Fletcher Features

Leading Social Enterprises for the Underserved: Manjula Dissanayake (F12)

Manjula Dissanayake (F12) is an alumnus at The Fletcher School.

In December 2004, a wall of water pushed up by a massive earthquake engulfed the Indian Ocean, killing hundreds of thousands and ravaging coastal areas from Indonesia to India to the east African coast. As for Sri Lanka, the tsunami devastated the island nation, already battered and impoverished by a bitter decades-long civil war. 

At the time, Manjula Dissanayake was thousands of miles away from his home just outside of Sri Lanka’s capital, studying finance in the United States and preparing for a job in investment banking. Like many, though, he was shaken by the destruction and moved to help rebuild the human and physical capital of the struggling country. That inspiration led him to create a social enterprise dedicated to educate the underserved in Sri Lanka. That venture, now called Educate Lanka Foundation, Inc., ultimately became the backbone for his studies at The Fletcher School, where he received his MALD in 2012.

“Growing up (in Sri Lanka), we’ve always known many students who struggle to get the education they deserve because of financial destitution, especially at the high school and college level,” he says. “The idea for Educate Lanka came from realizing the meaningful impact a few dollars can have back in Sri Lanka and that 10 to 25 dollars per month can change a person’s life.”

Diplomatic Courier's Top 99 Under 33 Foreign Policy Leaders BadgeAfter graduating from the University of Maryland in 2005, Dissanayake, who grew up in Kandy, a provincial hill town 70 miles from the capital, began working in the banking and finance sector in Washington, D.C. But in the year following the tsunami, he and his college classmates took inspiration from the power of “crowd-funding” philanthropic initiatives to raise $20,000 from the Sri Lankan diaspora to rebuild houses and schools in the stricken communities across the country.

“With that experience in my mind, a couple of years later this same group of people came together and started (Educate Lanka) as a side project,” he says. “By seeing the impact and success of the model, I got more involved and that’s why I wanted to explore the field of social entrepreneurship and international development, which led me to apply to Fletcher." 

While at the School, Dissanayake used the social venture, which he had incorporated as a 501(c)3 organization in 2009, as the basis for case studies and to create one of his own academic concentrations: innovations in social entrepreneurship. He worked with International Business Lecturer Kim Wilson and Associate Professor of Public Policy John Hammock to write his thesis, which was essentially a business plan: How to replicate Educate Lanka’s model across other countries.

The Educate Lanka model is set up similarly to Kiva’s microloan arrangement. Donors anywhere in the world can fund the education of Sri Lankan students who demonstrate financial need, ambition and potential. The program, which serves both Sinhalese and Tamil youth, has funded 500 students since its founding, including 100 who have completed high school and college, and distributed more than $150,000 in “micro-scholarships.”

The organization’s budget has grown to $150,000 this year, and it recently received a seed grant from the MasterCard Foundation to expand the Educate Lanka model globally. According to Dissanayake, Bangladesh may be the next country for expansion.

In choosing to attend Fletcher, Dissanayake says he was torn between a traditional master in business administration and a degree in international development.

“The sense of the international and multidisciplinary student body was one of the main reasons (to choose Fletcher). Hearing the students’ backgrounds, interests and their unique perspectives was really quite unique,” he says. “It was special to see that I could be part of that community.”

Other attractions Dissanayake lists are the flexibility of the Fletcher curriculum and access to the larger academic community in the Boston area. He knew he would have the opportunity to take courses and enter business plan competitions at places like Harvard and MIT, and tap into the resources of the broader Tufts community, such as the Institute for Global Leadership at which he co-led Empower, the program for social entrepreneurship.

Dissanayake says Fletcher is a great place because of its flexibility—an incoming student can take advantage of that in many ways: 

“Fletcher’s multidisciplinary curriculum exposed me to a unique blend of career opportunities, which led me from a background in finance to founding my own international social enterprise,” he says. “Approach the program with a focus of what you want out of it, but also be flexible and open minded.”

“At Fletcher, the possibilities are endless if you are willing to work hard and explore all the opportunities it has to offer,” he adds. “Just know that the colleagues with whom you will sit next to in classes, exchange ideas and share conversations will be the leaders who will shape our world in the future.” 

--Mike Eckel (F13)