Ambassador Chung’s Remarks at Chamber of Young Lankan Entrepreneurs 24th Anniversary Celebrations

March 10, 2023

Vanakum, Asalam Aleykoom, Aybowan, and good evening.

Outgoing COYLE Chairman Dimuth Chankama Silva, Incoming COYLE Chairman Rasith Wickramasingha, Honorable Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, ministers, excellencies, friends.

Good evening and thank you for the invitation to join you tonight.  I’m pleased to be a part of COYLE’s celebration of 24 years of building relationships and supporting business development across Sri Lanka.  2023 is also a milestone year as we mark 75 years of Sri Lanka’s independence and the establishment of bilateral relations with the United States, focusing on the themes of people, progress, and partnership.

Your country faces a crossroads as you work to emerge from the current economic crisis, hopefully more resilient and stronger, and you know better than I do that entrepreneurs play a vital role in building long-term economic health.

Like all of you, I welcomed the news that China decided to join the rest of us – Paris Club, India, and others – in providing concrete & credible financing assurances to restore debt sustainability and to obtain an IMF package that will support Sri Lanka as it rebuilds its economy.  That’s a good step, because we all want Sri Lanka to get its economic house in order.  But it is just the start of the challenging work ahead, including actually negotiating debt restructuring and staying on track to implement reforms to improve transparency, enhance efficiency, and fight corruption.  That’s a tall order and can’t be done overnight. But that work can help nurture an economic environment in which entrepreneurs like yourselves can fully thrive and contribute to lasting prosperity.

Just last month when you hosted Foreign Minister Ali Sabry here, he emphasized the importance of international cooperation among the global community in supporting the economic recovery of Sri Lanka.  The United States has been and will do that exact thing: providing over $270 million in new assistance since last June with fertilizer, seeds, school lunch programs, and financing for SMEs; supporting you through the IMF process as its largest shareholder; and providing technical assistance to strengthen your legal structures, accounting procedures, and public financial management systems. We are also your biggest export market and want to be a part of your engine for growth. I know COYLE has publicly urged the government to prioritize restructuring the public sector to reduce the burden on taxpayers and make tax reforms so that they are more equitable – I applaud you for that. Keep speaking up.

I hope you all fully comprehend that all of you, as COYLE members, have such an important role to play and such a significant platform to call for change.  Not only can you help grow the economy in the near- to medium-term, but you can advocate for the systemic changes that will lead to long-term economic health. You can move away from decades of protectionist tendencies to really compete and grow your economy.  For years, Sri Lanka has gradually slipped in internally rankings like the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Survey.  You are well placed to correct this trend by advocating for the legal and regulatory best practices required for a more transparent, efficient, and competitive commercial environment.

COYLE can also serve as a springboard for the innovation and talents of all Sri Lankan citizens.  As entrepreneurs, you create jobs, and you have the ability to set an inclusive corporate culture.  You can make a real difference, through your daily work, through your companies’ charitable efforts, through mentoring the rising generation of business leaders, and through your commitment to creating a transparent economy that works fairly for everyone.

Now, the irony was not lost on me that during this week we are celebrating International Women’s Day that I’m addressing a male-only organization. I looked at your website- it’s a sea of all men wearing all white representing the hundreds of companies in Sri Lanka.  Your website touts “120 controlling shareholders and chairmen sitting and advocating together.”   The brands represented are impressive including a number of American companies like Dell, Microsoft, Apple, Xerox.  Your vision statements say you endeavor to be “the most influential & vibrant Chamber of young business leaders of Sri Lanka that plays a vital role for national importance.”  Now I ask you- how are you going to do this without women?  How are you going to do this without the full diversity of Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim business talent? As Sri Lanka undertakes important reform efforts, a vital step is to expand women’s economic empowerment and tap into their profit-making talents and skills.  As I mentioned, it was 75 years ago that Sri Lanka gained independence and began a long and important partnership with the United States.  Women only represent about a third of Sri Lanka’s labor force despite high levels of education and, frankly, the country must do better. The truth is the wide gender gap in the labor force is not only shortchanging women, their families, and their communities but it’s shortchanging and the economy as a whole – and your companies.

You are missing some of the best and brightest employees when companies fail to hire women – in all positions.  You don’t have to take my word for it; many studies have shown a strong correlation between weak economic growth and wide gender gaps in the labor force.  More broadly, it severely limits the potential of the Sri Lankan economy.  We’ve seen some great strides, however, as Sri Lankan women participate actively in business across industries.  I encourage COYLE to become a standard-bearer for inclusivity by inviting women entrepreneurs to join you in your important work.  I know that you have a Ladies Chapter that is being revived; let it go beyond being spouses of members doing charitable work, which is of course very admirable, but also become full-fledged members that create a professional network.  Let’s not forget, by increasing women’s economic participation, Sri Lanka could significantly increase its GDP.  One study found that increasing women’s labor force participation by 10 percent increased real wages – for everyone – by 5 percent.  Reducing the gender gap will significantly boost the world’s overall GDP.

This is not theory or hope or something that makes us feel good.  It is based on real data and bottom-line profits.  Let me give you two data points from the U.S.: Companies with more women in leadership roles are more profitable.  A Pepperdine University study showed that twenty-five Fortune 500 firms with the best record of promoting women into high positions were 18 to 69 percent more profitable than the median firms in their industries.  Second, the stocks of 13 Fortune 500 companies led by a woman outperformed the S&P 500 (companies primarily led by men) by 25%.  The United States has enjoyed these sorts of real benefits by enhancing women’s access to economic opportunities.  Now, this evening, during Women’s History Month, I invite you to pledge to expand opportunities for women entrepreneurs, including through outreach, mentoring, and in the future, full membership and even leadership roles within COYLE.

You have achieved tremendous success these last 24 years, and as you look to the future, an inclusive, forward-looking approach will serve you well.  I congratulate you and wish you continued success in your efforts to build a more prosperous Sri Lanka.  You need the creativity, ingenuity, and diversity of men and women in Sri Lanka, of people of diverse ethnicities, religions, and economic backgrounds.  You can continue to do things the way they have always been done. Or you can challenge norms, compete, and innovate. Tonight, the incoming Chairman said he wanted to see a second, third, and fourth generation of COYLE leaders carry on important work.  I hope he was talking about not only sons and grandsons but also your daughters and granddaughters.  I’m glad to see your theme this year is “Evolution: Resilience, Agility, and Transformation.” Well, evolution means change.  You can resist change, or you can embrace it. And you can truly become “the most influential and vibrant Chamber of young business leaders” as you aspire.  Know that the United States remains a strong and steadfast friend and partner to all Sri Lankans and thank you for all you do to contribute to your country’s well-being and to our bilateral relations.