She is the Founder of Odel PLC; Sri Lanka’s most stylish Department Store, and the first fashion-retail business in the island to be listed on the Colombo Stock Exchange. She is the Founder and Managing Director of Embark, Who We Are and the Otara Foundation. A former Non-Executive Director of Singer Sri Lanka PLC, Founder of LUV SL, Backstage, Tara, B-Iconic and The Sari Bar; she is undoubtedly one of Sri Lanka's most recognized entrepreneurs, who has also been honoured as one of the most ‘Prominent Women in the Country’ by the Women’s Parliamentarians’ Caucus, for her achievements in business and for her service to the country. She is the Honorary Consul-General of Sweden in Sri Lanka, an animal welfare advocate, conservationist and philanthropist, and is also Sri Lanka’s Goodwill Ambassador for Habitat for Humanity, Ambassador for World Animal Day (Sri Lanka) and an Ambassador for Earth Hour Sri Lanka. She has an orchid named after her by the Horticultural and Flora Conservation Society of Sri Lanka, and was invited as an Honorary Guest by the Rwandan Government in 2018, to name a baby Mountain Gorilla at the annual Kwita Izina naming ceremony, alongside supermodel Naomi Campbell and Grammy Award-Winning artist Ne-Yo. Her campaign launched in 2015, requesting the Government of Sri Lanka to enact a proposed Animal Welfare Bill gained over 100,000 signatures and it led to the Cabinet Approval of the said bill at the time, and to date she continues to advocate for the Animal Welfare Bill in Sri Lanka. The Brigette Bardot Foundation, a French foundation dedicated to animal protection, created by French actress Brigitte Bardot, has supported her work. Winner of the 'Best Female Entrepreneur' award at the seventh US Stevie Awards for Women in Business and the 2018 ‘Woman of the Year Award’ by Women in Management (WIM), Sri Lanka; she is the most awarded female entrepreneur in the country. She is a global icon who continues to be a trailblazer reaffirming the fact that - She Can, Women Can and Sri Lanka Can.
Benevolent, empathetic, generous, spiritual, with an aura of positive energy, my guest for this week is Sri Lanka’s most fashionable entrepreneur; Otara Del Gunewardene.
1.What are the most important attributes of successful entrepreneurs today? To me the most important attribute is foresight and having the ability to see what others are not able see in the field you want to excel in. There is also passion, and intuition, that plays an important role, along with dedication, drive and determination. I call it the three D’s! Most of all though, it should be about changing people’s lives for the better. When you can bring joy and happiness in to the lives of many, is when you have a winning formula for your business.
2.Where do you see the company, Who We Are, in the next five years? It’s still early days with “ Who We Are” but I am very happy with the response so far. All I want to do is to create a retail platform (www.whoweare.lk) where people can make conscious shopping choices which benefits and promotes the small businesses of Sri Lanka. A conscious lifestyle the Sri Lankan way. I believe there is greater opportunity for our products to be stronger both in Sri Lanka and internationally. Let’s see how it unfolds in the years ahead.
3.How did you move forward when everyone kept telling you that your suggestions or ideas won't work? It is not other people that know what is right for you to do, hence it’s important to have the strength and to believe in your own idea and in yourself. If everyone who wanted to start something was told what to do and not do, and if they didn’t listen to themselves, there won’t be a lot of new things happening. However, it’s always good to get advice and listen to different opinions, and then make your decisions based on what you think is your magic formula.
4.Even though working in animal rights can be depressing and infuriating, are you noticing any victories along the way, especially in Sri Lanka? Yes, on many days it is a tiring and desperate journey but I must say great change has been happening in the last four to five years, and it is so rewarding to see. What happens around us is a result of our collective consciousness. Hence, as the awakening continues to grow, greater change will happen. Many more people are helping out, speaking out and standing up for change. Sadly, that is not visible in the leadership over the years as yet. Social media has helped a lot for people to see the reality of animal abuse in Sri Lanka. It is also easy to see what’s happening globally, both positive and negative. This is a great education and a platform for greater change to happen.
