Meet Imesha Gajaweera, the force behind Pabora Jewellery. She shares her raw and inspiring story of how her brand came to fruition and the struggles she faced along the way as a young budding entrepreneur.
1. What made you start this entrepreneurial journey? Tell us the story.
After my higher education, my dream was to get into the corporate sector, so I started working in two large corporate firms, touching on different industries. While I was working there, I realised that something was always missing. I worked so hard because those two corporates were part of the main industries in Sri Lanka. I worked day and night and then I would start again the next day. We made profits and we made losses, so I would say the exposure was very good but I still felt like I was missing something. I felt like we have a very limited time in our lives so I wanted to do something different. This is what everybody else is doing; you get a degree, you learn something, you get educated, you get a job and then you spend your life. That’s not what I wanted. I always had that gap inside myself. Having said that, I grew up in a family where business was like bread and butter. I didn’t have any dream or any idea of how to start a business or at least how to continue what my family was doing. But, when I was old enough to understand how everything worked around me, I realised I didn’t want to give up what my father was doing because he was doing something that his father gave him. However, I felt that this was a dying business. They were really conventional and they didn’t like change. Anyways while I was doing that, I got into doing my MBA and gladly, in PIM instead of doing research as my final project, I selected entrepreneurship where we had to come up with a business model and run it for 6 months and then show the results to the panel which they then analysed. I realised that this could be one path through which I could fulfill the gap that I had felt. I could do something a little different, make small change in someone else’s life. So, I got into entrepreneurship and I kind of remoulded the business model we had and added new flavours such as manufacturing and tapping into the local market, essentially localising it because my parents and grandparents had not done anything like that before.
2. What does your brand name mean and what does it stand for?
Pabora is essentially my name. I define it through my middle name, Pabodha, which I don’t like and so that’s how it came to be. If you ask me what it stands for, I say that it’s an affordable luxury lifestyle jewellery brand. When I say luxury, in my mind, I define it as a state of comfort, elegance and desire. Normally, the term ‘luxury’, involves a lot of costs but the comfort that you’re looking for can still come without spending a lot of money so that’s why I say, ‘affordable' luxury. That’s why we came up with our tagline ‘you truly’. We also rebranded a bit recently, changing our brand colour and our tagline but the core value has not changed.
3. You left the life of a comfortable corporate job to be the master of your own? Have you ever felt you shouldn't have done it?
Well like I mentioned before, I wanted something of more of value than that monetary benefit or that prestige you get out of working in a blue chip company. So yes, there is a stigma in Sri Lanka where people think if you wear a tie and get out of your house to go to work then you’re doing a good job but if you’re staying at home working an online job, even if you make a large sum of money, then you’re not doing very well or you’re not educated. That stigma is still there in Sri Lanka. I was not a person who cared about all these things. I knew that by getting out of the corporate sector and running something like this on my own, I would have to face a lot of challenges. For instance, with a product like this, people assume you do not need much skill to execute this. Having said that, I got my masters and then started this venture. It’s definitely confusing for a lot of people. I didn’t even mention that I left my job to a lot my relatives for a year or so because I didn’t want to explain anything to them. I had to compromise on a lot and I definitely learned a lot of new things coming out of something like this because for the first time I was the vendor, not the customer. Even when you’re dealing with social media you are faced with so many different comments and messages from different kinds of people so you can’t be aggressive when you are responding to them because you are replying to them as a brand you are not replying to them as one person. I learnt so many things through this.
I started this venture at the end of 2018 but unfortunately, we were hit by two major disasters. One was the easter attack and then COVID-19. Both of these events came into place in a time period where our peak season occurs. Essentially March, April and May. This is our season for locals and foreigners both, so we were badly hit by those two events. There were times where I was thinking 'was this a bad time to start something like this?' But then again, I always recall why I started. You start something looking into all possible disasters, the good and the bad and the ups and downs that could come ahead. But you have to face everything. When you’re kicked by all these things you become stronger so you can handle anything in the future. The very time that you are thinking of quitting is the time that you have to hold on the most. The other thing is that, financially, it can be risky to start something but if you ask this question from me now, I don’t regret it even for a minute because the exposure that I have received coming out of a corporate job and doing something like this on my own is unparalleled.
