By Suzanne Skees
Meet the MY JOB Narrators: Purnima, Interior Designer, Colombo, Sri Lanka
“For my university internship, I wanted to redesign an auto repair shop. People said, ‘It’s about cars, and what do you know about cars? You probably haven’t even ridden in a car, as a guy would do; and why would you want to do this?’
“I wanted to bring out the womanness in a car, and bring that out into the lobby.
“It was a six-month project. Initially, the company didn’t like to hire women . . . But based on my internship, they actually changed their perception of what women could do in this field, because of the way I worked.”
–Purnima, Interior Designer, Colombo, Sri Lanka
How I Met Purnima
When I asked our education partners at Educate Lanka who would be an interesting career person to interview for MY JOB during the week I spent in Sri Lanka, they recommended an alumna, Purnima the interior designer. A graduate of their program, Purnima displayed the success of the scholarship program: I learned that she supported her family while also paying her school fees, eked out of a very small scholarship. She survived on tea and biscuits to get to her goals, and she’d also gone on to acquire a swanky job at one of the top design firms in Asia.
Purnima had started her job as a quaking intern, making mistakes and crying to the boss, and evolved as one of the first female partners by winning awards for her designs and putting in the hours and innovation it took to make the company stand out.
Purnima [Poo-er-neema] arrived in a stylish Western dress made of denim, with red buttons and a floral scarf. Her long nails were perfectly polished and her big brown eyes darted around the room, taking in every detail. More than anyone else in the building, Purnima had been trained to imagine what the room could be.
“Purnima” means, in both Hindi and Sanskrit, “full moon” or “the night of the full moon.” When I interviewed the 26-year-old designer, she spoke a bit of polite English and then happily allowed her Educate Lanka mentor to take over the translation from Sinhalese. She sipped tea under the watchful eye of her very protective mother, who wondered whether we wanted somehow to take advantage of her beautiful girl. By the end of the story, I learned a romantic secret about Purnima that forced her to make a difficult choice . . . To learn more about her secret love life, you’ll have to read her chapter!
Excerpt from Chapter 14, in Purnima’s Own Voice
For domestic projects, mostly it’s just women coming in, because they’re the ones who do the choosing for a house in general.
As an interior designer, I make design concepts and new furniture. I work with lighting, flooring, color combinations, wall colors, tile colors, and all things according to customers’ requirements.
In the plant, where the manufacturing is done, sanding and painting and carving, there are women working there, because their work is neat. Also, the sales team is also predominantly women because they know how to use their mouths to get the sales.
It’s easy for a designer to come to a place and show their creativity, to show their knowledge or what not by just suggesting randomly looking at the space there. But if you were to do a really good job, you have to look into the history of the building.
I have made mistakes . . . even one word can make a huge difference. For example, I gave an order for the manufacturers, but I forgot to put in the one [crucial] word, “fix onsite” [assemble onsite]. They wouldn’t have been able to use the finished product.
When I do mistakes like that, the product gets returned to the company, and the company cannot refund the client because it’s our fault, the company’s fault . . . The chairman would always say in Sinhalese, “Just don’t come to me after doing a mistake and tell me about the problem with a tearful eye because I can’t scold you.”
In Sri Lankan culture, it’s kind of hard for a woman to do things. There are so many restrictions imposed by society. [Even when I worked so hard on my internship,] the people who judged my project . . . were mocking me and saying, “More than your product, we actually like your eyes and your beautiful smile.”
You can check out Purnima’s chapter in MY JOB: Real People at Work Around the World, available both on Kindle and on paper. And, stay tuned to meet the next narrator, hip hop musician Darius, in Chapter 15 . . .
Photograph courtesy of Purnima Wanigasekara and Educate Lanka.