September 16, 2020
September 16, 2020



Standing up, speaking out

Meet Mariam – she’s young, stunning and an exceptional speaker. So much so that when she’s up on stage, she has the power to effect change. A change in the course of business; the way people think; and more importantly, a change for the betterment of our youth and their entry into the workforce.

In addition to her delightfully quick wit, Mariam is a force to be reckoned with. The competitive world of business provides her with one goal – to chase and conquer every conceivable challenge ahead of her.

As a trailblazer in her generation, Mariam’s focus is admirable and her determination is undeterred.

Mariam Riza is an award-winning strategist, consultant and international speaker on human capital engagement to build strategies to engage diverse generations in business.

Ashwini Vethakan catches up with the young businesswoman in spite of their differing time zones to chat about life, love and her future goals.


Q: Who is Mariam Riza?
A: She is an uncompromising individual who will give life a go, chasing and conquering every conceivable challenge. Periodically reviewing her life at key moments, Mariam’s mantra is to keep reinventing herself and carve opportunities out of nothing.

Q: What was your childhood like – and what kind of a child and teenager were you?
A: I was a very shy, pensive and book smart child. When my siblings and I weren’t playing computer games, I’d sit in a corner reading a book and observing people. I loved the solitude of my own thoughts.

Q: Your most memorable moment in life so far…
A: Being awarded the ‘30 under 30 Award’ by MYOB and Accountants Daily in Sydney last year. It took me by surprise. As a person from a diverse background, it was a validation and recognition of my uphill battle through hard work and relationship building.

Q: What do you consider your greatest fear?
A: My greatest fear is that the world may run out of coffee.

Q: If you could chose a moment in time to return to, which would it be?
A: When we were kids, we would come back to Colombo for the holidays.
Upon waking up in our grandmother’s home, we would lie in bed listening to the many birds chirping and watch the burst of different colours in the sky. There is something so serene and magical in the air of Colombo.

"Going on stage to speak is the medium of knowledge sharing so the delivery of valuable content is all that matters"

Q: And what’s your happy place?
A: A little cafe in Bugis, Singapore.

Quick-fire round

Sunrise or sunset

Beach or mountain

Ride or drive

Fight or flight
Situational – know when to pick a fight and when to back down

Truth or dare

Dogs or cats

Chocolate or vanilla
Chocolate and hazelnut gianduja

Mocktails or cocktails

Dress up or down
Dress up – always

Lipstick or mascara

Diamonds or pearls
Diamonds – but only if I’m buying

Bath or shower

Men or shoes

Work or play
Both – the best of both worlds

Colour pencils or crayons
My Montblanc

Radio or TV

Online or offline
A bit of both – knowing how to work the room both offline and online

Facebook or Instagram


Q: What made you choose this career?
A: I started in internal audit. During a forensic audit, I realised the importance of people, which led me down the path of organisational psychology.
In Australia, CPA reached out to me for advice on handling intergenerational workforces, and this led to more clients like Gartner, the Prime Minister’s Office in Canberra and Australian universities. The rest, as they say, is history.

Q: As a professional speaker, it must be daunting to address countless strangers. What is your mantra before going on stage?
A: My higher calling has always been imparting knowledge. Going on stage to speak is the medium of knowledge sharing so the delivery of valuable content is all that matters. This melts away any nervousness or apprehension.

Q: Your advice on reacting to criticism…
A: When reacting to criticism, it’s necessary to try and understand it from the other person’s point of view… because they may be right from their frame of reference.
So reshape your conversation to be better understood by that person. Most often, people simply want to be – and do – good.

Q: In the course of your work as president of an Australian organisation, do you find that there are differences in the work culture in Sri Lanka and other countries such as Australia? And if so, what are they?
A: Yes, there are cultural differences and accepted ways of working. I would say the biggest difference is the laid-back culture and flatter hierarchy.
However, among the things that don’t change universally are values and the intention to do good by the people you care about.

Q: You recently took part in a panel discussion on the myths of online education and training. Could you elaborate on this?
A: In my pursuit of sharing knowledge, I also lecturer for the Masters programme at Victoria University in Melbourne. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, we moved to a completely online delivery.

Dr. Nirmal de Silva, Marga Institute and the Open University of Sri Lanka kindly invited me to join them in exploring shared learning, and best case practices in online education and training. It was a very fruitful discussion given the talent on the panel.

