Saman Dias, Sri Lankan American and serial entrepreneur

Eve Mitchell, in Contra Costa Times, 10 Sept 2011

As is true for many technology-trained immigrants who come to theUnited States, opportunity beckoned for Saman Dias. She arrived in the Bay Area in 1984 when she was 24 to start a training program for a software program under development.She learned the project was in danger of running out of funding after she had arrived. Dias took matters into her own hands, drawing on her experience four years ago in her native Sri Lanka of teaching children and adults how to use computers.”I ended up making cold calls and getting training and consulting opportunities and contracts through other training companies,” she said. “I had to be proactive and not just wait and expect somebody to save us.”

Not waiting around for something to happen has never been her style. Over the years, she has founded three companies in the Bay Area and was instrumental in getting two others off the ground. Her latest venture is SKD LaunchPad, a recruiting firm she founded that specializes in finding employees for venture capital-funded startups. “You can have the greatest idea but if you don’t have the right team to implement the idea no one wants to give you the money,” Dias said.

“She’s an extremely dynamic and powerful woman leader. She has a lot of charisma,” said Farhana Huq, president and founder of Oakland-based C.E.O. Women, which provides entrepreneurship and communications training to low-income immigrant women.

Dias through a mutual acquaintance and has turned to her for advice for her website, a one-stop place for finding on-site local classes.

“She’s extremely patient and very knowledgeable with business in general,” said Chang, 39, ofSan Francisco. “She really understands how to steer me in the right direction without really pushing hard.”

Dias, 50, lives in San Ramon with Lee Chamberlain, her longtime companion who is a retired Drug Enforcement Administration officer. In addition to taking on challenges in her professional life, she doesn’t hesitate to take them on in her personal life. She overcame a fear of the water by learning how to paddle board while vacationing inMauiafter being challenged to do so by Chamberlain.

“I have struggled to learn how to swim for the longest time, even though I come from an island nation,” she said. “Today, I am swimming and enjoy paddle boarding.”

Another goal is to learn how to ride a motorcycle. The couple recently rode back fromSan Diegoup Highway 1 on their three-wheeled Can-Am motorcycle. Chamberlain drove the motorcycle, but Dias is determined to learn to ride the bike on her own.

Dias credits much of her ambition to being raised by a military officer father who encouraged her and her two younger sisters to be self-sufficient and independent while they were growing up in a village outside ofColombo, the capital ofSri Lanka. Her mother was a teacher who provided the balance needed to temper her independent streak and taught her cooking, sewing and other domestic skills.

“If something were to happen to (my father), life would be different for us, so he gave us a tremendous amount of freedom and almost raised us like boys,” Dias said. “One of his sayings, which I think about even today, is that ‘Failures are the pillars of success.’ ”

She remembers coming home after getting beaten up by some neighborhood kids. “I would come home crying and Dad would say, ‘Don’t come home crying. Next time you just hit them back.’ And they stopped hitting me. That was my first exposure to standing up,” she said.

She played with her male cousins who lived nearby, riding around on mopeds and learning to drive a car when she was 14. Being in the Girl Scouts was also a big influence in her life because independence, teamwork and perseverance were among the values that were stressed.

After earning a degree in computer science from theUniversityofColombo, Dias was recruited to work for Bartleet Electronics, a distributor of Radio Shack computers inSri Lanka. That’s when the teaching melded with the tech side.

“I realized I had a very natural knack for teaching. I found myself constantly learning all the software applications,” she said. She taught computer skills to her co-workers and buyers of Radio Shack computers. Dias also set up a for-profit weekend school when she was 20 in a rented space inColomboto teach children and adults how to use computers. To get the word out, she rode around on the back of her father’s moped and placed fliers on walls and utility poles.

Her boss was impressed and dispatched Dias and three other co-workers to the Bay Area in 1984 to work on the startup project to develop software for Radio Shack computers. “We changed direction to use my expertise to build a training company and got out of the software development venture,” she said.

The computer training company Dias cofounded became known as The Training Alternative. It was acquired byHealdCollege in 1993. Her next venture was to start AIM Computer Training, which grew into a multimillion-dollar company that provided computer training to Fortune 1000 companies and government agencies.

“I had the experience, the contacts and the connections,” said Dias on what prompted her to start AIM. Originally serving the Bay Area, the company expanded into a global organization. The company was acquired in 2004 by a couple ofSilicon Valleyinvestors for an undisclosed price.

Dias became involved with two real estate startups before launching SKD LaunchPad. She sees her career arc as one that evolved over the years, going from setting up a computer training company, to building new companies, to helping other companies grow. “I found this niche. I have a passion for entrepreneurship,” she said.

Contact Eve Mitchell at 925-952-2690.


Dec 2009 to present: Founder and managing partner, SKD LaunchPad, a talent acquisition and recruiting firm.
Jan 2008-Dec 2009: Senior vice president, SmartZip, a website spun off from NorthPoint Real Estate Investment Services. SmartZip supplies investment ratings for residential properties.
March 2006-Dec 2007: Executive vice president, NorthPoint Real Estate Investment Services.
Nov 1994-Nov 2005: Founder, president and CEO, AIM Computer Training.
Jan 1986-Oct 1992: Co-founder, director of curriculum and instruction, The Training Alternative.
Advisor to Astia, a nonprofit formerly known as the Women’s Technology Cluster.
Quote: “You look and say, ‘Hey. Maybe there are other ways to do this. Instead of seeing walls you see a window

Leave a comment

Filed under life stories, sri lankan society, unusual people, world events & processes

Leave a Reply