30 years is a milestone in any context, and earlier this month, one of Sri Lanka’s best-loved brands, Selyn, celebrated its 30th anniversary.

Founded in 1991 by Attorney-at-Law Sandra Wanduragala in her garage with 15 women from her village of Wanduragala near Kurunegala, over the last three decades, Selyn has grown into one of our country’s top handicraft retail brands, one of our largest social enterprises, and Sri Lanka’s only fair-trade handicrafts company.

In 2017, Sandra’s daughter Selyna Peiris joined Selyn full-time to lead its next generation. Selyna, who is also, incidentally, a qualified lawyer who specialised in equitable economic development for women has, over the years, worked as an evaluator and policy specialist with international organisations as well as the Sri Lankan Government. 

Selyn Business Development Head Selyna Peiris

To mark Selyn’s 30th anniversary, Brunch chatted with Selyna on her thoughts on three decades of Selyn, her hopes for the future, and to give us a sneak peak at Selyn’s newest innovation; integrating blockchain technology with handloom for greater transparency.

From humble beginnings to a responsible powerhouse

Reflecting on Selyn’s beginnings and its 30-year journey, Selyna noted that empowerment has always been at Selyn’s core, with her mother Sandra starting Selyn as a means of empowering herself and the women around her. Coming from a background where she understood the struggle of women in rural areas, Sandra recognised the power of financial empowerment, and this was what sparked the initial idea of Selyn: the opportunity to help others. 

Speaking on how Selyn has grown since its inception, Selyna said: “My mother has always been innovative and ahead of her time.” She added: “As a business, Selyn grew very organically. While Selyn started out weaving curtains, tablemats, tablecloths, and so on, she realised that the market was really competitive. Maybe because she didn’t have a handloom background per se, my mother always saw the product in a different light, and moved into exporting toys. The toy market enabled her to grow the business, and the brand, especially abroad. In terms of our retail brand, we had people coming from Colombo to Kurunegala to buy our products and after a certain point, this led us to move into retail in Colombo.”

From the start, Selyn has been clear about what it stood for, and that firmness of belief is what Selyna believes has allowed the brand to flourish. That and the fact that it has always been led by someone who can see the future and innovate, while maintaining the brand’s values of fair trade and responsibility. “It’s not just about profit maximisation and getting ahead as a brand,” Selyna said, explaining what drives Selyn: “It’s about being part of a community and doing the right thing. It’s about going out of your way to do the right thing for the people who work with you.” 

Illustrating how Selyn values its people over the bottom line, Selyna shared how the brand navigated the pandemic by refusing to shut down or phase out, but by going out of its way to innovate. “An easy choice for us would have been to say: ‘Handloom is affected, there is no market for it anymore,’ call it quits, and focus on making just our toys for export, which, with the rise of home-schooling, was seeing more and more demand,” Selyna said. However, this would have left the artisans and Selyn’s other stakeholders at a disadvantage, and so, the brand pivoted, going out of their way to keep making a positive impact on the communities around them, and looking for new innovations to keep their artisans, and the handloom industry, going.

It was by going out of its way that Selyn developed its latest innovation and business vertical that will go live in early 2022. This new business model, being piloted with a small selection of Selyn’s handloom textiles before being applied to their wider product ranges, uses blockchain technology to provide a greater degree of transparency into their handloom products, who made them, and how. 

“Sri Lankan handloom, in its essence, especially with fair trade credentials, can have an important place in the global market where there is a huge trend for ethical, sustainable, and natural products,” Selyna explained. “And in January 2022, we’ll be launching Selyn’s new website that re-positions and pitches Sri Lankan handloom in a very different way to a luxury premium market, using technology to bring greater transparency to the industry.” 

Selyna’s journey with Selyn has been life-long (the name “Selyn” was inspired by her), and in 2017, she took an active role at Selyn, leading the company as its head of business development. As a second-generation leader stepping into a company her mother had built from the ground up, we asked Selyna what her biggest hopes and fears were when she took on the role. 

