In Focus- Janaki Kuruppu

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Janaki Kuruppu – first lady chairperson of the Ceylon Tea Board, founder of the Mother Sri Lanka  Movement, first chairman of the Regional Development Bank and before all of that, founder of SMART Sri Lanka’s first market research company – an impressive track record indeed.

My first thoughts when I meet Janaki Kuruppu at her office – “pretty, vivacious, charming, powerful” –and at the end of the interview, I have added another –“unforgettable”.  My mission was to capture the lady behind the striking public persona and I was, pleasantly surprised.

Seated across from me in a striking blue saree with her hair tied back, she is the epitome of understated elegance. Even as she holds the title of Chairperson of the Ceylon Tea Board, Janaki has not given up her pet project Mother Sri Lanka which was her first undertaking once she joined the public sector after serving many years in the private sector.  A lady with an illustrious past, she is creating a distinguished future with her current endeavours.


I lead her down memory lane, to where it all began.  Born on November 19 as the daughter of educationists (her father Linton Kuruppu was the founder of Sujatha Vidyalaya, Nugegoda, a privately run Buddhist school and her mom Asoka, a teacher), Janaki excelled in mathematics from her childhood.

“I studied at Methodist College, up to my A/Ls, where I got selected to the Physical Science stream at the University of Colombo to do a Maths special degree. Even though I did Maths for A/L’s, my school didn’t have Maths at the time but I refused to leave school and told my father that I will do it privately”.

Her university life in Sri Lanka though hit a major road bump.

“In my 4th year, the JVP troubles started and since the universities were closed for such a long time, I went to the USA.  My father didn’t think I would survive there.  No wonder, because I was brought up in a very conservative and protective environment, he used to drop me and pick me up from wherever I wanted to go and he was also worried that I would not want to come back. I promised him I would return and he gave me Rs 100,000 which was about 4000 dollars back then, enough for a year’s college fees, if I remember right”.

Her savings were just enough to buy a one way ticket to America (Rs 11,000) and she left the country to complete her studies, obtaining a Bachelors in Mathematics and Computer Science and Masters in Applied Statistics at the University of Missouri, Columbia.

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Keeping her promise to her father, she returned to Sri Lanka and took up an appointment as a visiting lecturer in Statistics for MBA students at the Post Graduate Institute of Management of the Sri Jayawardhenapura University.

“It was tough job hunting when I returned and my son was only one year old. It was difficult teaching statistics to adults, many of whom hated mathematics! The money I made was not enough to live, so I decided to start my own company,” she smiles.

SMART was born due to purely economic reasons but grew from strength to strength.

“I started with just two people, my knowledge in statistics and keenness to do market research, a computer I had brought back from the States and software that I used over there – I paid my first executive in 1994, Rs 5000 as the salary”.

The company entered into a partnership with ORG MARG, Asia’s largest market research company at the time in 1997, becoming ORG MART SMART, until Nielsen bought them over in 2002.

Joining Cargills as a Group Director, she was involved in strategic planning in their core business of retailing and all other subsidiary companies till 2008.

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In 2008, Janaki entered the public sector. The decision to do so was made after grappling with the pros and cons for three years, and she has not looked back since. The opportunity to join the public service came about as she was well known amongst politicians for her opinion polls during her SMART days.

“I used to do opinion polls, which were independently done and published. Various polls on what do people think of leaders, what do they think of how they are running the country, popularity levels, predict election outcomes – all politicians knew me because of this”.

An invitation from the President himself was hard to refuse.

“President Rajapakse invited me to do some research for him at the President’s Office. It was to be a big change, I have never worked in the public sector. I thought how many times in your life time would you get a chance to work for the president of your country and thought I will take up the challenge. I helped set up a research unit to conduct independent research about people’s perceptions”.

Before she could do any of that, she realised the extent of the negativity surrounding her, everybody in the country had a pessimistic outlook at the height of the war and people were looking at the first opportunity to get out the country.

“I told H.E. we have to do something about this and change people’s mindsets and that is how the movement called Mother Sri Lanka was born. The goal was to encourage positive thinking and give back to the country –ask not what the country can do for you, but what you can do for the country – that is our foundation”.

Private sector funding, public sector infrastructure and volunteer manpower is what Mother Sri Lanka is about.

“I am able to use the line ministries to help implement the projects and that can only be done through the President’s office infrastructure. Because I am originally from the private sector, I went back to all my contacts to get funding. Some people laughed at me and said “don’t waste your time, you can’t change the way people think about our country” but just for my proposal, several people did come on board and we started off on a high note”.

