Shamilka Samarasinha is the Global Head of Corporate Social Responsibility for EPAM Systems, a leading global provider of digital platform engineering and development services.
With more than 20 years of professional experience in the public and private sector, her expertise includes consulting, operations, leadership and account management. Prior to joining EPAM, Ms. Samarasinha served as a business consultant for corporate social responsibility at Brandix Apparel, a project manager for the British Embassy and county manager at Tesco PLC.
John Shegerian: This edition of the Impact podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet and your privacy. It’s the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company in the United States and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com.
John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact podcast. This is a very special edition today because we have with us today, Shamilka Samarasinha, she’s the global head of Corporate Social Responsibility at EPAM. You could find EPAM in epam.com. Welcome, Shamilka to the Impact podcast.
Shamilka Samarasinha: Thank you very much. Thank you for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
John: It’s a pleasure to have you, and you’re doing so many great things at EPAM. But before we get talking about EPAM and everything you’re doing there in both ESG and corporate responsibility, can we talk a little bit about Shamilka and your journey? Where did you grow up? How did you even get here? How did that journey go getting to where you are at EPAM today?
Shamilka: It’s quite a long journey.
John: It’s okay.
Shamilka: But I will try to give you a quick condensed version. Quick, fast condensed version.
Shamilka: I’m a Sri Lankan. I grew up in Sri Lanka. I left my shoes when I was 18 years. I came to the U.S. to go to undergraduate school, at Liberal Arts College, Upstate, New York, Hobart and William Smith Colleges. I spent 4 years here, and then after that, I went home back to Sri Lanka spent a year there working. Then I went to the UK, and did my masters at Leeds University.
Shamilka: Then I went back home after that, and I worked. I started my journey actually, in an apparel company. I used to be in marketing. I still look after the Marks & Spencer account for this apparel company. Then a few years into that job, I met my current partner. Then he was with the UN, and then within a year, we left Sri Lanka and moved to Bangkok where I just then worked with Tesco’s International. I was helping source like products for the buying teams in the UK out of Thailand and Vietnam. So, I was like the sourcing manager, country sourcing manager. Then we live there for 4-5 years, and then we move to Sri Lanka because the tsunami happened.
So, then I went back to Sri Lanka, and then I joined my company that I had joined before, the apparel company. I became a consultant, but it was after the tsunami. That is really where my social impact work started because after the tsunami, I went to the founder of that company and I said, it’s called Brandix Apparel I said, “I think you need to really think about social responsibility, corporate social responsibility. Let me set this up for you.” Then I basically set up their entire corporate social responsibility program.
John: Wow! Where was that from? Were informed from your childhood, or were you informed from your master’s degree? Where did you get interested in corporate response, social responsibility issues?
Shamilka: So, I think it was really in my college days here because I did economics, and then I designed a second major by myself. It was called development studies. So, I did a lot of development economics, and I just kind of centered all the courses I added into designing that around politics and socio-economic issues, women’s empowerment, all that. I put it all together and basically, designed the second major for myself, which was approved. Yeah.
John: Wow! So now, when did you join me EPAM Systems?
Shamilka: So, I joined EPAM in 2015, yeah, 2015. I was like getting my years exact.
Shamilka: Yep, I joined in February 2015 because I was living in Belarus then.
Shamilka: So, because my husband’s in the UN, we were moving around quite a bit. So, we were posted to Belarus, and then I just so happened to be called because I think someone at EPAM was told that I had a social responsibility background. So, then I was basically, I had an interview set up and I met several people. Six months later, I was hired to set up the social responsibility at EPAM.
John: So, you became the global head of corporate social responsibility at EPAM, had they had someone before that, or this was starting from absolute scratch?
Shamilka: It was starting from absolute scratch.
John: Wow! Okay. So, talk about that. Like, when you came in there, did they welcome you with open arms, or was this going to have to be an evolution where they were going to have to learn that this is going to be part of their future and their culture?
Shamilka: I think they were curious at that point. But I mean it was still like as a company, they did a lot of amazing things. When I joined, it wasn’t like they were was nothing going on.
Shamilka: But they didn’t even know that they were doing these incredible stuff.
John: Got it.
Shamilka: So, once I joined, definitely, there was very, very clear social responsibility programs in place, but they didn’t realize it was CSR.
John: Got it. So, for our listeners, tell them a little bit about what is EPAM’s business anyway so, that way our listeners understand what EPM does?
Shamilka: So, EPAM is a software engineering consulting company, global. We are located in 40, I think 47 plus countries.
Shamilka: We have about 60,000 plus people.