5.Do you ever think – “Am I crazy?" Crazy enough to know that you can do anything you want in life!
6.How do you differentiate yourself? By being my authentic self. There were many people who wanted to go around being kind to street dogs but they were scared to show it. I have no problem openly showing my love for them and for all animals. At the beginning I was called all sorts of names, but you can’t go around in this world trying to conform to how other people think you should act and live. There is far too much happening already in this system, which gets you to conform to a way of life that is not always good for us or for the animals and the planet.
7.Who do you look up to for inspiration or mentorship? Inspiration comes in many ways from places you visit, things you read, people you meet and of course the bigger achievers who are well-known globally. My parents were always inspirational to me; my father, Norman, started off as a junior at Aitken Spence PLC and went on to become Chairman. My mother, Delysia, started a school for special needs children and has helped thousands of them live a better life through her school, which she runs as a Non-Profit organization. Both my two older brothers, Ruchi and Ajit, have done so much in Sri Lanka, which has been an inspiration and support to me. Others who have inspired me over the years are Oprah Winfrey, Late Princess Diana, Warren Buffet, Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, Mother Theresa and every single person I meet in Sri Lanka who has started a small business and has been dedicated to growing it. During my career with Odel, I saw many of them change their lives by supporting the supply chain of my company. They worked so hard to contribute efficiently, which in turn helped their families and businesses grow.
8.One mistake you have made in life? Mistakes are a regular thing in day-to-day life, with words you may suddenly say one day, or a decision that you may make, but there is no path of perfection in life. Hence, I am not even sure if they are really mistakes. However, they can help you grow stronger as long as you learn from them. One of mine was opening Backstage in Singapore, but after that ended I changed my direction and grew the company in a different way to make it a lot bigger and better than ever before.
9.What has been the highlight of your career so far? I really have been blessed to have so many. Starting Odel, taking the company public and being the first female to do so, launching Embark, having a beautiful family, and all the amazing people in my life. I have also been able to start Who We Are! amidst a global pandemic. I am so grateful for it all.
10.If you could go back and tell yourself one thing before beginning your career what would it be? Learn Finance and basic Accounting. It took me awhile to get on board in that area!
11.What was the biggest rookie mistake you made when just starting out? There are no mistakes when you’re starting out with Rs 25,000 in your account, and just building things as you go. When you have no prior education of how a business should be, you build it your way and just adjust as you go along.
12.Where do you see yourself ten years from now? I have some things I would like to achieve but I go with the flow! One thing I do know is that I want to contribute more each day to help improve the lives of people, to protect animals and the environment in Sri Lanka.
13.Share with us a secret no-one else knows. I used to sleep with about fifty (aanimal) soft toys in my bed as a child, and each one had a special place next to me. I used to dream of helping hundreds of them when I grew up!
14.How did you balance being a mother and professional? What have you sacrificed (both personally and professionally) at each stage of your career? It really is a balancing act and it helps immensely when you have parents who are so supportive, and who your children love to spend time with. I can always say I could not spend as much time as I would have liked to with my children, or that I could have done more to grow the business if not for my family, but everything turned out perfectly. I have two beautiful boys who I adore and who love me. I did unfortunately have to sacrifice some time with my friends and had limited social engagements due to the time needed to raise my boys and grow the business.
15.What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you? To be their authentic selves. Social media, whilst it does a lot of good, also makes many follow what others are doing without a lot of thought. It is important to be unique and stand out with your own thoughts and make your authentic voice heard. I also believe it is important to stand for something that brings positive change and something that is bigger than you. I believe women can and will impact the future world positively in a big way. The protectors and warriors of mother earth; if not it is the damage done to mother earth that will impact women the most in the years ahead.
16.How do you want to be remembered one day? As someone who brought love and happiness in to our country and the world.