Q: Most of your work revolves around the younger generation. Why do you think young people – especially those who are fresh out of college – are perceived as being restless and preferring to move from job to job?
A: The next generation is up against enormous competition – not only in their home country but also the entire world… because of connectivity.
In an era of gig working, limited resources and hyper-digitisation, they need to find their feet, scale up and learn fast.
This makes them look as if they’re flitting from one job to another. But in reality, they’re simply exploring and experimenting until they find their place. Companies that foster their development needs will prevail with staff retention.

Q: When it comes to Sri Lanka’s millennials and the gen Z population, what do you think the country needs to do to nurture their growth in terms of education and joining the workforce?
A: There are many great leaders based in Sri Lanka who are better equipped to answer this question – people such as Vidusha Nathavitharana and Anton Thayalan of Luminary Learning Solutions.
But in my humble opinion, the country could begin by stemming the brain drain it constantly faces. This could be done by rewarding meritocracy based on skills and knowledge, having open communication on opportunities, and a pipeline for career growth, leadership and professional development.

About Mariam

MSc in Organisational Psychology (Heriot-Watt University – Scotland)
CPA (Australia)

Father (Riza)
Mother (Suki)

Video games

To harness the untapped potential in people

An archaeologist in ancient Egyptian artefacts

Business strategy
Deep intellectual conversations
People who are genuine and real

Pretentious and insincere people

Placing your bag on the floor, then putting it back on the countertop (a cry for help)

Coffee (coffee is my ‘bae’)
Two custom designed rings (there’s a backstory)
Wireless Bluetooth earphones (to work on the go)

Myself – “I am my greatest driver in life.”
Imran Furkan – “For being the greatest mind that has ever lived.”

This too shall pass

"The next generation is up against enormous competition – not only in their home country but also the entire world… because of connectivity"

"I’m my harshest critic and I conduct a periodic self-evaluation of my life "


Q: What’s your definition of success?
A: I’m my harshest critic and I conduct a periodic self-evaluation of my life – so my definition of success is the measure of achievement that I set out for myself.
And since the bar is always very high, the need to reflect, reinvent and improve myself is constant. I’m very proud of myself when I learn something new.

Q: How would your family and friends describe you?
A: For the purpose of this interview, I asked them and this is what they said: “The most objective distributor of justice and advice. Tough love, confident and direct – yet, fair and sensitive too, and understanding of those she leads.”

Q: If you suddenly find yourself stranded alone on an unknown island, what are the three most important things you’d need?
A: The emergency pack I always keep ready in my car, which has everything I need to survive. I’m a survivalist, and prepare for emergencies as best I can.

Q: Do you consider yourself a romantic? And what is the most romantic thing that someone has done for you?
A: No, I don’t consider myself a romantic. The most romantic thing someone special has done for me was to be himself. The way he walks and looks up at the sky, and peers at the world through his eyes with his mind racing at a thousand thoughts per second.

Q: How would you enjoy a day off?
A: Wake up late to a lazy brunch with poached eggs, smoked salmon, tea and scones. Take a long walk in the warm sunshine, follow up on business news and then play Xbox games until evening

Mariam’s Favourites

Business news and strategy
Depth and intelligence in people

Sri Lanka
Southeast Asia

Southeast Asian
Sri Lankan

Elie Tahari
Karen Millen
Mondy (Sri Lankan)

The Laundromat
Bicentennial Man

Elie Tahari
Gary Theodore and Fiona Scanlan (of Scanlan & Theodore)
Fouzul Hameed

Angela Merkel
Gina Rinehart
Queen Nefertiti


Q: If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
A: I wish I knew more languages to connect on an emotional level with other cultures in a jurisdiction.

Q: What advice would you give to the future generations of Sri Lanka?
A: Don’t be afraid to take the path less travelled; and don’t necessarily wait for the perfectly packaged opportunity.
Seize what you have and make it your own – it could be a bigger position in a smaller brand or a seed startup, or a difficult opportunity that bears fruit after your work carving it.

Q: And what’s next in your trailblazing journey?
A: My role has exposed me to the community services and NGO sector in Australia. I’m assisting with implementing a strategy for a community organisation that’s responding to the socioeconomic impact of COVID-19.
I’m looking forward to seeing the inner workings of this sector so that I can help influence public policy and community de-velopment to improve our immediate society.

"I wish I knew more languages to connect on an emotional level with other cultures in a jurisdiction"

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