The biggest positive was the ability to make meaningful change, with Selyna sharing that having been in the Government and having worked with international organisations in the development sector, it was very clear that robust social business models were needed to address development gaps in communities. “I realised that when making policies, you’re in a boardroom and looking at statistics, but you’re not directly seeing the problem. You’re making assumptions and policies based on your education, experience, and the information given, but were they really the right thing to do? What were the unintended consequences of these often well-meant decisions? Something not always positive? Even when working with the UN system I saw this gap. I could see a very clear scope for Selyn and other social business models to fill these gaps,” Selyna explained, adding: “They’re sustainable and self-financed because they’re running businesses, but they’re businesses being run not just in terms of profit, but also in consideration of the planet and the people. I saw the potential for that, and I also saw the global potential for this kind of thinking, even more so now because of Covid-19, because these models have the potential to solve the world’s problems.” 

In terms of fears when taking on Selyn, Selyna shared that the chief fear, or rather, what she was most apprehensive about, was the challenge that every second-generation leader faces: acceptance. “People at Selyn have seen me run around as a child, and they weren’t following my career path in any case, so there was that apprehension of ‘would they take me seriously?’ I also had a fear of my own about how I would fit in at Selyn and be able to take it on,” Selyna shared. 

However, the potential she saw to take Selyn to another level far outweighed any apprehension, and understanding the power of the model she was sitting on and the growing global demand for sustainability, Selyna remained confident that she could lead Selyn into its next stage of growth. 

Handloom and tech: The new frontier

Taking Selyn to the next level has meant staying true to its history of innovation and values; at 30 years it is about integrating handloom and technology to amplify the message of Selyn’s social enterprise. 

Using blockchain technology (which is essentially a digital system, or ledger, that records information in a way that makes it difficult or impossible to change or hack once it has been stored), Selyn’s vision is to revolutionise the sector by pushing the boundaries it lies in now – moving its product into a market that demands greater transparency. 

Using blockchain technology, upon scanning a QR code, a Selyn customer will now be able to see who made the product they’re looking at, from the age and socioeconomic profile of an artisan, to the working conditions, the environmental impact of that same product, and from its carbon footprint to its material composition and how circular it is. 

The combination of blockchain technology and handloom is largely unprecedented, and comes with its own unique challenges, some of which Selyn shared with us. “Normally, the biggest challenge of this kind of integration is creating structures to collect data, measure and report impact, but since Selyn is fair-trade certified and has this system in place since 2003, this is not something we have to deal with,” Selyna shared: “Our challenge is communicating the value of this move to our artisans, and showing them the value of having greater transparency in supply chains.”

Selyn’s move to integrate blockchain technology with its products is supported by a USAID grant offered to SMEs for Covid-19 recovery, which is what allows Selyn to be able to take this huge risk. To pilot this concept, Selyn will be limiting it to a selection of handloom textiles for export. This is in order to test out the concept and to see how international customers react to both this increased availability of information and to the premium pricing of such textile, before expanding it to the rest of the product ranges in stages, over the next year. “Finally, we need someone to believe in this and pay that premium and then for our weavers to value this premium. 2023 is going to be the proof in the pudding,” Selyna quipped.

To infinity and beyond

With 30 incredible years under its belt, we asked Selyna to take us down memory lane and through some of Selyn’s most memorable moments. 

Chief among them is being guaranteed fair-trade in early 2000s, a huge moment for Selyn, as it validated years of work and empowerment while also providing them with an increased structural and compliance framework to keep expanding responsibly. Another highlight that sprang to Selyna’s mind was when her mother was awarded the prestigious Priyadarshini Award in India among other global accolades. 

The opening of Selyn’s first retail store in Colombo in 2008, the launch of Selyn’s first sub-brand and ethical fashion collective Sthri by Selyn in 2017 was also a proud moment, with Selyna sharing that Sthri by Selyn was one of her first big moves as Selyn’s business development head, along with moving into their own headquarters to form a formal setup that no other handloom enterprise had at that time. 

Recently, mid-pandemic, another milestone that Selyna looked back fondly on was when Selyn began making their “People’s Mask” in mid-2020 after the first lockdown, providing continuous income to their artisans while also providing their customers with environmentally-friendly, reusable masks. 

Looking to the future, we asked Selyna what she hopes Selyn will achieve in the next 30 years and beyond. She shared that as always, Selyn will continue to be about empowerment and creating a socially sustainable business model that can be replicated into the larger industry. She also shared that it is Selyn’s hope to move towards becoming a community-owned company over the next decade. 

“I’m a huge believer in putting good things out into the universe and getting good things back, and I want Selyn to be an organisation that inspires people to think that there is a model that can marry social impact, environment, and profit,” she concluded.


Source: The Sunday Morning