Making Inclusivity Work for the Global Society
Manager, STAX. Inc.
Following an international education and career that placed her in frequent leadership positions, Piyumi felt the need to refocus on her home country of Sri Lanka, as well as to formalize her leadership training in order to enact real lasting change. Piyumi’s time on the Global Leaders for Innovation and Knowledge program furnished her with a fresh focus on the need to bring inclusion of people with disabilities and the neurodivergent into the workplace. Now that goal takes her back to Sri Lanka with a desire to make the economic case for inclusivity and the greater goal of making a society that works for everyone.
―What was your reason for wanting to study on the Global Leaders for Innovation and Knowledge program?
I am always looking to “level up”. But, with that said, I would also share that, up until now, I have been a reluctant leader. I’ve never jumped at the chance to lead, but I do take initiative and—by default—I’ve often found myself entrusted with leadership roles. At my current company, I’ve been leading a team of early-career consultants, and I just reached a point where I realized that I needed a little more mentoring myself.
I’m Sri Lankan, but I was born in Abu Dhabi. I mention that because, considering my schooling and further education, I really haven’t spent that much time in my home country. I grew up in the Middle East, followed by nearly a decade of undergraduate and postgraduate study at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. I have only been living in Sri Lanka for the past five years, since entering the corporate world. Being in my home country has been something of a new experience for me.
In my work in strategy and management consulting for private equity firms and corporates, I am always researching industry best practices and successful models of doing business and applying them in different contexts. I strive constantly for new standards of excellence in terms of what can be delivered. Being back in Sri Lanka makes me want to think seriously about applying these lessons from the workplace to society at large. However, there is a limit to what you can learn on the go, so I needed to take some time and think about my future direction. I heard about the course online, and just thought to myself, “It’s now or never”. And I have never looked back.
―How would you describe the program as a whole?
It is a big plus that it takes place in many different locations. Traveling in parallel to the classroom keeps your mind open to new ideas.
I found the program wholly refreshing, and it’ incredible how far we’ve all come in a short amount of time. I have met people from diverse backgrounds and been to so many beautiful places. Given the sheer course load, I can’t believe how many memorable experiences we still managed to squeeze into these three and a half months. When I was in Hawaii, for example, I hiked Koko Crater. While it was strenuous to get to the top, the views were simply magnificent when I finally did. The whole program was like that!
―Did your classmates shape your experience?
I am no stranger to diverse groups, but the number of nationalities was impressive. I really learnt the value of being in a team. The importance of teamwork gets thrown around a lot, but when you are in a group where every person brings something new—or adds something to your ideas—it is wonderful to see the principle in practice.
It wasn’t just my classmates and professors, but people I met on my field trips. Everyone. Beyond nationality, it was a chance to interact with people from different age groups who have different perspectives on life. Especially taking part in a homestay in Hawaii, with a host in her eighties, made me rethink my attitudes toward age and realize that you never stop learning and being of service to people. Those kinds of lessons come from the most unlikely places, and the whole program was filled with those kinds of moments.
―Did you obtain the leadership skills you were looking for?
Throughout the process, I was constantly put in positions—both in and out of my comfort zone—where I had to take the lead. Actually, trusting my instincts, and getting that affirmation that my instincts were correct, was really rewarding.
Of course, I learned a lot, and my attitudes to leadership changed. But having the confidence to trust my instincts was really important for me personally. There were moments of doubt where I wondered if I had made the right call in a given situation. But, thanks to my classmates, I had that validation.
It also taught me to think of the common good as essential. If you only think in business terms, you forget the rewards that come from helping the community. I kept returning to that idea of the common good throughout this process. And, through various experiences, I feel like I have a good idea of my own definition now. At the moment, no one might pay you for delivering the common good, but it should be our aspiration—especially for leaders of the future.
Sometimes a firm hand may be necessary, but knowing when that is needed and not needed is the essence of good leadership.
―What is the subject of your Capstone Project and why is this an important topic for you personally?
The issue of inclusion of people with disabilities and the neurodivergent in the workforce is very important to me. That is not to say I have a disability myself nor that this is an issue that is particularly pertinent to Sri Lanka—except in terms of the number of casualties in the aftermath of the Sri Lankan Civil War. However, as a percentage of the population, depending on what criteria you use, 15% of the Sri Lankan population has some form of disability; so it really cannot be ignored.
