By Theodora Yu The Sacramento Bee
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) This week, The Sacramento Bee sits down with Manushi Weerasinghe, founder of Capital Tuk-Tuk, an eco-friendly tour company that aims to bring the tuk-tuks, a three-wheeled vehicle commonly found in Asia, to Sacramento.
The number of Asian business women is on the rise nationwide.
A report by the Asian Pacific Islander American Chamber of Commerce and Entrepreneurship shows AAPI women-owned business grew by between 76% to 108% in 2017.
As of 2016, about one-quarter of women-owned employer firms were minority-owned, and among them, more than half were Asian-owned, according to a 2018 statement published by the Census Bureau.
This week, we spoke with Manushi Weerasinghe, founder of Capital Tuk-Tuk, an eco-friendly tour company that aims to bring the tuk-tuks, a three-wheeled vehicle commonly found in Asia, to Sacramento. They have heated seats, rain covers and are fully electric. Weerasinghe, 29, shares with The Sacramento Bee how she founded the idea and pushed limits to make it happen.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your background.
A: I was born in Sri Lanka. My father bought a tuk-tuk because we are a family of five and we were using a two-seater motor-cycle to transport, which was totally unsafe but the laws are different out there. So getting that tuk-tuk for us was like buying a luxury car and transformed our lives. We were royalty riding around, saying hi to our neighbors and everyone was excited. I simply remembered that feeling and I never imagined that I (could) capture that moment again. That first experience was very special because of the way it happened – our family was all together.
Quickly after that we got an opportunity to go to the United States. We have a large family in Sri Lanka, but in America we had no support network, no family. My parents – Nihal and Ramani Weerasinghe – spoke English, but I was only 8 and only knew the word "cat." Of all places, we moved into a tiny apartment in the middle of (Los Angeles). We didn't understand the concept of an apartment because everyone has houses back in Sri Lanka. It was a bit of cultural shock, and this was 1998, right after the Internet launched. People didn't know Sri Lanka, and the only way to communicate with family was through phone call.
It felt like I was truly like a separation. To be honest we didn't understand we weren't going back home. Two years in and we were like: so when is it time to go back to Sri Lanka? But we did feel that sense of loss. The people that did embrace us was the Sri Lanka community in L.A. who became our friends whom we consider as our family. It was a group of people we can speak to in our language, in Sinhalese. Some understood our language but couldn't speak it. They gave us advice on schools, financial decisions, advice on relationships, college and applying for financial aid, as I am a first-generation college graduate. I didn't understand the concept of college around age 17. It was a little late. But our community embraces education and our success was their success. They were really like our aunts and uncles. We were supported, so that cultural piece was so ingrained in me.
No matter where I end up in life, Sri Lanka will always be a part of my life. I went to a community college in L.A., and later to UC Davis. As far as cultural shock, that was difficult for me as I always lived with my tight-knitted family. it felt challenging again to navigate an arena or spaces that I didn't know.
Q: How did you come up with your business idea?
A: I explored different career paths after graduation and figured out those weren't for me. I felt lost, not knowing where my life was headed, so I sat down and tried making a list of my goals and plans to figure out what I have to work with and what I wanted to work with.
I knew I wanted to work for myself and start my own business, maybe a cafe. In 2015, I lost a job and was moving from Davis to Sacramento at the same time because I ended up applying to graduate school. I wanted to continue my work in psychology, because mental health is important to me and would let me continue what I started already. And this was what brought me to Sacramento.
Sacramento is what sparked me. There is a heart here, something that I fell in love with and wanted to bring a piece of myself to this city. And I wanted to do it in a way that will connect things that I care about and still honor my roots, my family and my country. I grew up with the people who cared about each other and the community. People were happy. I saw the parallel here: there's a sense of community here and people care about each other. I was really inspired by this town.
Here was my exact spark. There was a moment when I was scrolling Instagram. Someone in L.A. posted a picture of a tuk-tuk. I thought that was brilliant and I started doing research on how to get one here in Sacramento.
I found that the tuk-tuks made in Vietnam and India are illegal in the U.S. That same year that I looked, some people brought the tuk-tuks to the U.S., made it legal and marketable and were selling them out of Denver. So I flew there in 2016. I was barely surviving as a graduate student, but I made it work because it was a priority to me. It needed to become reality. It has to happen. Like divine intervention, I know it is going to work. That shift really changed what decision I made regarding the business.
Q: What are the challenges and opportunities you faced as an entrepreneur?
A: My first challenge was myself. Who am I? Initially I didn't want to share this idea. I was worried it was dumb, and while I have a degree in psychology, I never took a business class or anything that could be related to running a business. I later realized that running a business is people work so the degree actually came in handy. But at the time I felt like an impostor.
I feel like more people like me needs to take up leadership roles to understand other people who look like me. If we allow the stereotypical profile of a leader, usually older white males, to continue to take up leadership roles instead of stepping up ourselves, we will never be represented. If I saw other CEOs, women of color and immigrants, represented, maybe my experience or adjustment period would have been easier. But I spent more time than necessary just to come with the fact that I can do this, just as capable as someone who fits that profile.
The next biggest thing was to speak up, to go to networking events and give myself a voice. In Asian communities you don't see women speaking. It felt like I was going against those images that has been taught to us for so long.
So it was very empowering to me, and I was able to do that precisely because I have many great models that did that. So I am going to emulate them. They have the qualities that I want. It really made the difference because it allowed me to connect and collaborate with other people.
I was suddenly exposed to a lot of immigrant women entrepreneurs who are also glad that I exist. I found this immense support, this equal feedback of everyone feeding off each other on energy and support, in Sacramento.