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Make Challenges into Opportunities

Close School student strives to bring innovation and awareness to a Sri Lankan city.

Make Challenges Into Opportunities

April 11, 2017

Civil war. Political corruption. Widespread domestic abuse. These are seldom descriptions of the typical upbringing of an American college student, but for Close School freshman, Birendra Siriwardhana, growing up in Sri Lanka posed many challenges. However, Birendra did not see these as challenges - he saw them as an opportunity to make a difference.

Three decades of civil war plagued Sri Lanka, leaving decimation in its path. These war-torn regions lead to civil unrest, ethnic/gender persecution, and severe socioeconomic problems that quickly spread to other parts of the country. Combined with an economic deficit left behind by the former Sri Lankan president, conditions worsened.

Stories of gender-based discrimination and abuse often travelled to Birendra’s hometown of Colombo. It wasn’t until the age of 15 when Birendra, would come to the horrible realization that these crimes were not just being committed in poor, less affluent areas. Instead, a horrific story of gender-based abuse surfaced among his sister’s 10-year-old peers.

Birendra knew he had to get involved.

Birendra chose to spend his 2-week school mandated work program giving back by building homes for those displaced and disadvantaged from the Eelam Wars. Although his charity brought him to dangerous places like the Mullaitivu District, Birendra did not hesitate. Alternatively, Siriwardhana sought ways to influence society on a greater scale.

With the help of friends and family, Birendra founded the Youth Awareness Program (YAP), who profess that, “facilitating a world where women have the power to make choices most conducive to their mental, physical, and economic well-being is THE step towards a developed and changed society”. Birendra spearheaded four large conferences with activities such as interactive plays, concerts, and seminars to spread the program’s message to thousands.

Fast forward to 2016, Birendra was on a gap-year considering the possibilities of various colleges in the U.S. Still, he is focusing on bringing innovation to Sri Lanka. In his research, he laid out a plan of action for an “Innovation Neighborhood” in Colombo. On Accepted Student Day at Drexel, Birendra caught wind of the Schuylkill Yards Project. This $3.5 billion development project, which focuses on boosting Philadelphia’s economy and entrepreneurial ecosystem, was precisely the vision he had to propel innovative initiatives in his home country. The stars aligning in front of him, he found the project as inspiration for his own brainchild.

“...[Schuylkill Yards is a] new neighborhood based on innovation [with] world-class open space in the tradition of the public square of Philadelphia,” announced President John Fry, at the project’s unveiling in October. The new neighborhood of mixed-use spaces will feature: entrepreneurial spaces, academic facilities and research labs, corporate offices, residential and retail locations, hospitality and cultural venues, and public open spaces.

With Birendra’s newfound inspiration behind the initiatives propelling the Schuylkill Yards Project, he strives to apply this same innovation to Colombo. He aspires to bring awareness to the societal and economic disadvantages the people of Sri Lanka face by boosting his home country’s economy.

Logan Levenson, Communications, Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship