Women in Management, Coca-Cola’s 5by20 partner in Sri Lanka, provides opportunities for women to gain confidence and know-how needed to help break into the business world. We talked to its founder, Sulochana Segera, about her own journey and the importance of empowering women in a culture that often leaves them hopeless.

The same year that the Sri Lankan civil war ended, Sulochana Segera started bringing ailing and isolated women together in a country that had been divided for 26 years. That was in 2009.

Since her organization began partnering with Coca-Cola’s 5by20 women’s empowerment initiative in 2012, Women in Management (WIM) has mentored and equipped 4,500 women entrepreneurs with the skills to start and grow their own businesses. Eighty-eight percent of those women are the heads of their households. It’s an impressive accomplishment after just seven years, but Segera and her colleagues at WIM continue looking uphill, focused on the next challenge; in 2014, Sri Lanka ranked No. 15 out of 19 Asian countries surveyed in percentage of women in the labor force (about 35 percent), according to the International Labor Organization (ILO).

What Segera brings to these women is her own experience—divorce, family shaming, attempting suicide—and an ability to give courage to women trying to overcome those struggles which she knows so well. I talked with her over Skype about her vision for Sri Lankan women breaking through personal and professional barriers, and how WIM, Coca-Cola’s 5by20 partner in Sri Lanka, is changing the landscape.

You’ve said that gender bias has become so normalized in Sri Lanka that its effects can be self-imposed by women. How do you effectively change such a rooted mindset like that over time?

Within families, women are given very little support. Oftentimes, abuse in the home is so common that they think that men have a right to it. Women think, “That’s my husband, I have to go through this.” But when 40 women come together with WIM and share their experiences with each other, they realize they aren’t alone in those experiences. Instead of being isolated, they’re connected to one another. The biggest things we’re giving them at WIM are self-confidence and purpose. We just came out of a war, and there are so many women who are still distraught because of their experiences during that time. They have dreams but are scared to live out their ambitions. Giving them hope and building them up is what we do for women in Sri Lanka; giving them value for being a Sri Lankan woman.

The family unit is highly important in Sri Lankan culture. How has your own family life shaped your understanding of the problems women in Sri Lanka face?

The family experiences I’ve had as a woman in Sri Lanka are common among families in our culture, so that’s allowed me to speak to the problems many of the women I know are facing. I got married when I was 22. I didn’t really understand the responsibility it would require, and neither did my husband. My life was completely different from his, but I was expected to marry him, so I did—against my better judgement. By the time I was 27, I was a single mother in a country where women are only respected if they are married. That is institutionalized in Sri Lanka. Even on our voting registration forms, men are the designated heads of households. As a single mother, government agents would look at me strangely when I filled in that line. The challenge women face is that this kind of pressure keeps them in a familial structure that’s unhealthy for them; but they accept it, because it’s the only way they’ll be respected. Their husbands could be thieves, alcoholics, drug addicts or womanizers—if a woman still keeps a man as her husband, she is respected for that. This creates a very unhealthy family culture, which is why a lot of women suffer within their own home.

'Giving them hope and building them up is what we do for women in Sri Lanka; giving them value for being a Sri Lankan woman.'

I understand that, because my personal life was the same way for a long time. When these women talk to me about having suicidal thoughts, I can relate to that because I’ve been in that place personally. I was rejected by much of my family after separating from my husband, went through personal development training to help bring my son through depression, and I’ve even had times when I had suicidal thoughts myself. So I’ve been able to help these women overcome personal challenges in various ways, whether it’s making sure their voice is heard, navigating sexual relationships, or getting along with people who don’t accept them.

What inspired you to start Women in Management?

I wanted to create something that would give women in Sri Lanka the confidence to pursue the work they want to do, and to do it well. Before I started WIM, I was searching for organizations for women in Sri Lanka, and most of the women I came across were working for NGOs. I didn’t want to start an NGO; I believed that if I wanted to empower women, I should work for that purpose instead of receiving funding. I went to Singapore and Malaysia and saw that there were a lot of mentoring organizations for women, so in 2009 I came back to Sri Lanka and started WIM as a mentoring organization. I knew that there were plenty of opportunities for women in the economic sphere; they just needed to be equipped. Sri Lankan women have no gender issues as far as access to health care and education. Education is free. Health care is free. It’s all there…the issue is that they are scared to take opportunities.

Since 2009, Sri Lanka has made a lot of progress in giving women access to education and health care. How does WIM help turn that progress into economic success?

Women in Sri Lanka can be scared to do business unless they have good support from their families. They can start a business, but they usually don’t have enough help to run it. One thing women can contribute is their knowledge. In fact, I’ve found their knowledge of production to be very high. They’re fully capable when it comes to running small shops and selling food, but they lack marketing skills and don’t know how to plan strategically. I know we can change that. I’ve seen that potential in WIM.

'When 40 women come together with WIM and share their experiences with each other, they realize they aren’t alone in those experiences. Instead of being isolated, they’re connected to one another. The biggest things we’re giving them are self-confidence and purpose.'

One example is the partnership we have with Coca-Cola Beverages Sri Lanka and its 5by20 women’s empowerment initiative. With their help, WIM runs both one-day and two-day programs, with ten programs happening each month. In the two-day programs, I spend the first day focusing on teaching them how to build self-esteem as businesswomen. On the second day, I pass it off to our trainers, who dive deeper into the process of managing a business. We usually have four of those two-day programs each month, and after three months, we do a post-evaluation and look at their financial progress. Of the 40 who participate in each two-day program, I would say more than half have shown substantial improvement. Right now, we’re providing skills-based education to around 400 women every month. The partnership we have with Coca-Cola here in Sri Lanka through their 5by20 initiative allows us to broaden our reach geographically and socioeconomically, and the government’s Ministry of Women and Child Affairs also helps us select women whose needs fit what we’re doing at WIM.

'The partnership we have with Coca-Cola here in Sri Lanka through their 5by20 initiative allows us to broaden our reach geographically and socioeconomically...'

Together, we’ve enabled 4,500 women in Sri Lanka, and 3,980 of them are women-headed households. Many of them have had to overcome some of the same difficulties that I’ve worked through—one of our women named Kumidini also separated from her husband. She really struggled to overcome that situation, which for Sri Lankan women can involve a lot of shame and isolation, and she became the lone supporter of her family. She started a bag-making business, and WIM allowed her to develop the skills she needed in order to grow it. Now she has her own website, is reaching new markets, and is creating various designs for those markets. A couple years ago, Coca-Cola’s 5by20 program sent her to the Malaysia Business Forum. She’s been hugely successful in branding herself in the business world, and that’s made her an even stronger mother.

Around the world, the more women succeed, the stronger economies tend to become. How will that happen in Sri Lanka?

Women, family and business have to be treated as one unit. That’s the concept we’re teaching them and enabling them to apply to their own lives. We connect with them on a personal level, and then we help them build their personal networks and family relationships. We’ve uplifted entire families this way. In Sri Lanka, family issues tend to occur when women forget their roles as wives, so you have to empower the whole family. You have to empower the husband. Men have stood in the back at WIM and said “I just want to contribute to my wife’s business.” We’ve assisted them in bringing families into their business as their partners, and we’ve showed them how they can get their husband and children involved.