While developing the business plan for the social enterprise I planned to start up last year, I was trying to identify other social enterprises in the country and their business models and area of focus. Given that Sri Lanka does not have a legal framework for social enterprises, I have been particularly intrigued by how businesses define themselves as a social business or a social enterprise. It was during this online search that I came across Selyn, a handloom company. I had previously come across their showroom in Colombo but had not known the company was a social business.
It was a coincidence, that soon after I became interested in learning more about Selyn, I met Selyna Peiris. Selyna, with an academic background in law, was the one responsible for transforming Selyn into a social business. I asked Selyna if I could interview her for my blog and she agreed. So, here’s my interview with her.
- How would you describe yourself?
Focused. I always know what I want and I go for it. I don’t get distracted easily.
- I understand that Selyn was started as a handloom company by your mother in 1991. When was Selyn transformed into a social enterprise? Why did you feel the need for this transformation?
Selyn turns 25 years old this year. It was always a company run for a social mission from the outset. With my knowledge and interest in social enterprises, we put in the systems and processes necessary to run as a social enterprise such as departmentalization, visualization, projecting ourselves, having a unique selling point. I did the easier bit – repackaging.
- How do you define Selyn as a social enterprise?
We are running a business but entrenched in our business model is the mechanism to work for society. For eg: day care center facilities in our workshops. It impacts society but it’s a business strategy to get younger women to join the industry. A social business is where business strategy impacts society.
- Please do share an anecdote on how Selyn impacts the local community.
Our main target group is middle-aged women. Providing alternatives for this target group to have the option of work in their own villages as opposed to possibly the only other option of migrating as domestic labour. Particularly in the areas we work, Batticaloa, Kurunegala where they are highly susceptible to migration. This has been the key area of greatest impact.
I recently participated in the international visitor leadership programme and thereafter applied for the alumni innovation fund and won the funding for the 100 hands initiative, where 100 women who are potential migrants or migrant returnees are recruited and retained by Selyn, following a screening and psycho social support process. This is again a business strategy that at the same time looks at how it impacts society.
- From your experience, what are some of the challenges that social enterprises in Sri Lanka face?
Recognition as a separate entity. The awareness legally and among consumers as to why a social enterprise is different. Selyn is one of the founding members of Good Market and is part of the board that vets new applicants. Many applicants think that giving women employment is being a social enterprise. It is about changing lives, not only in terms of providing employment.
- What needs to be introduced, modified or expanded to enable a more supportive environment for social entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka?
Biggest factor is legal recognition. Currently, there is no option to register social enterprises. One has to either register as a NGO under Section 34 of Companies Act or as a private limited company. One does not allow making profit, the other does not have legal obligation to serve society. Selyn is registered as a private limited company. Except for our ethos, we don’t have to do what we do.
We need a hybrid model, like the community impress in the UK, Bcorps in the US. We are used to people’s company and we are used to cooperatives in Sri Lanka. We need to see how we can incorporate and create a space for social enterprises to flourish.
- Would it help social enterprises to have tax incentives or not? What are some of the challenges that startups face?
Not sure whether tax incentives would lead to the flourishing of real social enterprises. What we need to encourage is innovation and startups to address societal problems. A social entrepreneur should not be encouraged by tax incentives.
Currently, the cost of startup is expensive. Lot of people are scared to invest financially in something when they don’t see the value of what this can bring about. Simple ideas have helped communities and made money for the people who have started these ventures. Exposure to such thinking and taking initiative is limited. We just don’t have a conducive environment for innovation and startups. We need to grow the space that can encourage social enterprises.
- What are some of the other initiatives that you are currently involved in?
I also work for the government of Sri Lanka at the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation on both education and women programmes. I bring my private sector experience into those programmes. At Selyn, we can only target 1000 women so it is important to work with the system and bring about changes, if one wishes to impact larger populations.
- What do you do to de-stress or recover your equilibrium when things do not go according to plan?
I exercise. I have gotten into it in the last couple of years since that is the only time I have for myself where I don’t have to think about anything but just work out.
- Wrapping up this interview, do share a favourite quote or verse that inspires you whenever you are in need of some inspiration.
I always think about something mom and dad taught me, to always go into something with a learning attitude. When things get difficult, I don’t take it personally. When I present an idea or initiative and when someone slashes it, I just take it as part of a learning curve. Especially at Selyn, where it is more difficult as it is a family run business.