through registered agencies.

Despite the risks, many Sri Lankans are desperate to leave.

Abu Salim, a 32-year-old former rugby player, came to Dubai on a visit visa hoping for a banking job, which he never got.

Now freelancing in an insurance firm, he said, “I survive, and my relatives don’t see my struggle. It’s stressful, but still better than Sri Lanka right now.”

Suneth, a former top garment merchandiser, is also job-hunting in Sharjah after quitting his initial job in Sharjah.

“My worry is the visa. I must find a new job before it expires,” he said.

Many Sri Lankans in the UAE work multiple jobs, compromising their sleep and health to make ends meet. (Abu Dhabi/May 24/2024)

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