Mevan Peiris may have been thrown into the spotlight after his recent appearance on the Forbes 30 under 30 list, but it’s his tenacity and vision in the years leading up to it that put him there.
By Thushanthi Ponweera
I meet Mevan on a sweltering Colombo afternoon at his rented apartment. His newborn son lies on the bed grinning at his grandmother while Mevan fiddles with the AC. “It’s been acting up since yesterday and spitting out ice”, he says as a form of explanation before switching it off completely in hope that it would sort itself out. There is no fan in the room, or much ventilation. Culture dictates that this would usually throw a family with a young baby into a tizzy. But Mevan remains cool. He’s been a father for four months, and had moved into this tiny space just three weeks ago. “My wife had to go back to work after maternity leave and we wanted to be as close to her as possible, so that she could still continue feeding baby.” The family is in transition to a bigger home in a few weeks. “This was just a trial, to see how comfortable Kshanika was with everything.” This seems to be a common theme throughout Mevan’s life, based on what he went onto share with me: his unfrazzled attitude to challenges and his willingness to adapt to change.
In fact, it’s soon evident that Mevan thrives on change. At his alma mater, S. Thomas’ College, Mevan was involved in as many activities as he could manage. Cadeting, soccer, cricket, swimming, hockey, karate, Hewisi band, clubs and societies…. the list goes on. “I always believed in trying out as many things as I could. Not that I was very good at most of them, but I enjoyed participating in all of them”, he smiles. Mevan went on to become the Sergeant of the school’s Cadet platoon and receive College Colours. Alongside this, he was also the leader of the school’s Hewisi band, President of the Sinhala Literary Society and a College Prefect.
This spirit stayed with him as he ended his school career with no definite plan for the future. His first opportunity arose when he joined ThePapare.com, a newly established sports website run by some of his friends. As a keen sports fanatic, Mevan found his new role very enjoyable, and together with an energetic young team, was able to get noticed for his work. At the same time, he was working as an intern at a grassroot level NGO, while gaining visibility as a host of a popular television morning show. All this while also having commenced studying for his degree, which he paid for himself he reveals, and by his tone I understand that here was a person who didn’t expect anything to be handed over to him unless he worked for it.
It didn’t slow down there either. When other youth his age would be enjoying their university years, Mevan kept looking for ways to grow and build. This is when he partnered with a friend to publish their own business magazine, ‘The Review’, which aimed to highlight the life stories of popular business personalities. “There already were some highly respected business magazines, but they were very analytical. We wanted to do something different.” Although the first issue helped them break even, they had their sights set higher. Earlier that year, Mevan had participated in a sought-after internship opportunity at some of the country’s leading conglomerates, when he had gotten the chance to meet Ajit Gunewardene, then Deputy Chairman at John Keells Holdings. “This allowed me to approach him for an interview for The Review. Thanks to our work at Papare, we also had Kumar Sangakkara agreeing to be featured. Then came the next dilemma. Who do we feature on the cover?” Proving how effective unorthodox solutions could be, Mevan and his editorial partner managed to find a common thread to bind the two greats: a mutual admiration of the works of the local artist Justin Deraniyagala. “They hit it off, spending the whole time chatting about art at the photo shoot. The result was an impressive cover page, and our second issue was a great success!”
Having apparently created a good impression, Mevan was offered a job at JKH’s Cinnamon Hotels. Even though he hadn’t planned on entering the corporate world, after careful contemplation, Mevan accepted the offer, and happily delved into the hotels’ branding efforts, as well as handling events and social media. “I was still in the final year of my degree, and travelling all over the country whenever dignitaries or celebrities arrived.” His hard work paid off, and while Mevan joined as an Executive, he was promoted successively to Assistant Manager and thereafter Manager.
That’s when a vacancy opened up at Elephant House Beverages for Head of Marketing. Mevan felt ready to transfer his knowledge to a different industry, and applied. This is how Mevan became one of the youngest departmental heads at JKH at just 25 years old. After a two-year stint which helped him further gain a tremendous amount of experience in retail and marketing, Mevan moved onto PickMe to head their new vertical, PickMe Food in April 2019.
