A Founding Father of Tourism in Sri Lanka
Herbert Cooray
Shahili Gomes
Launches her new project ‘the Design Collective’

Harnessing the entrepreneurial spirit which she inherited from her uber successful parents Dian and Dehara Gomes, Shahili is using this synergy coupled with her own verve to launch her own independent business The Design Collective. An athlete who represented Sri Lanka in Synchronized swimming at the Asian Games, Shahili graduated with an Msc in Marketing from Imperial College, London. Combining her love for fashion and travel, this jetsetting ‘IT’ girl who resides between London and Sri Lanka is all set to make her mark in the business landscape of Sri Lanka.

Text Tina Edward Gunawardhana
Photos Siyath Ranathunge
Hair and Make-up Dil Sapukotange
Stylists Anjuli Flamer Caldera and Shaestha De Costa
Location The Design Collective

When did you first know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

I always knew I would work for myself one day. When I was in grade 5 at Visakha I started making friendship bands and quickly turned a profit, but the school closed down my business venture. I worked for MaxMara in Copenhagen while on my year aboard and at Copenhagen Fashion Week. My first permanent role was at Pentland Brands in London, which owns a portfolio of brands including Speedo and Ted Baker. I learned a lot from these roles but ultimately my future lies in being my own boss.

As the offspring of successful parents how much of a challenge, is it to live up to expectations?

It was a challenge in the beginning growing up in my parents’ shadow, but I am my own person and making my own way in the world. These days I see it more as a blessing than a challenge. They are amazing, successful people brimming with business ideas and advice. I learn things from them daily.

How have your parents inspired you?

They have very different business styles, which I admire equally. My dad is a visionary, always thinking about long-term goals and the big picture, whereas my mum is all about the here and now; she is a stickler for detail. The trick for me is to learn from both.

What aspects of the Gomes empire will you be handling?

At Gandhara I am involved in sourcing and marketing, but these days I feel like I am builder with so much construction going on at Gandhara Street! We wanted a fresh aesthetic, which meant some major changes in terms of the look of the store. I imagine that our CEO is not particularly happy with me at the moment, as my role has involved a lot of spending in order to make the store beautiful. But, of course, it’s a long term investment, which he knows! I am also involved the villas and with Westgate.

Are these what you had wanted or what your parents decided you should manage?

My parents have always been really flexible; they haven’t forced any of these projects on me. It happened organically with what I was interested in. I have always been the creative one in the family. My sister, Elisha, just finished her Masters in Entrepreneurship Innovation and sustainability at Imperial. She has moved back home and there was a bidding process between my parents as to which business she should join. At the moment dad and I have won with her joining TDC and Hela Clothing. My mum will have to wait to work with Elisha!

The Design Collective is your brainchild. How did that come about?

I have been thinking about creating a platform for local designers for several years. I think there is a real gap in the market for it. And I think now is the right time. Colombo is buzzing these days! Essentially it is a concept store and studio combined. I want customers to have the face time with these creative people and facilitate real interaction. I want to explore the boundaries about how designers and creatives collaborate and how they interact with customers. I had this idea after visiting some of my favorite places to shop in London, New York and Paris. Six months ago we started the major renovation project at Gandhara and it was then I discussed my idea with Binu Wickremesinghe, one of my childhood friends. With her background in fashion it was really the perfect fit.

What motivated you to start The Design Collective?

There are some cool retail shops for fashion in Colombo and Galle, and I want to tap into this creative energy and push the offering even further. We wanted to create a platform or “collective” of like-minded people who can really make something unique. This is why we have incorporated a studio area for designers to collaborate. TDC is not only for fashion designers, we hope the space will evolve into an area for all people in the creative world. TDC is aimed at promoting emerging designers from Sri Lanka and elsewhere in South East Asia by providing a unique retail space in which to showcase their designs. TDC encourages group collaboration and female leadership in fashion. The retail space boasts an interactive shared work area, in which designers and customers engage and exchange ideas. TDC is a place not just to buy and sell, but to learn and create.

As a female entrepreneur what is the mark you wish to set?

I want nothing short of 100% female equality of opportunity and reward. I have been fortunate enough to grow up with strong female role models at home. Not every girl has that opportunity yet, but things are moving in the right direction. Women everywhere – in all industries, at all levels, in all areas of Sri Lanka, whether urban or rural – should feel empowered and equal. Within my own business, equality is an absolute requirement and I will not tolerate anything less.

How do you think the Design Collective will enhance the fashion landscape in Colombo?

We’re providing a platform for Sri Lankan designers in a way that doesn’t exist at the moment. I am proud of what the existing stores have already achieved for fashion in Colombo, but I think there is a gap in the market in terms of homegrown talent. We have some incredible designers right here on our doorstep and I want to see them encouraged and empowered to become the very best.

You are also a fashionista. Who are your favourite designers?

I have a very eclectic mix of style, and like dressing in very different ways depending on my mood, the weather, the event. It’s one of the things I love most about modern fashion; it is so versatile. Right now, I am loving the designers that I work with at the Design Collective. They’re bringing so much energy and innovation to their designs. I am constantly in awe of their work. Internationally, my favourite designer is Alessandro Michele who is the creative director of Gucci. I love what he did with a brand that had dropped off the radar in recent years.

You are a traveller at heart. How do your exotic journeys influence your business mind?

All journeys influence me in some way, whether exotic or not. I believe there is inspiration to be found in everything as long as you have an open mind and are receptive to new ways of looking at things. Of course, some places are more obviously of influence, such as New York, Paris, London, where I find visual inspiration at every turn – but there is inspiration of a different kind to be found everywhere. In rural villages in Kenya, for example, where women undertake manual labour to build their own homes. When I met with these women and they told me this, I was initially shocked that the men were not doing this. But then I reflected on it and thought, why am I shocked? Why shouldn’t a woman build her home?

How do you maintain a healthy balance between work, travel and life?

The commute between London and Colombo is quite a tough one, but this is what I have chosen to do for the time being and I am making it work. I prioritise the gym and healthy eating, and even prepare healthy snacks for the flights. It doesn’t come easy and I have to make sacrifices, but well-being is everything.

In an increasingly competitive arena how do you propose to stay ahead of the game?

There is an element of competition, of course, but I also see an opportunity to work with rather than against similar businesses. There is a greater purpose here - empowering women, putting Colombo on the map for fashion, providing role models for the next generation – all of this requires cooperation and friendship, not rivalry for rivalry’s sake. Competition is healthy and I embrace it, but ultimately we should be working towards a bigger common purpose.

How important is success and what does it mean to you?

Success is important, but there are different ways to measure it. As a retail store, financial success is essential in order to remain a going concern, but for me it is not the be all and end all. I see it as the first not the last step. There is more I want to achieve than simply turning a profit.

Where do you see yourself in a decade?

Running a successful business and helping others do the same.