In terms of how this issue captured my attention, it was almost serendipitous. I first became sensitized to the importance of disability inclusion through a seminar by Sri Lankan disability advocate Lasanthi Daskon, whose late husband Senarath Attanayake was the first person with a disability in Sri Lanka to be an elected representative and the only person with a disability to hold a ministerial portfolio. Not long after, I read the 2010 book The Mind’s Eye, by neurologist Oliver Sacks, which discusses how people who have lost the ability to communicate or navigate the world visually go on to reorient themselves in the world. This idea of adaptation really stuck with me. Eventually, while hiring for a position in my team, I had a CV for a neurodivergent candidate land on my desk. During interviews, the candidate appeared to have the criteria I was looking for. But what held me back, at first, were doubts about ability that I’ve since learned plague every employer.
It struck me that it was my responsibility to learn more about their condition. On the one hand, I had never encountered it before. As employers, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves about disability and understand what it takes to make work and workplaces more inclusive. I decided to make the candidate an offer, and, working with them, I progressively grew to realize what an asset they were and how important it is to have a diversity of perspectives in a team.
On the other hand, it is important to be honest about the challenges. There is a wide spectrum of ability even within a single condition, and individuals at the start of their careers may only just be learning to adapt. Nothing is without effort. It is that realistic appreciation that is the real goal for me, rather than an idealization or romanticization of a condition. When people start thinking practically, that will be the real change.
―Building on your Capstone Project, what kind of force do you want to be in society?
This is a huge topic worldwide that affects a vast number of people, but you have to start somewhere. On the program, they encourage you to think of as broad an issue as possible and then find a way to solve it on a micro level. That’s why it’s important to me to try and effect change, starting in Sri Lanka. However, make no mistake, this is a global problem that needs to be addressed as such.
There are several companies already doing great work in disability inclusion. In Sri Lanka, a great example is Pizza Hut, which recently introduced an outlet managed entirely by people with hearing impairments. There is a lot of progress, but, at the same time, people with disabilities tend to be somewhat hidden from society. Compared to, say, Tokyo, we still wrestle with antiquated thinking and this impedes accessibility. Take, for instance, the relative lack of tactile flooring or disability inclusive public transport that is prevalent in Tokyo.
In Tokyo, there is a legal obligation to make public spaces accessible and mandate a proportion of disability inclusive employment in your workforce. As part of the program, we were able to visit several companies that were really taking the lead on this issue. One great example is the Japanese chalk manufacturer Nihon Rikagaku—more than 70% of their employee base is comprised of individuals with intellectual and cognitive differences. To make this model work, they employ simple, low-tech tweaks to management such as the use of an hourglass—as opposed to a clock—to visually distinguish the start and end times of certain operations. Ultimately, companies like this are also going beyond their legal employment obligations because they are reaping global benefits such as loyalty, camaraderie, and excellent attention to detail—even on repetitive tasks. So, being on the Global Leaders for Innovation and Knowledge program has fleshed out the problem and the solutions. This is what I want to take away for Sri Lanka and beyond.
―How has living in Japan affected your studies?
One of the first things I noticed in Japan was the extraordinary respect with which people treat each other. There is an incredible thoughtfulness in how spaces are designed, how daily tasks are optimized, and how people communicate. I later learned to attribute this to the Japanese value of omotenashi, which roughly translates to selfless hospitality. The spirit of omotenashi comes across in your experience as a customer when you enter a shop, but it is also evident in the accommodations people are willing to make in the workplace to include those with disabilities or the neurodivergent. For example, as part of a site visit to a company, we stopped by a convenience store they had set up in partnership with 7-Eleven, which employs people with disabilities. This store had been retrofitted to accommodate a range of impairments. Everything from wider aisles for wheelchair accessibility to brail signage for the visually impaired to lighting cues to notify the hearing-impaired.
Being in other countries, as well as being part of the program, helped me see the world from different perspectives and reimagine the workplace. That cultural perspective really helps, and most solutions are surprisingly practical.
―What is your personal philosophy moving forward?
Globally, the profit motive for decision-making in the workplace is undoubtedly very important, and business cases often take precedence over personal convictions of what is right or wrong. In the absence of legal or financial incentives to drive inclusive hiring, any employer may ask why they should make allowances for the learning curve of someone with a disability when the emphasis on “first time right” is greater than ever. That is an understandable concern, but it hinges on zero-sum thinking. This program has pushed me to go from either/or thinking towards framing solutions in terms of both/and. How can you change work and workplaces so that there is room for everyone? Even beyond the issue of inclusive employment, this mindset shift from either/or to both/and is one of the more powerful takeaways for me personally.
―What is your advice for people thinking of applying?
Come in with a willingness to have your mind changed. Be flexible, because you will be challenged. And when that challenge comes, you are only going to get out what you put in, so be brave.