For those who are not familiar with you, what is your story?
I was born in Sri Lanka and grew up in Canada. I think that has influenced who I am and my story, which is still a work in progress; where it started, where it is now and where it’s going. The heritage, the culture, and the adversity that the Sri Lankan community has faced informed and influenced me and my decisions from an early age. Before working in international development however, I studied Business Administration and worked for companies like PricewaterhouseCoopers and Procter & Gamble. Eventually my professional career transitioned from the private sector into international development. I’ve always talked the talk of wanting to work on things related to social impact and doing my part to create a more equitable society, even if it’s a small part. It was about time I started walking the walk, so I took the leap and in the past few years I have found myself in Malawi, Laos and Sri Lanka.
I work in the International Development sector and it’s a very far-reaching sector that’s a bit complicated and nuanced. I do what we call Market Systems Development, which is the concept of building, using and influencing market solutions to facilitate the socio-economic empowerment of communities that fall between the cracks in the current systems. This manifests in different ways: working with small or medium enterprises, working on community development or influencing policy at a micro or macro level. The idea is to continue on that path and continue writing my story. I’m also interested in and passionate about sharing experiences and knowledge, whether it’s learning from others or sharing things I’ve come across. I’m still writing my story; it’s a never ending process and I hope that it comes to life by the end of it.
What are some of the biggest things you’ve taken away from your journey?
There’s a lot that we take away from every interaction, however long or short our journey is. The first thing that comes to mind is the importance of listening; to sit down and have a conversation with somebody and listen. I’m not great at it, but I’ve been consciously making an effort to be a better listener. It’s something that many of us know and acknowledge. This thought however, has been magnified from my time living and working with my Malawian, Laos, and Sri Lankan friends and family.
When we look at people who work in development, humanitarian aid or social impact, we often paint a one-sided picture that they are noble, they’re sacrificing so much and doing great deeds. I have come to terms with the fact that we should not put those who work in these sectors on a pedestal, myself included, without knowing what’s actually happening. It is of course important that we’re working towards socio-economic empowerment among other things, but good intentions aren’t always enough. Organizations in these sectors sometimes work in ways that magnify certain inequalities. I think there is amazing work being done and there are a lot of great models to follow, but there is still work to do. I’ve been telling myself to ask questions and think critically about how things are done in the sector, and in my own work, to keep the system and people accountable. That has been one of my biggest takeaways, and something I want others to know because we often glorify these sectors more than we should.
What is your advice to youth who have not found their passion yet?
Passion is a very abstract concept and I don’t think I’ve found my true passion yet. I don’t think there’s just one passion for each person. I don’t think passion is static; it could always be changing. It may not be as simple as going to school, studying a topic you like, getting a job in that industry and going on with life. I think we have to make an effort to look for it. We should make informed decisions about our passions and purpose in life. It’s also important to explore the opportunities we have. One way is to apply for jobs in different industries to get a taste for it. This may not always be feasible, and so an alternative is to pursue interests on the side. These might become a passion and manifest into a lifelong career or side hustle. I think passion can manifest in many ways.
It’s important for us to create and cultivate behaviors and routines that allow for those interests to prosper. So I would say to constantly meet new people. There’s a lot you can learn from other people’s experiences. I’ve learned about opportunities I never knew existed from speaking to different people from all walks of life, from across the world, and in different sectors as well. But at the end of the day, we should act on it. I don’t think we can find our passion until we actually act on something. So do your research, talk to people, start walking the walk, act on those interests and see if it’s something you like. Remember that it’s going to be an exploratory process and won’t happen overnight.
What was the most important thing you’ve learned this year?
I think my understanding of freedom has been redefined over the years. The most important thing I’ve learned, or rather reaffirmed, this year is that freedom is not only about being able to do what you want and when you want. It is equally about taking the opportunity to do the right thing. Where we are today is an accumulation of the sacrifices and hard work of the people that came before us — family or members of society. A lot of people’s blood, sweat and tears have gone into the relative level of freedom that you and I enjoy today. I think it’s important to honor that hard work and do it justice by fulfilling what we think is the right thing to do. This manifests differently for everyone. For me, it’s fulfilling my moral obligations, and pursuing a career that is intertwined with shaping a more equitable world. I owe it to a lot of people for having this relative level of freedom, and this is the best way I know how.
Is there one thing that you want to change about yourself or the world?
There are several things, and it applies to myself and the world, because you can’t expect from others what you won’t or can’t do yourself. I would like to change our susceptibility to single narratives; it’s as simple as having a single story define an entire population, company, or country. I think single narratives are dangerous and can create harmful biases if we’re not careful. Sometimes it can be true, but it paints a narrow picture about a group of people or a certain incident. We see a lot of that during the COVID-19 pandemic. There isn’t a better time than now to talk about this.
It’s important that we stay informed and not succumb to pieces of information that confirm what we think we already know. I think single narratives have harmed the way we see the world and certain groups of people. It’s not easy to keep yourself informed or to avoid stereotypes. Our mind goes to the single narratives because it’s easy to absorb that information. It’s important to create a broad view of the world and improve our ability to navigate the abundance of information thrown our way. It is important that we expand the way we see the world around us, revolutionize our place and role in it, and propel ideas that create a better world for all.