From mentorship to market success

IESC drives young entrepreneurs to vital business growth

While a vibrant small business sector is essential to Sri Lanka’s growth and development, entrepreneurship is not always considered to be a promising career path, especially for young Sri Lankans. Before the pandemic, the percentage of enterprises started by youth under 35 in Sri Lanka was only about four percent of all startups.

To inspire and encourage a mass audience of young people to think about starting their own businesses, IESC, through the USAID-funded youth employment and entrepreneurship project YouLead, teamed up with TV Derana and Partners for Good, a Jordanian NGO, to launch Derana Startup2021. Startup2021 was a unique reality TV show that aimed to empower 30 talented young entrepreneurs, carefully selected from thousands of entrants, to develop their fledgling businesses by receiving guidance to build their support networks and access resources needed to foster entrepreneurship, innovation, and market outreach for their growing businesses. Each young entrepreneur received extensive one-on-one mentoring from eminent industry leaders and pitched their business concepts to a panel of judges to win a cash prize. Since the successful completion of Startup2021, many of those contestants have made significant strides with their businesses and are beginning to establish themselves in the market.

Ushan Chaminda with his Startup2021 prize

Startup2021 winner Ushan Chaminda

One such success story comes from Ushan Chaminda, the first-place winner of Startup2021. Ushan is the founder of Gavesha Labs, an edtech startup based in Colombo. He says, “My vision is to empower STEAM education in Sri Lanka through technology and reduce barriers for children to access tech-based education. Winning Derana Startup2021 was a pivotal moment in my journey. That experience expanded my thinking and opened many new opportunities for Gavesha.”

Through Ushan’s leadership, Gavesha Labs has recently attracted funding from JohnKeellsX startup accelerator for product development that includes the first ever Sri Lankan made minicomputer with basic AI assistance to help children embrace technology. Gavesha Labs also collaborates with UNICEF on the ‘Gavesha Mini Lab,’ which promotes climate education among young children and is currently being piloted in Nuwara Eliya.

Rishan Dulanjana with his Startup2021 prize

Startup2021 contestant Rishan Dulanjana

Rishan Dulanjana, another Starup2021 contestant, is the founder of Jack Fruit Ceylon in Galle. His business manufactures a variety of innovative products based on the jackfruit seed for both the local and international markets. The supply chain has created vital new livelihood opportunities for more than 400 jackfruit vendors across the country.

On August 15, 2023, Rishan was recognized for his growing entrepreneurial prowess, receiving the Young Startup of the Year Award and the Best Innovation to Commercialization Gold Award at the Sri Lanka Institute of Marketing SME Development Awards.

Reflecting on the support he received from IESC, Rishan said, “At Startup2021, I was introduced to my mentor, Mrs. Janaki Kathiriarachchi. We still connect regularly, and that interaction has been a huge source of empowerment for me as we raised the standards of our business, which included gaining ISO certification. Winning the recent awards was a proud moment of recognition of our efforts and I am glad she was at my side to celebrate it.”

At a critical time when the Sri Lankan economy needs an infusion of new enterprises to drive economic growth and create job opportunities, Ushan and Rishan are trailblazers. They exemplify the potential for success among young Sri Lankan entrepreneurs when provided with the necessary support, tools, and resources to accelerate their growth.

YouLead is a seven-year project funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). It aims to improve technical and vocational education, create a more skilled workforce, and link youth to more productive careers by supporting and strengthening students, teachers, and institutions. It encourages entrepreneurship by giving young people the skills needed to run their own enterprises and improve their access to mentoring and financing. IESC implements the project in partnership with international partner Global Communities along with local partners the American Chamber of Commerce, the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, and Skills for Life.

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