Shamilka: Yeah. So, it’s a huge number of people, and they are spread right across the globe. We have this incredible knowledge that sits with us that support many, many verticals. You name it, we are in it. are in it. We work with the brightest of minds, but also sharing the brightest of minds with the Tier 1 companies of the world.
John: Wow! So, it looks like your timing couldn’t be more perfect because back in 2000, 2005, 2008, no one really was talking about sustainability, ESG circular economy. But now, that seems to be one of the greatest trends generational shifts ever in the history of the planet in terms of people now have recognized that the scientists were right, climate change is happening. But also, this whole issue of ESG takes us way beyond CSR, where now, we really are interested in governance, social, not only just the environment. Can you share a little bit about the evolution of CSR to ESG, and what does ESG mean today in 2022?
Shamilka: Yeah. So, let me just go back here. So, social responsibility was more like we just kind of we were pretty focused on particular initiative. Say, it was just we would identify, I mean, if I take my own journey, we kind of identify three pillars. That was the education, environment and community. We said, whatever social impact initiatives we get into, that we would fit it within those pillars. Like, they had to be identified across those three pillars because the needs are endless, right? In every situation, every country, there’s so many needs. But for our own narrative and for our own understanding on how we can support an impact and impact for good, we had to kind of create those pillars so that people who are in our community, our E partners kind of also felt like they could resonate with what we were trying to do. Because education definitely because the knowledge-based we own environment because we kind of utilize a lot of energy as an industry. That’s where I impact this. Of course, communities, all the communities we’re weighing, we wanted to kind of be part of that, and support.
But I guess, in the last couple of years, this shift has changed because this area now sits under the S, as a total. So, that’s where the difference is, and environment has taken a whole new meaning, because obviously, it’s all about the metrics in all these three areas, E and the S, and the G, but on the E stuff, it’s very clear what the environment goals are. What the commitments are? What we should be working towards is very clear. It’s very defined. So, that’s where the shift was because a couple of years ago when we said we were doing environment, it was more like awareness. Engaging our community to implant trees, clean rivers. Of course, we were doing the basics like helping to reduce like say, we would switch the light bulbs in our offices. We had recycling in all our officers in place. But it was a little different to where we are today because the E component is definitely defined through the scopes as identifying which scopes we are impact like, where our emissions lie?
So, the scope, one scope to scope three, and understanding it. Then of course there is like how do we work towards achieving the science-based targets? Like signing on it, achieving it with the next 10 years. So, that has been our journey in that E space. E space is very developed I feel for any way our sector because that’s where a lot of people have been in. But the metrics is not as advanced like the E space because [crosstalk]
John: Explain what you mean. Explain what you mean there?
Shamilka: Because I think emissions today, even though we started this really looking at our E space, environment space about 20 months ago…
Shamilka: …we today, have a platform, and we know in real time what emissions are for scope one, scope two, scope three. So, the metrics, the actual data is there.
John: Makes sense. Got it.
Shamilka: But in terms of the social impact, there is no clear guidance on how you measure. So, the measurement is still vague. So, yes, we know what our impacts are. We know how many touch points are, how many lives we are impacting. But what we consider data for ourselves or saying it, may be different to how someone in another sector or another industry sees in the social space. There is no clear definition on the metrics for the social, I think, the social impact.
John: So, it’s part of the fun and the mountain for you to climb but also the enjoyment in the creative side is for you to create data points and algorithms that matter to you and your anti-EPAM for the social or, who do you and what do you look to, to inform you to lead in this sector?
Shamilka: So, I think for us, we definitely have kind of focused on the E space because that is the easiest one.
Shamilka: But the E space is also, we have like for instance, if you take education, we know how many countries we’re in. We know our programs. How many children we are impacting? How many girls we are impacting like in terms of our coding program? So, given a number, we would know, okay, 40% of E kids program, we have girls in that program. So, we are following that, but I think what we use with the data we own is still we don’t have a place to really share it other than our website and maybe in situations like this.
Shamilka: But there is no… even in all the rating agency, or any reporting we do, whether it is EcoVadis, CDP, it’s much more focused on the environment governance. May be also supply chain, but nothing really in the social space. Like they’re are not really giving the data.
John: Got it. Talk about governance. Talk about how from 2015 to 2022 in the 7 years you’ve been there, talk about that evolution. Where did you find it, and where are you now on that journey of governance?
Shamilka: So, the governance for me, I’ve seen is like we have a very established code of conduct that is accessible and it’s a part of our adaptation process. So, in that, it pretty much covers everything. That was not there when I joined into, and that doesn’t sit with me. It sits with, obviously, our governance team, and they manage that. Also, just the general like anti-corruption, human rights policies, all these fall under diverse and inclusion policy, supply chain policy. So, all that sits under the governance space, but it’s managed by some people. But every day we are again, evolving there, but I think that EPAM, given that we’re a public company, they are very much established in that space. Like I feel there’s the least amount to do in the governance space…
Shamilka: …out of all the three. Yeah.
