Blazing a Trail: The Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce Sri Lanka

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Introduction

Women are vital to the democratic development and economic growth in every country. Still, in many countries around the world, women face numerous obstacles that limit their participation in the national and global economies. As a result, women determined to participate fully in their countries’ development must join forces to overcome these obstacles by creating organizations that strive to expand economic opportunities for all women. Women’s chambers of commerce are prime examples of such organizations, as they foster the economic participation of women by working to establish an inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem.

An inspiring story of such an organization comes from Sri Lanka. The Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce (WCIC) has paved the way for women entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka – and inspired women in other countries – to work together toward a shared goal of equal economic opportunity and civic participation.

The WCIC’s Mission

The WCIC is a non-profit organization established in 1985 at a time when the economy of the country started to open and a growing number of women became engaged in economic activities. It is the oldest women’s chamber of commerce in Sri Lanka and the first such organization in the world. The WCIC has a national scope and it is an affiliate member of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce and the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Sri Lanka.

WCIC positions itself as “a pre-eminent organization in Sri Lanka for advancing the interests and views of business women” and it seeks to become “a powerful voice for improving the business environment for women in Sri Lanka.”1

In terms of governance, the WCIC is run by a Board of Directors comprised of 15 members, each elected for a six-year term. As the organization currently has only two permanent staff members, it relies on volunteers, organized into committees, to carry out programs and projects. Members and Board members serve on permanent committees (Members’ Day Committee, Project Committee, Seminar and Workshop Committee), as well as on ad-hoc committees.

Women in the Sri Lankan Economy

According to a 2012 census, women represent close to 52% of the total population2 and 34% of the “economically active population” of Sri Lanka. One in four women is engaged in industry. The service sector is the largest employer of women at 42%, while 33.9% work in agriculture. About 600,000 women are employed as migrant workers and, in 2014, they earned US$6 billion, which made them Sri Lanka’s largest foreign exchange earners.3

Women are very active in the domestic textile industry, which is a large contributor to export earnings, as well as in the tea industry and rice paddy cultivation. However, most of these women are employed rather than owners of businesses in these sectors. According to research conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies cited by WCIC, women represent only 10% of the total number of employers in Sri Lanka.4 Such statistics show that there is a need for support, technical assistance, and mentoring in order to empower women to develop business ventures and become entrepreneurs. In this context, the WCIC has a major role to play.

The Origin of the Chamber

The impetus for the establishment of WCIC came from a small group of highly educated and successful women entrepreneurs and professionals who decided to form an organization to empower women in rural and urban areas. This was a selfless act, as the group of women realized that they had opportunities not available to other women. They wanted to help these disadvantaged women integrate into the mainstream of business in order to improve their livelihoods.

Upon inception, the Chamber had only 10 founding members but has since grown significantly and currently has over 200 members, organized in two categories: women professionals and entrepreneurs. The professionals are mostly lawyers, accountants, and doctors whereas the women entrepreneur members own small, medium-sized, and large companies operating in garment manufacturing, finance/banking, food/beverages, education, agriculture, advertising/ media, handicrafts, hotels, restaurants, and other sectors.

Chamber Services and Benefits

WCIC’s programs and services provide current and potential members with skills development, networking opportunities, access to customers, promotion and recognition, as well as advocacy training. In order to help women develop their skills, the WCIC organizes workshops on a variety of business-related topics such as business creation, marketing, financial literacy, accounting, growth and succession planning of family-owned companies. Additionally, a year-long mentoring program, launched in March 2015, has connected dozens of micro and small business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs with reputed WCIC members to help them start or grow their businesses.

The Chamber’s networking events include an annual celebration of International Women’s Day in March and a Members’ Day, celebrated in June, with activities consisting of training, mentoring and networking sessions. For instance, the 2015 edition of the WCIC Members’ Day featured the relaunch of the Chamber’s website as well as a session on developing entrepreneurial skills. At such events, WCIC members are encouraged to invite guests, which, in turn, promotes the organization and attracts new members.

Another membership benefit is the opportunity to showcase products and services by participating in various trade fairs and exhibitions. An example includes the WCIC stall at the Good Market in Colombo, a curated marketplace for socially and environmentally responsible producers, service providers, and consumers to source and share products that match their values. Chamber members receive assistance from the organization to set up and display their products, free of charge. This is an opportunity for WCIC member entrepreneurs to build their brand, interact with customers, enhance their networking skills, and learn about the wants and needs of customers.

