Silicon Island

Friday, November 26, 2010
By Suki

Many ideas are born to die quiet deaths. And then, there are some, that slowly gather steam and “every day, in every way, get better and better.”

The idea for Refresh Colombo was born after attending a TEDx event in Miami earlier this year. Alex de Carvalho, the founder of Refresh Miami, gave an inspiring speech about his dream of turning Miami into the next Silicon Valley. My husband and I, frequent attendees of local meetups and Refresh events, began to dream about doing the same thing… except thousands of miles away.

What if, Sri Lanka could be seen not just as a cheap destination for outsourcing but a place where the idea for the next great  app could be born? And what if this change wasn’t spearheaded by the government or private enterprise or even a foreign aid agency? What if it was completely driven by the people themselves?

On Samir’s next trip to Colombo, in June of this year, with the help of his team and some amazing volunteers, the first Refresh Colombo meetup was held at the local chamber of commerce. Attended by a mixed group, the event exceeded our expectations.

Today Refresh Colombo is a fast-growing, locally-driven movement and has succeeded in bringing together respected speakers to share their expertise and experiences – something we were told just could NOT happen in Sri Lanka. Even the national newspapers are beginning to take notice.

Of course, as a young group the team has been faced with some minor challenges:

  1. Sponsorship - Hosting an event costs money (venue / refreshments) and so far we’ve been able to dig into our pockets and corral local friends and family to help out with costs. For the meetups to be sustainable though, alternative sources of sponsorship will be necessary. The challenge will also then be to continue to keep it non-partisan and non-political.
  2. Diversity of Topics - as the only meet up of it’s kind, the topics are varied and go from open source software to entrepreneurship. It is possible that we may lose some folks this way but at least at the beginning this is something that the audience doesn’t seem to mind. As the group grows, I suspect splinter groups will form that are more focused on specific areas like social media, mobile development, etc.
  3. Diversity of Speakers – As a woman, I’m keen to see a woman present at a meet up. We’ve had no one step up yet. I really hope I don’t have to be the first.
  4. Time Management – Sri Lankans (and other island nations) are notorious for having a blurred sense of time. This can often mean that events start late and not all speakers get a turn. A more “American” way of keeping to time is going to be necessary.
  5. Sharing - the local team has had requests to live stream the talks and share slides, all of which they are working towards.
  6. Equipment – Projectors, web cams, are not easy to rent and are rather expensive to buy in Sri Lanka compared to the US. We’re trying to see if we can send some stuff from over here in time for the next meet up.
  7. Language – Almost all the talks up to this point have been in English, which seems to be okay considering the topics are all tech-related. However, we are conscious that this may alienate a vast majority of the population who may want to attend. Hosting some talks in the local language or providing translated notes of the talks in both Sinhala and Tamil will hopefully help address this.

These are small challenges compared to the ones Sri Lanka has faced over the past few decades and I like to think that they are easily surmountable.

In the mean time it is inspiring to see what is possible. Next up, Barcamp Colombo.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does” – Margaret Meade

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