John: Really? That’s so interesting. So, really your sweet spot and what you enjoy the most at this point and what’s the most relevant to EPAM is the E’s part of it. The environmental part of it.
Shamilka: I think that’s the journey we are heading because others were more established. That’s where we really started because when I think being a software engineering company, unlike a manufacturing company, the focus on me was, and of course, the demands and the expectations were less from the E space because we were not polluters of water, or we are not utilizing water to manufacture clothing. Like in apparel, there’s a lot of usage of water, replenishment of water. So, for this industry, I think the reason why everyone started late is because that focus was never put on us. Like, that expectation was never there.
Shamilka: So, it is a very interesting space to be in, and also, I think it’s a very doable space. We can make those changes, and we can achieve what’s being asked of us for the next 10 years. I think with a lot of focus and support and all that, we can get there with the science-based targets.
John: Shamilka, so, you now have, what did you say, 60,000 employees around?
Shamilka: Yeah. It’s about, I think we have about 58,000 right now, plus.
John: 58,000 and how many countries do you covered? Because then, I’m going to ask a question about that.
Shamilka: It’s about 40 plus countries.
John: Okay. So now, you yourself are a fascinating human being. You’re a global citizen. You were born in Sri, Lanka, educated in America, have lived all over, Bangkok and Belarus. Now, in Fiji. So, you’re very comfortable in your own skin, and you’re obviously, you and your partner are global citizens. Talk about the challenges but also the opportunities of bringing a vibrant and relevant ESG program to a company that’s a worldwide company in 40 countries with 60,000 or 58,000 employees, how do you integrate your goals? Because every culture in every country is so different and the people in these countries are also so different. So, how do you get buy-in, and also success as a corporation and as a leader with so many different diverse people, and diverse cultures and countries that you’re working with?
Shamilka: That’s why I said, the pillars are so fundamental.
Shamilka: Because I think for any company, first of all, you have to understand, like, I think identify what your asset base is, because you are in a space that for instance, if you are, like, for us, we identified our asset as our knowledge-base, right? Then also, kind of trying to take that and then use that to impact for good. I think it’s the first step. It is kind of overwhelming when you think of numbers, but I think it’s better not to think of it in that form, or I don’t know.
Shamilka: I would rather just focus on just looking at it in terms of like okay, we have this assets because at the end of the day we have to give back. It’s not just about writing a check.
Shamilka: Stakeholder engagement is absolutely a key for any successful responsibility program. Your employee engagement is one of those stakeholder engagement, that’s the key. So, to get everybody engaged, I think they have to identify with the programs you launch to get their support and buy-in. I’ll just give you a little example, our E-Kids program.
Shamilka: We launched it in 2015 when we joined because we had a very, very established university program that was running at EPAM. It was across 4 countries and we were partnering about 30 universities across the 4 countries. But in each of these universities, we had labs and we were working with more than 50 university students. But this, was started way before I joined, and what was happening was, we were upskilling these young people. We were upskilling the professors in these universities. Then 50% of those people were actually being employed by us. So, it was a very sustainable program. But then the balance 50 also, the rest of the industry could — I mean they joined the program with not having any… like there was nothing saying that they had to join EPAM. But the they joined the program because they wanted to upskill themselves. So, invariably, they got hired. They got jobs, and the balance 50 had access to go to any other industry.
When I joined this, we felt that because we had already this education program going, we didn’t have a kids’ program to complement it. So, that’s where we started. We launched the Children’s Program because we thought, “Okay, coding is becoming very popular, and how many schools and children have these programs?” There were very few schools, so we launched. But what we did was, we got our people to volunteer to teach the children to code. So, we started off with 20 students, 12 volunteers in Belarus Minsk at that time. Today this program, it’s spread to 27 countries. We’ve got thousands of children, and we have so many courses in our learning platform. But I think once people start feeling and we always started it in a country with our own people. Then we extend it to the external community.
So, when people start feeling that they’re sharing something and there’s value and there’s kind of they can see what the impact is, they invariably enjoy being part of it. So, most of our CSR team is volunteer-based across countries. We have thousands of volunteers who come on board to share their knowledge or anything. But I think starting from something that you really resonate with, helps to get the engagement. I mean, and I think invariably now global companies, the cultural stuff, everybody is embracing it. Everybody’s respectful. I mean every day we sit in calls and meetings with the most diverse of groups. I always say, we talk about diversity. I mean, we don’t have to go very far. We are looking at each other and we are diverse enough.
