When a man like Ken Selvaraja reaches his senior years, it seems natural to look back at his life; reflection reveals that the story of the founder of Mission’s Lanka Jewels has always been intertwined with gemstones.
As a child growing up outside Colombo, Sri Lanka, he remembers searching the riverbanks for coloured pebbles that might turn out to be sapphires, rubies, garnets or zircons. Decades after Sri Lanka gained its independence from the British Empire, ‘Ceylon’ sapphires are still revered for their bright blue colour, so different from the indigo depths of their Australian or Thai cousins.
Selvaraja remembers the wisdom of his father, who made sure early on that his children learned openness toward the perspectives of others, and the generosity of his mother.
“When I was growing up, my mother always put a little extra rice in the pot, and one day I asked her why. She said to me, ‘there might be a hungry man who comes off the street. We give them some food so you are never short of giving.’ You give and it will all come back to you,” he explains. “If it doesn’t, then nature takes its course and that’s okay, too. You have to cultivate that generosity of being.”
At first, Selvaraja’s natural and nurtured compassion led him to medical school in England. After the untimely passing of his father – and a drastic shift in family finances – he shifted gears. He met his wife Sandra in nursing school and the two eventually took the opportunity to emigrate to Canada.
Selvaraja began working as a psychiatric nurse at Riverview Hospital, but gemstones remained his passion. Selvaraja took courses through the Gemological Institute of America, as well as learning design and goldsmithing. His hobby making pieces for friends flourished, enough so that he opened up a shop. His decision to make the shop his full-time job came right as he learned he was going to be a father.
Even now, the struggle to get a bank loan remains vivid. He had no business plan, and only a little bit of equity in a small home in Mission to draw upon. Forty years later, he is full of stories of how his business success has allowed him to give back repeatedly to his community.
“My business was not just about looking after my family, I have my wonderful staff members, many of whom have been with me for years – they put up with me!” he says with a laugh. “I support the hospice, Canuck Place, Mission (Community) Foundation, the rotary club, the hospital, I have initiated a program called Ageless Community Entrepreneurs…”
In the more than 20 years that she has known him, current Mission Mayor Pam Alexis says she can’t ever recall Selvaraja saying no to a fundraising effort. In the early days, an auction or silent raffle donation might have been a small silver item worth $50; now it could easily be an $8,000 pendant.
“I don’t know how yo say yes to everybody – he’s remarkable,” she says. “He’s a visionary who has never lost sight of wanting more for Mission – he has more ideas about where we can go and the things we can do than anyone in this community.”
She points to Mission’s Stone Soup initiative, which aims not only to provide a hot meal for those in need, but also to build a bridge for them to remain connected with the larger community. It got off the ground in part because of strong backing from Selvaraja.
“Ken is a ‘hub’ person – whenever he’s donating these pieces, he’s also creating opportunities to have conversations and learn about the world,” says Paul Horn, Stone Soup leader. “He turns the ‘semi-precious’ into the precious – he does amazing things with stones that others see as being of lesser value. That is metaphorically a perfect fit for what he’s done for our little town.”
Horn says Selvaraja has been able to weather tough times – recessions, layoffs affecting Mission, a devastating break-in – because of the strength of his relationships. Every person going into the shop will get the same exact level of personalized service, whether it’s worth $50 or $50,000 – because Selvaraja and his staff genuinely want to engage with the customer and make sure the purchase is perfect. Horn laughs that he didn’t even have to choose the engagement ring he gave his wife; Selvaraja just gave it to Horn and said ‘this one.’
The current Lanka Jewels location is the biggest and best yet, created specifically to make the browsing experience incredibly comfortable. The pieces are designed to showcase the gemstones in unique, yet timeless settings.
Despite the business success, Selvaraja says it is the individual memories of the past four decades that he holds most dear, like flawless diamonds on a string.
There’s the woman who came in trying to sell jewellery for $500, so that she could set up a basement hairdressing business after having been fired from her job. Selvaraja told her to keep the jewellery, gave her $1,000, and said if she wasn’t able to pay it back it was fine. The woman came back years later and returned every cent.
There was the young man who drove from Burnaby to Mission to pick up an engagement ring, because his grandmother said only Lanka Jewels would do. There are the young people he’s mentored, the theatre production he sponsored, and the backpacks of food going home with school children to ride out the weekend, thanks to donated auction prizes.
Selvaraja’s plan in two or three years is to give over the day-to-day running of the business to his two grown children, but he has no intention of slowing down on his various community-building efforts for Mission.
“I look back at what my father taught me and my mother putting extra rice in the pot – the kindness and the forward thinking, that’s what I remember,” he says. “You help because you can, and I still can.”
This story was created by Content Works, Postmedia’s commercial content division, on behalf of Lanka Jewels.