SHEHARA DE SILVA
Racing to the finish line
Her name is well-known in maritime and logistics circles, and she’s the daughter of McLarens’ Chairman Rohan De Silva. Notwithstanding her father’s stature however, Shehara De Silva has blazed her own trail while garnering respect among the younger generation – for being one of the few women in Sri Lanka to drive through Colombo’s corporate barriers.
With a career that took flight back in 2003, she has demonstrated where passion driven hard work can take a person’s career and reputation; Shehara is someone we’d like to refer to as a ‘driven personality’ as well as something of a ‘connoisseur of life.’
The Group Managing Director of McLarens gained the title ‘Woman in Shipping’ at the 2021 Maritime Standard Awards. And as a mother of two energetic boys, and being a racing car driver (yes, you read that right!), she does it all…
But when Shehara isn’t shattering glass ceilings and spearheading boardroom campaigns or running behind her loveable kids, who is this intriguing woman?
Ashwini Vethakan catches up with Shehara De Silva for a tête-à-tête to learn about her background and journey, and hopes and aspirations.
DATE OF BIRTH
8 June 1979
St. Bridget’s Convent
Colombo International School (CIS)
London School of Economics – UK (LSE)
Cass Business School – UK
Kids (Yaanik and Jayden)
ALWAYS WANTED TO BE
First and foremost, God – and then my family
Aston Martin or anything that revs high!
Having a good time
Working for a cause
Building a successful venture and an efficient team
People who are dishonest, lazy, negative or boastful
My father – “He was driven to achieve; and is an amazing human being at the same time.”
All women who have achieved excellence in their field – “I try to read or speak to and learn something from everyone I see or meet.”
MOTTO IN LIFE
Live with passion and love
Q: How would you like to describe yourself to our readers?
A: As a passionate, loving and driven person, who lives life in accordance with her values and purpose!
Q: What sort of a child and then teenager were you?
A: As a child, I was shy – and my mom dressed me in frills. But as a teen, I was very much a tomboy with racing cars and playing basketball being at the top of my list. I was a happy and cheerful kid with a great bunch of friends.
Q: Tell us about your interest in race car driving… when did this begin – and how?
A: Being the only child of Rohan De Silva – who was a local racing legend at the time – I grew up surrounded by race cars.
I spent many late nights at the workshop working with racing vehicles, and also watching and supporting him from the trackside. So it was only natural that I’d want to emulate him – despite the lack of women who were competitive in the sport at that time.
Q: If not logistics and shipping, which sector or industry would you have liked to work in?
A: While studying at the London School of Economics (LSE), I was very passionate about development economics and wanted to work on poverty alleviation with the World Bank.
But after a few months of being exposed to the family business, I was hooked onto the dynamic world of shipping. It’s been 18 years and there’s no turning back! On a lighter note, I always dreamed of running a fashion house or label… Who knows, maybe sometime in the future?
Q: Do you have any other passions?
A: Absolutely! I love to read, listen to music, workout and keep fit, travel and explore new places. And I’m very passionate about projects related to empowering women and children.
Q: Your most memorable moment in life so far is…?
A: The day my first son was born. Seeing my baby for the first time was the single most magical moment life has given me so far.
Dawn or dusk
Netflix or books
TikTok or Instagram
Spotify or radio
Text or call
Calm or rushed mornings
Usually rushed mornings
Wholesome meals or junk food
Depends on my mood
Work or play
A mix of both
Dress up or dress down
According to the occasion
NASCAR or FORMULA 1
James Hunt or Niki Lauda
European or American muscle
Paddle shifters or gears
Q: At what point did you realise that this is what you wanted to do for a living? And did the family business influence your decision?
A: I never planned on joining the family business. My impression of the shipping industry was that it was male dominated.
However, after several training stints in various subsidiaries of the group and overseas, and having been exposed to the industry, I gradually saw and felt that I’d be able to contribute positively. I then carved out a role for myself in growing, restructuring and repositioning the group as a diversified conglomerate.
I’m happy and proud to see how the McLarens Group has grown over the years. Entering new sectors, expanding the business and strengthening relationships have been very fulfilling roles despite the many challenges we have faced.
The professional team, which I developed to run the companies, lives by the values shared by my grandfather and father. Currently, I’m also involved in a shipping industry-wide role as Chairperson of the Ceylon Association of Shipping Agents (CASA) where I work on industry-related issues and processes, and advocate for policy.
This has shifted my focus to a more macro view of the economy and the role played by the shipping industry.