John: Right. Right. Prior to the COVID, did you travel a lot to go meet different groups of people within you own organization? Was travel part of your regular course of business?
Shamilka: Yes, it was, and I would visit the U.S. Visit my partners like Scratch Foundation, UN Global compact.
Shamilka: I would visit the U.S.. I would go to the UK then every year we would have this big software engineering conference, so, I would visit that. We had thousands of engineers and teams coming from all over. So, that’s a chance to meet also clients and partners. Yeah, so we would travel. I mean, I travel.
John: Where are the headquarters for EPAM?
Shamilka: It’s in Newtown, Pennsylvania.
John: Oh, okay. Got it. It’s in Newtown. So, it is a U.S. based company. I got you.
Shamilka: It’s a public company, a US-based public company.
John: Right. Since it’s a public company, does it also fall under your heading since you’re the global head of corporate social responsibility? Do you then have to put together every year a CSR report to be published for both analysts and Wall Street, and your constituents and also for your employees? Is that part of what you do as well?
Shamilka: Well, at the moment, we don’t have an external report. We put everything on our website.
John: Got it.
Shamilka: But we are working on right now, putting together to formalize that, and hopefully have one launch at the end of next year because it is quite a process. It’s like a GRI reporting.
John: Right. Then that would become an annual event for you once you get it going.
Shamilka: So, we are putting that together as well right now.
John: In your 7 years running this, being in this leadership position at EPAM, Shamilka, what have you seen? Do you agree with that the world now is finally more excited about ESG behavior, corporate social responsibility and circular economy than ever before? Is that evolution moving in the right direction from what you see? What’s your thoughts on that?
Shamilka: I think, absolutely. It’s definitely moving in the right direction. I mean, I feel that there’s never been so much more conversation than today in this space. Before, like, you had to be really heard.
Shamilka: The space, I mean it was like projects and feel good projects and all of that. But right now, it’s like becoming more and more part of a company’s DNA.
Shamilka: The value system, the proposition, everything, I think is very much a part of the ecosystem of any company.
John: A lot of other chief sustainability officers or other people that sit in your role of global heads of corporate social responsibility tell me, when I say, “Okay, when are you going to be satisfied?” Everyone always tells me the same answer. I want to hear your answer. They tell me that it’s a journey and that you’re never done. Is that the same way that you feel as well?
Shamilka: Yeah. I think because as I said earlier, the needs are endless. So, sometimes you’re working towards, and even when you look at the environmental journey, I mean, we are looking at 10 years where we may reach something. But then who knows because that’s what we are predicting now. But if the world doesn’t change, those challenges are going to be one greater. So, at the moment we are working towards 1.5, but who knows? I mean, it is quite scary to think, is the 1.5 going to be sufficient in 10, the years that they are saying?
Shamilka: So, yeah, I think, you’ll never feel 100% satisfied, but I think it’s not doom and gloom. You also look at where you have been 7 years ago to where you are today. Then you try and kind of work towards what’s [crosstalk]
John: Right. How much you’ve accomplished? How big is your department now? You were the first employee and you were the first global head of corporate responsibility, social responsibility, and you were creating this from scratch. How many employees do you have underneath you to drive all of this change and to account for all the great work that you’re doing at EPAM?
Shamilka: So, right now I’ve got 7 full-time..
Shamilka: …people. But in every location that I mentioned, I said 27, we have our EPAMers who’ve come forward and said, “I want to live in this country.” So, they work with us. So, that’s why I said what’s the beauty of EPAM is that, people just stepped up and they want to lead it. It’s not like, “Oh, I don’t want to do this.” They just balance it into their daily life…
Shamilka: … and make sure that, that is their commitment. They make sure that they have the buying of their resource managers, they get the support. They add that as part of their scope of work.
John: So, they really want to be an ambassador for you, and they want to be the champion within the company helping you with driving the change in corporate social responsibility.
John: That’s great. What gets you excited? Obviously, you’re working on publishing your first report at the end of next year. From your own, personally to you, what gets you the most excited? What programs are you working on yourself at EPAM that’s the most exciting to you that you’re creating and working on for the next few years ahead?
Shamilka: So, I would say for me, when we started the education programs, it was very much like everybody had to build their own content and teaching content. So, a couple of years ago, we started this where we started building our own content. So, today on our learn platform, we have got about 18 courses in there, and all that, and we’ve translated into different, all the languages that obviously, the different countries that want it. So, for instance, we teach scratch. It’s a coding program for kids. So, we’ve got these beginners, the intermediate course on our learn platform. So, any educator from anywhere in the world can have access to it. We’ve got it translated into different languages like say, in Spanish. We’ve got it in Hungarian, Bulgarian, to just mention a few, but that’s exciting.
