A statue of Ruwan Hulugalle’s great-grandfather Sir Charles Henry de Soysa (1836-1890), known as the greatest philanthropist in Sri Lankan history, stands in central Colombo.
Today in Phnom Penh, Sir Charles’ great-grandson Ruwan Hulugalle is an American graduate of Georgetown University who spends his time connecting young Cambodians with American universities.
“Cambodia is a young country and education is the big need of the day here. We are thinking of ways we can enhance the education sector here,” Hulugalle said in an interview last week.
Through his business and legal consulting company in 2012, called Ruwan Hulugalle & Company, which specialises in trade, investment and education, Hulugalle and his team worked to conceptualise, fund and organise the first American Education Fair in the history of Cambodia.
“The event took place at Diamond Island and attracted more than 20 American institutions and thousands of Cambodians. We also had volunteers from Cambodia Children’s Fund and they did a tremendous job and I was so happy to work with them,” he said.
Hulugalle said the US Cambodia Education Fair had been building bridges between American education institutions and Cambodian students and institutions. He said he was looking to do more in the education sector.
“Our hope is that as time goes on, the American institutions will build partnerships with Cambodian institutions and develop capacity with the institutions here,” he said.
“I’m looking at introducing socially valuable new institutions such as the Institute for Social Enterprise,” he said.
An old colleague from when he was studying law at the University of Hawaii’s East-West Center is helping Hulugalle set up the Institute for Social Enterprise in Cambodia.
“We want to train Cambodian entrepreneurs to be socially responsible while they make profit, providing socially useful services for the community,” he said.
Hulugalle’s latest effort is a major study of the private education sector in Cambodia. Earlier this week he received people from the University of Texas who are joining him to work on the study.
“We would like to get an idea of how the private education market is developing in Cambodia and how it relates to the social and economic requirements that exist in Cambodia and develop recommendations on areas may be useful for more international collaboration in the future,” he said.
“At the same time we’re working to introduce new education concepts aimed at the rural poor.”
Born in Huntington, New York, in 1978, Hulugalle, 35, is the middle son of two medical doctors of Sri Lankan origin. He grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada.
His grandfather, HAJ Hulugalle was a renowned journalist, government servant, diplomat, and author. He served as editor of the Ceylon Daily News and as Sri Lanka’s first Ambassador to Italy and Greece. His own father, Dr Chitha Ranjan Hulugalle, spent his formative years growing up in Rome and converted to Catholicism while HAJ Hulugalle served as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Rome and Athens.
The touch of Catholicism shaped Ruwan Hulugalle’s own educational path, including biology studies at Loyola Marymount University on his way to becoming a medical doctor. It was after he transferred to the Jesuit Georgetown University, however, that Hulugalle changed his mind because of Georgetown’s heady atmosphere of internationalism.
He changed his major to government and of his teachers was Paul Begala a top advisor of President Clinton at the time.
“I was lucky to be around incredibly intelligent and directed people. My ultimate ambition was to do good works in the world, and as a medical doctor you do that, but if you want to face problems you’ve got to think bigger and that’s what motivated me to look into government.”
After his graduation from Georgetown in 2000, Hulugalle went to work for the UNDP in Sri Lanka on governance issues.
He returned to the US for a master’s degree in international relations from the University of San Diego, and then went back to Sri Lanka to work in the prime minister’s office on governance issues related to a post-conflict plan of national reconciliation and reintegration. He worked closely with Major General Devinda Kalupahana.
The experience gave Hulugalle a real feeling of the kind of useful work he would find socially valuable and personally fulfilling.
He then went to law school at the University of Hawaii, was a fellow at the East-West Center, served as President of the East-West Center Participant Association, graduated in 2006 and came to Cambodia as a lecturer at Pannasastra University teaching law and governance classes.
He worked at the US Embassy in Phnom Penh for two years on economic and commercial issues, including demining and environmental issues before forming his own company in the private sector.
Hulugalle is also friends with Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, leader of the US Senate. Hulugalle learned a development lesson growing up in Las Vegas which at the time was the fastest-growing city in the United States.
“An interesting lesson that one can learn from looking at the rapid growth of Las Vegas is the importance of managing resources.
“When I was young, we had a pool, gardens, grass and trees, now I don’t recognise it, there is not enough water for people to be able to have lawns.
“Now people decorate with rocks. We used to have a horse and sheep and chickens and now it is in the middle of the city,” he said.