Now responsible not just for a department but for an entire operation, Mevan was really put to the test not long after he commenced work in his new position. “About a year after launch and just when we were gaining momentum following tech improvements and ironing out glitches based on consumer feedback, the lockdown happened,” he says of the nearly two-month period that the entire country was under curfew in order to control the spread of Covid-19. “Suddenly, everything was at a standstill. Restaurants shut down, and our delivery partners and drivers didn’t have work because there was no where they could go! A few days into lockdown, the team was brainstorming. And that’s when it hit me. Everyone needs gas.” It seems like such a basic realization now, but PickMe Food was the first company to act on it. This was in part due to Mevan acting immediately by reaching out to the Chairman of Litro Gas. “Thanks to his cooperation, together we were able to utilize the PickMe fleet and deliver gas to households all over the country. From 50 gas outlets across 12 districts to be exact”, says Mevan. They also partnered with Lanka Sathosa, as well as other vendors and restaurants, in order to cater to the basic food needs of consumers. All this ensured that PickMe was able to stay true to its goals of providing convenience and connectivity to its customers, while also staying financially viable. Coincidentally, in what seemed like a winning streak, this was also when the Forbes magazine announced their 30 under 30 list for 2020 and Mevan was selected under the category ‘Consumer Technology’.
Less than a decade since he left school, and Mevan already has a resume that’s hard to beat. Amidst all the achievements, there is one area that might be considered sparse- the long list of academic and professional qualifications that are usually expected of a Sri Lankan corporate employee. “I didn’t leave school and rush to get a degree. But I always knew it was important to get one, as I value the learning experience. Learning to learn is important and like anything else, it’s a skill you have to cultivate”, he says, emphasizing that this doesn’t mean that you should completely skip tertiary education – Mevan does have his Diploma in Economics and a BSc in International Relations from the University of London. But considering that he hasn’t yet studied something related to marketing, I assume he likes to go against the grain “No, I’m not a rebel as such, but I haven’t felt the need to accumulate diplomas and degrees when I can utilize that time gaining knowledge practically”, he says, adding that maybe he might consider studying again, now that he has some time.
The couple admit that this was an incredibly challenging period. “My phone was ringing off the hook non-stop day and night, and while I was on a call, the WhatsApp messages would be flooding in,” says Mevan, shaking his head in almost-disbelief. “And here I was, heavily pregnant and trying to concentrate on my work while he was constantly dealing with so many calls. We were both so busy that we would have happily stayed without eating. That’s how bad the workload was. We ate salmon curry, parippu and rice every single day!”, laughs Kshanika. “Oh and add to that, we had been all set to move to a new home just before curfew was announced. All our belongings were in boxes.” In the face of all these challenges, the couple stayed united and focused on what needed to be done, and this helped them survive the stress.
While Mevan fielded interviews and calls following the Forbes 30 under 30 annoucement, little did his wife know that she too would be doing something historic soon. Kshanika says that although she barely had time to prepare for childbirth and what would follow, but knew she wanted a water birth. It was again a combination of opportunities that she said yes to. Ninewells had recently opened its water birth centre, her gynecologist was open to the idea, and when her water broke earlier than expected, her condition appeared to be conducive to what was the very first water birth in a Sri Lankan hospital. “It was everything I had hoped for. Peaceful, intimate, and beautiful.” The couple’s initial experience as parents remains the same to this day, as they take turns cuddling their son who has by now fallen asleep on Mevan’s shoulder.
Today, Kshanika is back at work but her reduced work hours means she is able to come home earlier to feed baby. Mevan has decided to step back from his job to take some time to focus on himself and his new family. “If we both continued working the way we did, then we’d never see our son. Kshanika’s work is time sensitive and she needed to see it through, so we decided that I should be the one to slow down. I’ve been on the go since forever, and I felt I needed to catch my breath and weigh my options,” says Mevan thoughtfully.
What advice does he have for budding entrepreneurs and those at the start of their careers? “Don’t be afraid of trying out different things and even failing. If something isn’t working, accept defeat and start again. It’s worse to keep flogging a dead horse, when you could be on the brink of the next big thing. Why survive when you can thrive?”. It leaves no doubt in our minds that Mevan Peiris will be a name to watch out for in the future.
Originally appeared in the Pulse magazine, print edition, Sept/Oct 2020.
Image credit: Pulse