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Yathusha Kulenthiran's Marketplace For Environmentally Sustainable Palmyra Products Empowers Female Artisans In Sri Lanka
"Even during the war, palmyra trees came to our rescue. Our survival depended on their fruits and roots to fill our stomachs while the palmyra trunks came in hand for building bunkers to shield ourselves from attacks." "
Ara Ehamparam
Co-founder & Podcast Host
Canada
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Yathusha Kulenthiran is the young entrepreneur, based in Sri Lanka, behind Olai Shop, a marketplace for palmyra products made by local female artisans and sold to both local customers as well as foreign clients in the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, Switzerland and Denmark. She is a graduate of the Uki Coding School (part of the Yarl IT Hub) which was instrumental for her career, as otherwise, due to finances and other reasons, she would have not been able to attend state university. She is also the sister of another entrepreneur we featured in Gobinthiran Kulendran.

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How did your life change in 2009?

I was in my primary grades when a war broke out. Given the chaotic situation then, we were frequently displaced from one place to another to live another day. We often ran out of food and water. Obviously, during this period I was unable to continue my education properly and focus on a constant path. There was always fear and depression at every turn, till it all came to an end in 2009. Yet, for those of us affected by war, life was never the same with the loss of loved ones and more.  Going back to “normal” with war trauma was not easy, but then one has to move on and start afresh with whatever we have. I had left my village as a little child and returned as a teenager, about to sit for my GCE OLs and ALs. It was a new phase in my life as I set out to find my path.

Why did you start Olai.shop?

I have always been keen and curious in learning about computers and technology. However, I was unable to enter the state university and also couldn’t afford to go for a private university after my ALs to pursue my passion in IT. So I decided to learn programming and coding through online sources. It was then, my brother recommended that I try out at Uki coding school. I was selected at the interview and got the opportunity to follow a 6-month full stack course.

It is during this period we were assigned to work on a project which required developing a software solution. Most of our village folk have always depended on agriculture and selling products made out of palmyra to earn their living. However, I noticed that their skillfully crafted palmyra products were not marketed sufficiently. This influenced me to come up with the idea of a platform to increase the visibility of the products to a larger audience through Olai Shop. It was highly appreciated and welcomed by the panel. Soon, with their mentorship and expert guidance. I was able to launch Olai shop into a successful startup. 

What is the significance of the palmyra trees in your life?

Born in an agrarian society in the North where 90% of our landscape is rooted in palmyra trees, most of our village folk have always depended on seasonal agriculture and selling products made out of palmyra to bring food to their plates. This Palmyra tree that is also known as “katpagatharu” (meaning “tree of life”) has helped us in more ways than one: from providing us with shelter to food. Most of our houses had roofs weaved out of palmyra leaves; sweets made out of the pulp extracted from the palmyra fruit; The tree is so valuable that everything from the crown of the tree to its roots can be used for something essential.

Even during the war, palmyra trees came to our rescue. Our survival depended on their fruits and roots to fill our stomachs while the palmyra trunks came in hand for building bunkers to shield ourselves from attacks. In 2009 among the debris of war, only the palmyra trees remained standing and were our ray of hope.  Today, they are the backbone of my success as an entrepreneur. 

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How does the business make money?

Olai Shop is an ecommerce based online platform developed to sell diverse palmyrah-based products to a broader customer base. There is an increasing demand in the global market for these products as they are great substitutes for plastics and are environmentally sustainable as well. Currently we have several local customers and foreign clients from the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, Switzerland, and Denmark.

Customers can order these palmyrah products via our online platform. We have a dedicated team of local women artisans who do a marvellous work in customizing these products to meet the demands of our customers.  We also take bulk orders from individuals. We earn a large income from the market upon doorstep delivery of the final products.

What was the impact of the Yarl IT Hub on you personally as well as the business?

