A business that encourages all its employees to speak up and contribute is the win-win model of choice for Sajindu Perera, the 26-year-old winner of this year's ACCA Advocacy Award for Middle East-South Asia, and deputy general manager for finance at Sri Lanka-headquartered lingerie manufacturer MAS Intimates.
She currently manages a team of more than 30 staff, and believes in creating a nurturing work environment that gives colleagues the freedom to voice their opinion. It’s the work culture at MAS Intimates, the biggest division of South Asia’s leading clothing and textile manufacturer MAS Holdings, and she attributes her own success to it.
‘Your voice is always heard whether it’s a meeting with 15 people or a forum with 500 people,’ she says. ‘I think that’s the reason why I’ve come to where I have. My career has evolved so much because I always had the opportunity to be myself.’
‘You don’t need to wait until you become a finance director to drive change’
Appointed deputy general manager leading the management information and finance business partnering teams
Moved back into finance as group management accountant and appointed head of management information team and subsequently promoted to manager, finance integration unit
Moved into the strategic planning team working with the chief executive officer
Started at MAS Intimates as a business analyst
Her introduction to finance came at school while learning commerce and accounts as a sixth-grader. The subject quickly piqued her interest, and she has never looked back. She graduated from Oxford Brookes University in applied accounting, gained an MBA from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura in Colombo, and has won several ACCA prizes.
She joined the finance division at MAS Intimates as a business analyst in 2015 after submitting the final thesis for her degree. At the time, she was also completing the final two papers of ACCA.
She’s quick to admit that her work has been challenging and is thankful for the company’s supportive environment. ‘It’s important that your employer understands you and provides you with resources to thrive,’ she says.
In 2016, she moved over to the MAS Intimates corporate planning team. ‘You are just 19 years old and you wonder how you can contribute to the strategic planning of a US$2bn global company,’ she recalls. ‘But they wanted a fresh perspective, young blood, and a new generation of thought.’
She believes that stint in strategic planning was a turning point in her career. ‘I learnt many things; I saw how business and operations work, and how finance essentially is the bloodline that connects all these.’
After some time in the division, she realised that her true passion lay in finance, and made the switch back in 2019, later overseeing a team of six or seven people. Now she heads two departments of the finance division and wants to create an inclusive environment for her team, allowing them to grow.
In Sri Lanka, women drive the clothing sector, and Perera says that MAS Holdings ‘has made a lot of progress in making the ecosystems inclusive to women’, but adds that gender inclusivity is not achievable overnight. She believes there’s a lot more that can still be done. ‘Gender diversity needs to start at home. It needs to start from oneself,’ she declares.
‘Finance is about more than making profit; it’s also about investing at the right time for our future’
For organisations, having a resilient finance strategy mattered enormously in the pandemic. ‘It’s because of the finance strategy that some companies survived the pandemic and others didn’t,’ she says, adding that some businesses ‘take a short-term lens’ with finance. ‘Sometimes we think that finance is about making profit, but it’s more than that; it’s also about making investments at the right time for our future.’
In 2013, when Perera started studying, sustainability was a new concept. She says that ACCA membership gave her an advantage ‘because the ACCA Qualification had integrated sustainability as part of the curriculum when no one else did, which was forward-thinking on the part of ACCA’.
Traditional business models often look to maximise profitability and compromise on sustainability, but she says that organisations need to embed sustainability in their DNA. ‘Sustainability is a given. It's not a nice to have or good to have; you need to have it. Sustainability goes beyond being environmentally friendly and cuts across to people.’
For her own division, having a culture that ‘puts people first' and ‘allows constant change' has also helped address the challenges of working from home in the pandemic. ‘The role of the finance division – budgeting, planning, performance reviewing and presenting – is usually very stressful. But during the pandemic, we also had to learn to work digitally. It’s about tackling fear, encouraging people to learn and make mistakes and collectively progress forward.’
As someone who’s keen on learning from the experiences of others, the ACCA Advocacy Award winner prioritises sharing her story to help inspire others, and ‘consciously drives’ her advocacy agenda towards the younger generation.
‘Sometimes we think we need to achieve something to be able to influence and drive change, but you don’t need to wait until you become a finance director to drive change. You may be just starting out but your attitude and positivity can mean a lot to someone else.’
In her experience as a finance professional, working with her peers in the industry unlocks the potential to create endless opportunities and networking space. The ACCA community in Sri Lanka, she explains, also helps bring people together. ‘The beauty of ACCA is that our networking events have young students to top-level seniors coming from diverse backgrounds.’
For her, ACCA has also played a key role in fostering ethical values. ‘I learnt about integrity, objectivity and how to conduct myself as a person, and to apply them in life beyond finance and work.’
'You can be a successful person, but if you don’t share and help others, it doesn’t mean anything'
Set up in 1987 as a lingerie manufacturer and later expanding into sportswear and swimwear, MAS Holdings designs and produces fabric, accessories and garments. The US$2bn apparel tech company operates in 17 countries, employs over 115,000 people globally, and has design hubs in New York, London, Colombo and Hong Kong.
She’s astonished at how far she’s come. ‘If you’d asked my younger self, I would have said I would love to be where I am right now, but I never thought it could be possible. I feel like it’s a dream and I’m living in someone else’s life.’
In recognition of her drive and ambition, Perera has also won the MAS Abhimani Empowered Woman of the Year award 2021 and the Young Corporate Career Woman of the Year award at the New Generation Awards 2021, organised by Women in Management Sri Lanka and the National Youth Services Council.
She is ‘grateful for everyone’ who has played a part in her journey so far, and as a visiting lecturer for ACCA, she wants to give back. ‘If I’m not too ambitious, I want to get right to the top and always give back. You can be a successful person, but if you don’t share and help others, it doesn’t mean anything.’
Watch our video in which Sajindu Perera ACCA and Alex Njombe FCCA explain how they’re using their knowledge and experience to give back to their local communities