Q: What has been the most challenging hurdle in your career so far?
A: There’s a hurdle to cross everyday – be it internal disputes among teams; external challenges from competitors; loss of business; unfavourable polices; daily battles with the ‘ease of doing business’ factor in this country; bureaucracy and red tape; extreme external shocks such as war and global crises, and their impacts on our business… to name a few.
There are also more subtle challenges I face as a woman in a male dominated industry. I have to fill the larger-than-life shoes of my father, be able to gain the respect of others, and make a valuable contribution to the company as well as the industry.
I’ve faced it all by simply focussing on the task at hand and doing whatever I do to the best of my ability – without thinking too much about stigma or the expectations of others. I am a simple person and a hard worker, who is confident and never gives up.
Q: You count many firsts and have shown Sri Lanka that women can make it to the top – what is your message to young ladies who are reluctant to embark on a corporate career?
A: My advice is that they should follow the path where their abilities and passions come together.
A corporate career may not be for everyone; what matters is that they enjoy their field of work, and are able to work hard and continuously develop their competencies.
It’s also important not to be deterred by the unconscious bias faced by women in the boardroom, and how they’re perceived and heard. They need to focus on the task at hand as well as being the best at what they do – that’s half the battle.
The more practical challenges we face while pursuing a career are those at home and in relation to childcare, which is disproportionately borne by women. Developing a supportive network to help with this is vital, as is learning the fine art of balancing all the roles you have to play as a woman.
Q: Which social problem is your top priority right now…?
A: I’m passionate about helping women and children, as I firmly believe they deserve a safe environment to grow and learn. I have been working with ‘Friends of Prisoners’ Children,’ which is a welfare programme that supports the kids of inmates at the Welikada Prison by awarding scholarships.
In addition, I am also an ambassador for the ‘Room to Read’ initiative, which promotes education among rural children and supports their work. I have a vision to spearhead my own foundation for children someday.
Q: Could you outline a few other social initiatives you’ve spearheaded – and why they are important to you?
A: I am extremely passionate about women’s empowerment, and have worked extensively to this end in the shipping and logistics sectors. I was instrumental in forming Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association (WISTA) in Sri Lanka and garnering support for females in the shipping industry.
It’s had a huge impact by enabling women to network and support each other – especially in terms of training, education and recognition by all the main industry bodies for WISTA, which essentially gives them much needed visibility.
Q: How have you been able to balance motherhood while leading the McLarens Group?
A: Balance is a fine art and I believe we have to prioritise each task at a time. Sometimes you have to skip a meeting to attend your child’s concert or miss a PTA session to meet a work commitment.
I have learnt to decide what I need to do each day and outsource any activities that can be undertaken by others. By planning my itinerary meticulously, I ensure that I don’t miss important milestones or deadlines.
The group now spreads over 50 subsidiaries in six sectors. Over the last few years, I’ve been able to create a structure that supports its day-to-day operations; and I have to be involved mainly for key decisions on recruitment, investments in new businesses or issues at board level.
Having said this, it’s also very important to be hands- on and keep your ear to the ground to really understand what’s going on in the business. Knowing when to ask what questions and when to dig deeper to keep track of the group’s performance is also a fine art that’s acquired over time.
Q: And the least favourite part of your job is…?
A: Anything that’s mundane!
FAVOURITE RACING CAR DRIVERS
Rohan De Silva
FAVOURITE RACING CARS
Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX
Porsche GT3 RS
Honda Civic Type R
Aston Martin Vantage
Porsche Cayman GT
Italian (pasta and pizza)
Sri Lankan spices
Legends of the Fall
Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl
Q: What is your definition of success?
A: Being happy with what you’re doing, being able to do what you want to do, and adding value to your work and the lives of others.
Q: How would your closest circle describe you?
A: Passionate, largehearted, loyal and an honest friend who is good fun.
Q: What are five items you always use?
A: My phone, the desktop, high heels, a handbag and the Bible.
Q: If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
A: My height!
Q: And what’s next for Shehara De Silva?
A: My focus for the next few years will be to contribute towards the development of the shipping industry by working hand in hand with the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) and other state institutions.
My vision for McLarens is that we continue to grow, and expand our range and depth of services in the shipping and maritime sectors, build on our synergies to invest or acquire an export manufacturing related venture, and ensure that my staff are happy and well looked after.
My personal priorities are my sons: I want them to grow up to be good, healthy and kind human beings. Socially, I plan to take on a few initiatives, and launch my own project related to children and women in need.