By Zahara Haris
Otara Gunewardene, one of the most successful women entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka, was the invitee at the 61st LBR LBO CEO Forum held at Cinnamon Grand this week. She was interviewed by Standard Chartered Bank Sri Lanka Head of Corporate Affairs Brand and Marketing Sanjeewani Ranasinghe De Silva, who spoke on many interesting events in Otara’s life after Odel, which was the main focus, and the reason to move away from Odel, which surprised many people. According to the moderator, Odel and Otara were never meant to be detached.
The secrets behind her success are something every woman would love to know. Whether Odel a dream came reality was the first question asked. Otara had a simple answer for that as she said she was never interested in fashion though the passion she had for animals was the reason for the start of Odel.
Odel was started 25 years ago - in 1990 - by Otara and its first store was opened in Dickman’s Road and today it has become a lifestyle choice for many people.
According to her, the inspiration to grow Odel was the people who loved buying products from her store and who loved shopping there. “It made me to keep expanding more, keep going and keep offering more,” she said.
But it was also challenging in the beginning as she had no idea about finance and business. She had to learn from the scratch and there were many other challenges she had to face.
But it was never money that drove her as she was only concerned about the number of people coming to her store. “It brought me immense pleasure by exciting people,” she said.
Responding to a question posed by the moderator, Otara said she didn’t imagine of having an “ideal Odel” when she started as she took everything as it came.
What inspired her to make the sub brands such as Backstage and Embark was to keep giving something new to people all the time as people tend to get bored by seeing the same things.
According to Otara, the support she got from her mother was tremendous. She also reminded about her brother from whom she borrowed US $ 50 for the business initially.
Selling Odel for Rs.2.7 billion to Softlogic last year after doing a fantastic job for 25 years shocked many customers and she was asked why she had to make such a decision. Otara believes, “It was the right” time for her as she wanted a change after working for so long.
At present she is involved in Embark’s campaign dedicated to improving the wellbeing of stray dogs whilst preventing rabies in Sri Lanka.
“I dream of a world where it is not about us or the animals but about us and the animals.”
To date they have rescued and facilitated medical care for over 8000 dogs with different needs, vaccinated over 23,000, sterilized 9,200 and re-homed over 1500 street pooches with loving families.
Also they are involved in a few wildlife conservation projects, which revolve around protecting a number of endangered species endemic to Sri Lanka, such as the Sri Lankan elephant, leopard, crocodiles, etc.
Otara also said she would love to help the cats, responding to a question raised by the audience as the audience too got a chance to interact with her.
She was asked why Embark reaches only the English-speaking community in Colombo as there isn’t much communication about Embark in Sinhala. Otara said though it is not much visible, they do have all the materials in all three languages and they do a lot of work outside Colombo, such as places like Jaffna and Sigiriya.
E Futures and AIA were the Gold sponsors of the event while Silver sponsors were Entution and CocaCola.