Women-led start-up benefits from USAID’s systemic support

Speeches Shim

Monday, August 24, 2020
Top Gem Lapidary

Top Gem Lapidary is a women-led enterprise started by eight previously unemployed youth from Central Sri Lanka. The launch of this enterprise highlights the importance of increasing youth employment and entrepreneurship through a systemic, market-led approach. That was the concept behind USAID’s design for the Youth Employment and Business Start-up (YouLead) project. The launch and enterprise training of this women-owned startup is the culmination of the process by which the USAID-funded YouLead project facilitates and supports youth employment.

Focusing on careers with proven demand. The process began with a public private dialogue workshop held in Sri Lanka’s central district, Kandy—one of the districts with the highest youth unemployment. Hosted jointly by YouLead, the Central Province Chamber of Commerce (CPCC), and the Kandy Women’s Chamber, the workshop brought together the public and private sector to discuss solutions for the mismatch between available job opportunities and available skills. The dialogue resulted in the private sector employers, many of them women, identifying a dearth of 200 gem cutters in the province’s gem and jewelry industry.

Coordinating public and private resources. In a display of public-private collaboration, National Apprentice and Industrial Training Authority (NAITA) inspectors and private trainers stepped forward. A private training institute, Heshani Gem Training, offered to develop and deliver a gem cutting course. YouLead then worked with the CPCC and officials in the local government to identify youth interested in gem cutting as a career.

Reaching out to youth. A search for suitable candidates was initiated in partnership with the government District Secretariat Office and the Sarvodaya Movement, the largest and most broadly embedded people’s organization which covers 15,000 villages. Forty nominations were received for a pilot program of 25 people.

Providing high-quality, demand-driven training. The 30-day pilot training was launched in November 2018 with 24 young women and men. The trainees completing the program were offered employment by Paradise Ceylon in Ratnapura, a gemstone supplier that now employs more than 100 and serves jewelers across Sri Lanka and the world.

Some of them, decided to take a different route and launched their own gem cutting startup. Dhanushka Sandamali, 27, Co-founder and CEO of Top Gem Lapidary as well as a new mother said: “I’m excited—and a little scared, but thanks to the YouLead project, Heshani Gem and Jewelry Training Centre, and an offer of outsourced work from Paradise Ceylon we are eager to get to work.”

Hiruni Gunasekera, 21, a co-founder, said the startup would inspect, cut, polish, buy and sell gem stones. She said they also had plans to engage a silversmith and a goldsmith to create astrological jewelry. “It is a very interesting and respectable way to earn,” she said.

The startup will provide outsourced gem cutting services to the Sri Lankan gem and jewelry industry catering to a niche market within the industry.

Guiding entrepreneurial youth to start-up training. YouLead stepped in to deliver an intensive training in entrepreneurship, in part using YouLead’s new entrepreneurship course materials. YouLead’s entrepreneurship trainer said, “These young men and women are committed and really know what they are doing. They have a good mix of skills from design, to cutting, to marketing. I am confident they will be successful.”

Linking young entrepreneurs to mentors. The National Enterprise Development Authority (NEDA) offered to provide them with management mentoring and YouLead introduced the new start-up to three entrepreneurs and gem cutters from within the industry. All offered to mentor the young women and men as they face the challenges all new businesses encounter in their first year. The young entrepreneurs met their new mentors and had a second round of business development training.