This article was originally written by VEGA Member Land O’Lakes International Development.
For an auto repair shop, the scene is quiet. The occasional engine revs, and sparks fly in background. A group of young men gather to get their direction for the afternoon. A woman is in their midst, in high heels, but just reaching shoulder height of most of them. She gives orders while managing two phones and a clipboard. This is Indra Kumari, the first female body shop manager in Sri Lanka.
Since 2006, Indra has worked for Wheel Masters, a shop in Anuradhapura in central Sri Lanka. When she started at age seventeen, the shop was smaller and unable to provide accident repairs. People would have to drive hours away to wait days – and often weeks – to get their car fixed. A lot has changed, both for Indra and for Wheel Masters.
“When I started working, I was at the front desk. It was my first job. I had no knowledge of the industry. As we grew, I learned and climbed the ladder,” says Indra. In recent years, Wheel Masters certainly has grown.
After identifying the industry gap and creating a growth plan, Wheel Masters was awarded a matching grant in 2014 from VEGA BIZ+, a USAID-funded program that enters investment partnerships with growing businesses. Implemented by Land O’Lakes International Development, this program works in conflict-affected communities in Sri Lanka to create jobs and sustainable economic growth.
VEGA BIZ+’s investment has enabled the shop to expand its space, add equipment and provide vehicle owners with structural repair, custom painting and spare parts.
The partnership also strengthened the shop’s human resources practices and business processes. Though these resources were critical to growth, it was people like Indra who helped to make the most out of the investment.
At age nineteen, during Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war that ended in 2009, Amal Piyathilake, owner and president, took over his father’s gas station and turned it into Wheel Masters. “We fixed vehicles going to and from the war sites in the north. It was a different time,” says Amal.
In the final years of the war, more women than men were available to work. This is when Amal hired Indra. Though many traditionalists in Sri Lanka see women’s place as in the home, Amal doesn’t give Indra’s gender much thought. “She’s the one who encouraged me to expand the business to where we are today. She’s reliable. She’s passionate. She’s a faster learner,” he explains.
Not everyone sees it the same way as Amal. Indra regularly works with discriminatory vendors, insurance agents and customers. It doesn’t seem to bother her. What really matters to her, are the employees she works with every day. “It’s easy for me to get respect from the guys on the floor. They see me as a professional,” says Indra.
With the VEGA BIZ+ investment, Indra and Amal have added 120 jobs. Wheel Masters, which now has four shops in Sri Lanka, has set the gold standard for the industry.
And Indra is no longer the lone female auto repair shop manager in the country. All four of the Wheel Masters shops have female managers.