I would not be who I am today if it wasn’t for Yarl IT Hub. Uki coding School was also an initiative of Yarl IT Hub.  Thus joining Uki Coding School where I initially launched my Olai project,  gave me the valuable opportunity to interact with Yarl IT Community. They were of immense support and strength throughout my entrepreneurial journey, guiding me every step of the way. I also got the opportunity to pitch my idea at Yarl Geek Challenge and was awarded as the Runner Up. I was able to meet a lot of encouraging business professionals and was fortunate to meet foreign investors who were really interested in my idea. In time they also allocated me a temporary workspace to carry out my business activities. Later I was also selected for the YGC Accelerator program where I gained an exposure to the foreign market and gained a vast amount of business knowledge.

I am forever grateful to the Yarl IT Community who are always there to support me at any time.

Describe the entrepreneurial scene that you see in Jaffna.

Talking about Jaffna, today there is an increasing startup culture fostered by several organizations such as Yarl IT Hub, government institutes and more.They play a major role in providing guidance and mentorship, encouraging youth to innovate and inspire.Yet, there are still a few people who are ignorant and dismiss these opportunities. However, the increasing rate of success stories of entrepreneurs are a great influence in motivating upcoming young entrepreneurs.  It is also my aim to reach greater heights in my journey and become an inspiring role model to the younger generation especially girls.  

How did your brother Gobinthiran play a part in your journey?

My brother has always been an influential figure in my life. He is a curious boy, and very enthusiastic about learning. He was very passionate about IT and always dragged me along to explore his interests. It was then I was also intrigued into studying IT and pursued it for my Advanced Level education. However, when I was unable to attend the state university, it was my brother who recommended that I join Uki coding School given my passion for IT.  It was the beginning of my new journey.

Today, my brother and I are successfully running our own startups.We share a very strong bond and are really close friends.  Very often, we sit down and share opinions to help each other in our ventures.

How has COVID-19 impacted your businesses?  How have you adapted?

Like any other business, the pandemic outbreak did affect us. We had to face several challenges in various stages. As our product suppliers are local women artisans living in various places such as Kilinochchi, Jaffna, Vavuniya, Mullaitheevu and Mannar - we were unable to reach out to them during the lockdown period and imposition of travel restrictions. We were also unable to conduct some of the planned training programmes. Moreover as most of the suppliers were village folk, their lack of knowledge and access to technology was a great barrier for communication. Delivery of the products also was a major issue, with the increase in shipping expenses and delays caused due to the pandemic.

However, despite all these barriers we learnt to adapt and use the excess time which was freely available due to long months of lockdown - to our advantage. We strategically planned and appointed a team lead in multiple places to guide and coordinate the activities of artisan clusters in each place. On the other hand, the pandemic break also paved the opportunity to connect with several people and discuss freely for future business opportunities with Olai Shop. We had more than enough time to reach out and voice our products to a potential business audience. 

Where do you do Olai.shop in the next 3-5 years?  Where do you see yourself in the next 3-5 years?

My long term goal is to maximize the use of palmyrah products as substitutes for plastics as they are environmentally friendly and sustainable products. Therefore in the upcoming years I hope to increase the diversity of the products for multiple uses. I also plan to expand the supplier team creating more job opportunities to uplift the local artisan community. Moreover, there are also plans on opening up outlets and showrooms in local and foreign countries to showcase our products to increase the accessibility and visibility of them. I also wish to partner up with complimentary companies to promote our products.

My ultimate aim is to develop Olai Shop into a globally recognized premium brand that has a positive impact on the economy. I want my successful entrepreneurial journey to be an inspiration to the upcoming generation. Given my experience I will encourage and help guide them into fulfilling their dream. Above all, I want to keep my parents, family and all those who stood by me proud of my successes.

What do you like to do for fun outside of work?

I love to engage in activities like travelling,gardening and spending time with my family (including my pets). I also love to cook. I enjoy losing myself in chopping, stirring, tasting and trying creative delicious dishes for my family and friends.