Then also, just seen ideas being made into a reality. We’ve just launched a program called Pathway to Tech. It’s for young people between the ages of about 15 to 17. So, it’s a mentor program that we’ve designed for young people who want to pursue their STEM career, but they kind of don’t really know what it entails to work for a company like EPAM. So, we have designed this really very, very fascinating mentor program that lasts for four weeks. Then, we’ll assignment mentors to them. Then that’s pretty much that’s to me the exciting part to see. Now, we’ve just launched it and we are running the pilot within. We’ve got kids on board. We have mentors on board. So, it’s been very exciting.
John: That’s wonderful. At 58,000 employees sounds so big. Now, do most people at the company now know that you exist, know that your department exists, and know that you’re now accounting for environmental, social and governance? Does the company culture now, is it inclusive to make sure they all understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it?
Shamilka: I think, yes. I think I wouldn’t have said that maybe 4 years ago. But I think definitely now, they’re definitely out there. They take great pride in being part of the program. They take great pride in, and I think COVID also definitely, really, short like a lot of how we engage and we supported because our team was very much a part of supporting the frontline health workers across the countries globally. So, we were just out there working with our communities, working with partners, identifying partners. So, there was a lot for every country. We supported. We just really supported the needs of our people and their communities. So, I think through that also, they realized the importance of social responsibility, and also the work we are doing at this point.
John: I got 20 years ago, when I started getting involved with environmental businesses, there was no such thing as a chief sustainability officer, or global head of corporate social responsibility. Is there now a fraternity of leaders like you that get together or share best practices? How does that work? Because now, this is a common title where 15 or 20 years ago, it was an uncommon title. It was an anomaly. How is it now, and how much do you share best practices and best innovations together?
Shamilka: Well, I think there’s definitely a fraternity. I mean, obviously, I talked to our clients or partners. I tend to connect with the person who’s doing my job in that environment. Also, there’s a lot of great courses. I mean, I just did a course with Harvard. It was a sustainable business strategy course for leadership. Yeah, and there I met others who were interested in the same topic. We had our own cohort and it was really great having good discussions. Also, reinforcing my own knowledge of the space, so it was really great. Also yesterday, I went to the Thomson Reuters Sustainability event held in New York. There were many, many people from there as well. From our clients and even competitors, partners who had the representation of sustainability officers there. So, it was nice to exchange ideas, listen to what’s being said, what’s happening, and what the expectations are in the space.
John: Got it. Any last words that you have for – there’s a lot of young people that watch our show all around the world and they see a wonderful woman like you, and they say, “I want to be like her. I want to one day, get educated and go be the head or chief sustainability officer, the global head of corporate social responsibility, and make the world a better and greener and nicer place than I found it.” Any words of wisdom for the next generation of young people that want to now come in and be like you?
Shamilka: Oh, thank you. I think it’s just following your — in anything right? You just follow your passion. You follow your dreams. I think at the end of the day, it’s just not to overthink, but you start small in everything you do, you start small. Then you build on the knowledge, and learning. I mean, I’m still learning. I still take courses. I’m just happy; it excites me. So, I think for any young person, your learning never stops, right? You may think, “This is it, and now, I have to go and do this.” But it’s just how you evolve. You get into the space. I started off, I went to 4 years of college in the US. Then I started; my first job was only $150-200 a month, and my dad was like, “What are you doing?” You know? But sometimes you have to do all that to get to where you are right? So, I think …
John: That’s true. Well, I love what you’re doing, and I’m so glad you’re doing it at EPAM, and making the world a better place. For our listeners that want to find Shamilka or her colleagues, you could go to www.epam, E-P-A-M. Shamilka, I just wish you continued success in your journey. I’m so excited that you came on the show today and shared part of that with our listeners. We are looking to always be re-inspired and continue their journey and sustainability in ESG. Please, always feel free to come back and join us to continue to share your wonderful journey of success at EPAM, in making the world a better place. Thank you for being here today.
Shamilka: Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
John: This episode of the Impact podcast is brought to you by Closed Loop Partners. Closed Loop Partners is a leading circular economy investor in the United States with an extensive network of Fortune 500 corporate investors, family offices, institutional investors, industry experts and impact partners. Closed Loop’s platform spans the arc of capital from venture capital to private equity, bridging gaps, and fostering synergies to scale the circular economy. To find Closed Loop Partners, please go to www.closedlooppartners.com.