Looking at the networking aspect and the things that you can learn, you’re basically coming out of your frame and experiencing something new. You’re breaking the ice. You’re on your own and you take out all your skills because it’s a start-up and so you don’t have everything in the world when starting a business. It is all based on resources acquired in-house that you have to try out and polish and implement.
4. What makes Pabora Jewellery special?
It’s an affordable luxury jewellery brand which is inspired by real people. When you see a celebrity or when you see some cosmetic brands which have used celebrities and girls and women with perfect skin, the brand is positioning itself in a particular place. However, when that product is worn by a normal person, it won’t look the same. We don’t have perfect skin like celebrities do and we don’t have the perfect appearance like one either. Pabora is trying to celebrate, cherish and admire those differences that each one of us have. There can be people who like to wear very chunky pieces or people who like to wear very dainty pieces. There can be people who have dark skin who don’t want to wear white-gold because it contrasts a lot, so they are moving towards 14 carat gold or lower. Whatever you want, whatever you desire, it’s your type of luxury that we provide at an affordable price. We do have pieces that we design and come up with because we try a lot of new things on and off with not much of a cost that is incurred.
5. What is your take on the Lankan jewellery market? What are the blue oceans you notice?
The Lankan Jewellery market as we know has a long history of coming from the ancient kings’ time. They were using gemstones on their crowns and even on their chairs and we know for a fact that Sri Lanka is a country blessed with an abundance of precious and semi-precious gemstones especially popular for its blue sapphire. Around 45 years ago Princess Diana had used the blue sapphire on her ring after which a lot of people used the same design on their own rings with Ceylon blue sapphire. So, we have a very prestigious history.
When it come to our parents and our grandparents, they were more into gold jewellery maybe as an investment or as a commodity for showing off their prestige and their wealth. They used heavy yellow-gold jewellery but now the trend is really moving out. Now, if you look at millennials, they are not really into gold jewellery. They are not using it as a commodity to show their wealth and are gradually moving off the gold jewellery market into white-gold, rose-gold and even lesser carats like 14 carat, 9 carat jewellery because they are not as bright as 22 carat yellow-gold for example.
I think we are facing an issue of not having resources as much as we had before because a lot of people have exported them without doing any value additions. We are now at a level where we don’t have many resources with regards to natural gemstones in Sri Lanka.
With blue oceans, I have already mentioned that gemstones are a natural resource and its scarce so it’s a resource that is not sustainable. I would think the sustainable jewellery market is still in the blue ocean category. We can use technology, whether it be information technology or whether it be biometrics and inculcate that into jewellery. It can be done. It has been tested in all the other established countries. I think Sri Lanka also can investigate something like that.
6. How has the market responded to your nature-based jewellery concept?
This was something that was always on my mind for years due to the sustainable factor. Before actually starting it, I collected a lot of information from peer groups and there ended up being two different categories of people. One set of people loved anything sustainable and the other group were not very sensitive to anything sustainable but liked the artistic factor involved. So basically, I am trying to merge these two things and cater to both markets and so far, it has been really good. People have responded well, as there have been many orders and it has only been a month or so. We have had shops in Colombo who have approached us to feature the new collection Omra in a physical store as well.
7. What is your advice to budding young entrepreneurs especially young girls who are thinking of starting out on their own?
What I think about being an entrepreneur is that if you are starting a business, it can be for two reasons, maybe it can be for fun or passion, or you’re trying to do it for a living. If you are starting something new, first, you have to think if you are trying to solve someone else’s problem then definitely you’ll have a room or share in the market. If not, you might have to have some kind of a competitive advantage or a resource of some sort in your value chain. It can be your designing skill, it can be your access to the raw materials, it can be your network and so on. You should have at least one of these things to start a business, so you know where to get your advantage and how to get things up and running.