What is a failure you’ve experienced in the last 3-5 years that you’ve learned the most from?

Rather than viewing them as failures, I would consider them as the stepping stones to becoming the successful person I am today. I did encounter setbacks including people around me trying to place limits on my dreams and attempting to make decisions on my behalf.  They advised me to take another field of study instead of IT during my A/Ls due to the lack of teachers and were against my decision on pursuing IT.  It was hard to stay focused because no one was really encouraging me to pursue technology which was my passion.  However, I had enough self-confidence to choose my own path despite all the objections. 

Moreover,  I actually never thought to start my own my business.  If I didn't follow my passion and had instead listened to others, I would have been working for somebody else to my a living.  My entrepreneurial journey was not without its challenges. People around me questioned the audacity of a 16 year old girl to try to run a business and tried to block my path in the name of social barriers. But today, I stand strong as an independent woman because of my courageous and confident decisions.

In terms of your personal legacy, in a few sentences, describe how you want to be remembered by your family and friends?

It is my goal to leave behind a legacy as an inspirational role model. By the end of my time, I would love to have been a part in uplifting several families and be remembered as a caring, genuine and loving soul. I want to turn back and see all the smiles that I helped have a part in.

What is another business idea you would be working on if you weren’t so focused on Olai.shop?

I have often noticed that there are a lot of environmentally friendly resources that could make a huge positive contribution to the growth of the economy if used strategically and effectively. The Northern part of Srilanka is richly abundant with several resources that a society can benefit from if used wisely.  Yet the ignorance of the people in understanding this opportunity to empower the community is really sad. So similar to Olai Shop, I would have involved myself in building an innovative platform to build a sustainable environment friendly business to uplift our economy and community.

What is a new belief, behaviour or habit that has most improved your life?

I am a very determined person, and put a lot of effort in every task I need to do, no matter how long it takes me so that I'm happy with the final results.  I never easily give up and always give my very best to achieve something so that I have no regrets later.

Moreover I have an empathetic attitude which has helped me to easily collaborate with my team and deal with them more effectively while understanding things from their perspective. It has helped me in getting successful results as a team.   

If you were given $1 billion, how would you allocate the money to change the world?

Logically speaking,  no one can deny the power money holds. Very often the poor are deprived of their rights and dreams due to the lack of finances. Thus an effective economic growth is vital to overcome poverty. So I would gladly offer money to anyone who brings forth any opportunities to uplift the poor.  Additionally, I myself would launch another sustainable product based business to empower the economy and create valuable opportunities for the poor.

How would you describe the impact that the Sri Lankan Tamil community has had on you personally and on your business?

Born and growing up with the Tamil Community I have a lot of personal experiences and understanding of the struggles and challenges faced by them in the society. Thus I have always wanted to make a difference for the benefit of my community. Olai has helped me achieve this, as all our suppliers and local artisans hail from the Tamil community. I am very proud and privileged to be able to contribute in uplifting my community. Moreover the Tamil diaspora community is incredibly supportive in helping me grow and I am grateful for their assistance.

What is your favourite Tamil food (meal or dessert)?

Steamed rice flour Pittu with spicy crab curry (or any other non-veg Jaffna curries would do).

What is your favourite Tamil movie?

Well, there isn’t a very specific one. I usually love watching movies directed by the famou Mani Ratnam.  Recently I watched ‘Soorarai Pottru’ directed by Sudha Kongara- a very inspiring movie in which a young passionate man overcomes several obstacles in order to successfully fulfil his quest. I really admire the self confidence of the protagonist and unwavering determination to achieve his dreams.

What does Tamil culture mean to you? 

Sri Lanka is a country rich in cultural diversity.  The Tamil cultural practices and traditions are loved and admired by all people. I am proud of my culture and it is a significant part of my identity. I love the traditional events and festivals which bring colours to our life and happy smiles on every face. 

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