As Chairperson of the Sri Lanka Tea Board, a position she currently holds in a sector famously run by men for centuries, Janaki feels that women are sidelined in Sri Lanka’s economy.

“The hardest part of the process is done by women, but after that they disappear, this is true not only for tea, think of our other exports. During my first address as tea board Chairperson at an international forum I pointed this out, to the delight of the few ladies in a sea of men. It’s not about breaking the glass ceiling -I tell any woman not to expect special treatment, women are equal in everything except physical strength to a man, so act with courage.  Now it’s time for women to take charge, this is the century of women. Of course, the ideal is a balance. Though I would not want to be selected only based on my gender, a quota for women in politics maybe a good start”.

Janaki is a member of the global steering committee of World Bank’s AgriFin and also holds the position of Advisor on food security to the Cabinet sub-committee on food security.

In 2010, as chairperson of the Regional Development Bank, she was entrusted with the task of merging six regional banks and forming a national development bank with the largest regional network.

At present, Janaki’s time is taken up with looking after”Ceylon Tea and bringing back the glory days”, as she puts it and the charity dear to her heart, Mother Sri Lanka.

“People told me that I must be mad to switch sectors, but I embraced the lifestyle changes necessary due to the difference in pay. Yes, the culture is also very different from the corporate culture, I had certain perceptions about the public sector but now that I am on this side, I understand better why certain things can’t be done in a certain way. I honestly feel that if more people made the transition from public to private sector and vice versa, there would be much smoother running of bureaucracy. There are other things in life, like the satisfaction of working for the country, or the respect people show you for holding a certain position which compensate amply”.

Janaki takes a firm stand on corruption and is determined to be an example against complacency.

“At the risk of not getting my work done, I will not give into corruption. I believe the giver is as guilty as the taker. At a leadership training given by US which I attended, I was given the opportunity to choose the subjects and I picked, “how to tackle corruption and management performance in the public sector”.  To my surprise, I found out that these were global issues. Sri Lanka is a country afflicted with dependency syndrome – everyone wants easy jobs with pensions, everyone feels entitled but no one wants to take action or take on responsibility”.

Linton Kuruppu did not want any ‘favouritism” for his daughter, so he did not enrol her in the school that he founded. Instead he chose a private school with a good mix of children from all backgrounds so that she can “experience real school life”.

“I believe that this made me a well-balanced person, but more than that it was my experience overseas which made me who I am today. Due to my conservative and protective background I may have turned out a very passive person if I stayed here. Once I went to the States, I did three jobs to sustain myself whilst studying –I did dishes at a restaurant, deliveries on a bike and worked in a library. However when the results came, I was refunded 2/3rds of my fee because I got good grades. I was offered a Teacher’s post then”.

She believes you have to make certain decisions in life at the right time even though they may turn your life upside down.

“There have been some huge decisions in my life – coming back to Sri Lanka, selling my own company, moving to the public sector, these have been momentous periods of my life. Every adjustment was tough, but I did not falter”.

Janaki finds her work with children and youth through Mother Sri Lanka very fulfilling.

“In fact, I am writing a book at the moment, the theme is “I must change for my country to change” which is the message we promote through Mother Sri Lanka”.

In the midst of all her professional activity, Janaki is also reading for a PhD in Food Security at the University of Colombo.

I ask her what she does in her rare free time and pat comes her simple answer: “I read a lot of autobiographies mainly of change leaders, businessmen and politicians, I read about Buddhism,  I observe sil every month”.

Her advice to the younger generation: hard work and perseverance pays off.

“Work hard, persevere to achieve your dreams and believe in yourself. Have confidence in yourself and do the right thing, according to your conscience and remember there is more to life than a luxury lifestyle”

Janaki’s son Dhanika De Silva is a two time national junior golf champ. A former student of Royal College and British School in Colombo, the 19 year old was clever enough to get a scholarship to study Economics at Hamilton College, New York.  “After having brought him up all these years, some of them by myself and now having to let him go was another tough decision.  I miss him a lot since he’s my only child and the pride of my life”.

“I have the very real fear that my own father had – I wonder whether my son will come back to Sri Lanka and that drives me more to make this country more attractive for our youth to come back to.

Wishing her all the very best, especially for her work in moulding a more responsible new generation through the Mother Sri Lanka movement, I take my leave, convinced that the country’s future will be a better one.

By Apsara Perera






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