Meet Maneesha: Sri Lanka’s trailblazing gemstone exporter extraordinaire
Heading up an all-female team, at the heart of the gemstone market in the famed Ratnapura region of Sri Lanka, Maneesha has earned the admiration of those in her field. As the only female gemstone dealer in Sri Lanka, she is as rare as the gemstones she seeks. We speak with Maneesha about her beginnings in the gemstone industry, the impact her work has had, and her future ambitions.
How did you begin working in the gem industry?
I moved from my hometown to Ratnapura and entered the gemstone market when I was a young woman. I felt daunted and uncomfortable at first, in an industry filled with men. I didn’t want people to take advantage of me, so I worked hard to build my skills, experience and confidence.
Ratnapura gem market
When was your company established?
I began working as a gemstone exporter in 2011. I was working for another sapphire company, but in 2015, with two of my colleagues, we combined our knowledge and experience to start our own all-female business. It was the perfect time for us to branch out!
From 2015 to 2017, the three of us were working from a studio in my home, researching, making deals here and there, and putting together business proposals for investors.
In 2017, an investor helped us to officially set up our company and we opened an office in Ratnapura.
What is so special about the sapphire mining region of Ratnapura?
The mining region of Ratnapura is situated in a valley, surrounded by mountains, and traditionally, the gemstones are seen as a blessing from the gods. The miners see their job as very sacred–they perform prayers and rituals before they begin working.
Have you encountered any problems in your career?
Like I said, I started in the gemstone industry as a young woman. I started purchasing in another city before feeling confident enough to head to Ratnapura with a wealth of knowledge and experience behind me.
When I decided to set up my own business, I faced different challenges as a woman and a mother. While I was trying to secure investment, I had to travel alone and many people weren’t sure about the return on investment. The gem community is very limited, but we needed the money, so I was reaching out to investors that didn’t have a great knowledge of the gem industry.
I had to build trust with and convince potential investors that the gem market was worth their investment. It wasn’t easy, but after sending so many proposals, one investor finally agreed in 2017. It was the break we’d all been waiting for!
What is it like to work there?
I don’t know what I would do without gemstones–I never thought I’d be able to work in this industry because of our traditions and culture.
As women in the gemstone mining industry, we are making a statement–I even sometimes wear heels to visit the mines. I wear a nice outfit and do my make up. One of my clients was laughing asking ‘why are you so dressed up?’ It’s because I’ve carved an image for myself. I wanted to stand out from the rest, and I did.
No day is the same. We feel so lucky being able to come into work in the morning and see these precious gemstones, that not many other women have access to. Day to day, it’s always different. We work with different people and see different stones coming in–it’s challenging but it’s a great experience.
Of course, I’ve made losses on some stones, but at the end of the day, it’s all learning.
Are you seeing any trends in the sapphire market?
Yes, traditional sapphire colours like blue, pink, yellow and white are always on trend. Recently, we’ve seen an increase in interest for bluish-green colours. Customers are looking for something different and unique.
I predict that pink will be the next trend in sapphires.
What are your ambitions for the future?
I want to get more opportunities for women in Sri Lanka. Since 2011, I have been involved in charity projects to empower women, supporting them to earn their own money from home, and to educate them on how to avoid domestic violence.
I came from a small family and have experienced domestic violence and abuse–I know how it is.
That experience made me strong and who I am today, but some women cannot raise their voice, so I want to be the voice for those women. That’s the dream.
And things are changing. Now, there are even female shareholders in the mines and they’re allowed to visit. We’re not allowed to actually work in the mines–that still needs someone to come forward and challenge the industry. New generations are different and it’s evolving for the better.
For the business, we want to expand the team and create more opportunities to supply sapphires. And of course, we want to support our families–I have two beautiful children that I want to educate well.
Thanks to Maneesha, a hugely inspiring woman, breaking down barriers within the gemstone industry and truly embodying girl power!