Chamber Activities

As part of its activities, the Chamber also recognizes successful business women through a biennial award ceremony. The Women Entrepreneur Award ceremony celebrates successful women in micro, small, medium and large business award categories, and offers a standalone award for the Woman Entrepreneur of the Year. Three additional categories were added for the 2015 edition of the awards: Young Woman Entrepreneur of the Year, Start-Up Entrepreneur of the Year, and Woman Exporter of the Year. The recognition and visibility that award winners have received at this event helped them expand their businesses.. Besides highlighting women entrepreneurs, such events also serve as vehicles to raise awareness about the Chamber and its programs, attract new members, and gain publicity in the media. Notably, the President of Sri Lanka attended the latest ceremony on August 5, 2016 in Colombo, and presented the awards to ten outstanding women entrepreneurs.

Since its creation, the WCIC has been actively involved in defending the rights of women-owned businesses, advocating policy reforms that foster entrepreneurship and wealth creation, and representing the voice of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Since the availability of funding is a major concern for women entrepreneurs, the WCIC has worked extensively on improving access to finance. The WCIC considers a great accomplishment the government’s decision to allocate to women 5 percent of the total loans for SMEs given by all financial institutions in Sri Lanka. As a result of the WCIC’s advocacy, the Ministry of Finance and Planning has included a provision to continue to allocate loans to SMEs in the 2015-2016 budget and the WCIC is monitoring implementation of the provision.

Recognizing the importance of synergy with other organizations to make the voice of women entrepreneurs heard, the WCIC has also recently signed a memorandum of cooperation with regional women’s chambers in Sri Lanka, with the goal of creating a women’s federation.

CIPE’s Role in Strengthening WCIC’s Capacity

WCIC for several years now has been a part of South Asia Women’s Network sponsored by Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE). The network draws together women’s business associations from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and India. When CIPE began to work with this group of women business leaders in 2013, its capacity-building sessions focused primarily on issues such as board governance, strategic planning, staff and financial management, membership development, and services for members. As the organizations built their strengths with CIPE’s help, the discussion increasingly turned to the challenges facing women entrepreneurs in their countries, including numerous policy barriers. As a result, the focus of the program turned to advocacy of policy reforms.

In 2015, with a small grant from CIPE, the WCIC advocated the passage of a gender-sensitive policy on SMEs in Sri Lanka. Despite its 30-year history, this was the organization’s first real experience with policy advocacy. The government welcomed WCIC’s recommendation, and the new gender-sensitive SME policy was swiftly passed. The government has also prioritized increasing the role of women in business and asked WCIC representatives to sit on the SME Committee of the Ministry of Industry to help shape economic policies, giving yet another platform for women’s voices to be heard in the policy sphere. As mentioned before, the WCIC was also successful in achieving a 5 percent loan allocation for women entrepreneurs from commercial banks. WCIC leadership emphasized CIPE’s role in encouraging them to focus on a specific policy initiative - a SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound) objective. Being focused helped the organization achieve its policy advocacy goal.

In 2016, the WCIC began another advocacy initiative, “Lend to Her,” supported by CIPE. This initiative is a project that aims to provide women entrepreneurs with the skills and knowledge to apply and be considered for bank loans. The WCIC partnered with a local bank, Sampath Bank, to conduct training programs for WCIC members on financial management and business planning. Upon completion of the program, the women entrepreneurs will a submit a business plan to Sampath Bank’s credit evaluation unit. This program was designed to also educate the banking sector, providing an opportunity for bank representatives to understand the operating cycles and financial needs of women-owned businesses. The advocacy program has received recognition from the country’s Finance Ministry.

Impact of WCIC’s Work

When talking about the foundation of WCIC’s success, its Chairperson Rifa Musthapha cites a clear organizational mission and vision as the focal point, along with strong and committed members. The WCIC continues to work tirelessly to improve the business environment in Sri Lanka so that all women have the economic opportunities to better their lives. Organizations like the WCIC truly embody the 2017 International Women’s Day campaign theme #BeBoldForChange, as the Chamber took bold, pragmatic actions to pave the way for women to realize and achieve their full economic potential. The WCIC has been a vehicle for change and key to fostering an environment that is conducive for inclusive economic growth.

Carmen Stanila currently serves a Senior Consultant with the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE). Previously, she worked as Deputy Director with the CIPE Regional Office in Romania and with the Regional Center for Organization Management. She has extensive experience as a program manager, trainer and facilitator. Her areas of expertise include association management, advocacy, coalition building, and women entrepreneurship. She holds a degree in foreign languages from the University of Bucharest and an MBA from the Academy of Economics in Bucharest and the Conservatiore National des Arts et Metiers Paris.

End Notes:

1 Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce Sri Lanka website http://www.wcicsl.lk/about_us.php
2 Census of Population and Housing 2012, Department of Census & Statistics Sri Lanka http://www.statistics.gov.lk/
3 Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce Sri Lanka website
4 Idem

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