Otara Gunewardene needs no introduction – Sri Lanka's renowned retail entrepreneur, philanthropist and former model is globally recognised as an innovative figure in the world of animal welfare, environmental and wildlife conservation. Otara is the founder of 'ODEL', a chain of department stores throughout the country; Luv SL, a concept tourist shop; and 'EMBARK', an organisation dedicated to improving the well-being of street dogs. She is simply an amazing woman!
Hi!! catches up with Otara to learn more about her career paths and her life in general.
Well, my father was in business with Aitken Spence and my mother started a school for children with special needs, initially with just 2 students. I watched both enterprises grow over the years. However, my greatest love was always nature, especially animals, which remains the same today. I was only interested in doing things related to improving animal welfare, conservation and environmental protection which is why I have a degree in biology.
Life often takes a different path for various reasons. Mine took a journey in an unexpected direction into fashion, retail and business. I always tried to create awareness and support things related to the environment, and animals throughout my 25 years at Odel. I think it was inevitable that I would make changes to spend more time doing what has been my greatest passion, helping the people and animals of Sri Lanka to have a better life, and to protect our environment.
The biggest challenge was building a business without any knowledge of fashion, business, marketing, finance and all other related areas. I had to learn everything along the way, from understanding a simple balance sheet to fabric compositions. I love learning new things, so this I actually enjoyed. It was also challenging to build a business during the height of the war and with many restrictions of high taxes, changing regulations and a team who needed to be trained in retail and fashion as people with skills in that area were not available at that time.
I usually wake up being grateful for the different things in my life. I do a bit of yoga and meditation before having breakfast and then I head out to the office. Workouts are usually in the evening.
I started Embark 12 years ago to help improve the lives of the street dogs of Sri Lanka. Usually, for every cause I want to support, I start a brand so that the cost of the work can be sustained by the business. When I left Odel, I had to restructure the brand and start anew. Today, it is still quite small and unfortunately, it doesn’t cover the entire cost of the rescue and sterilisation work as yet. Let's see how things progress in the future!
The Brigitte Bardot Foundation has supported some of the sterilisation programmes in the past but not in recent years. The individual donors are very few unfortunately and I wish there were more. We get so many dogs that need our help but sadly, there is a limit to what we can do due to the high monthly expense of the hospital treatments. Some dogs require a lot of physiotherapy and treatment to recover and spend months at the hospital. We also have over 30 paralyzed dogs that need special care each day.
The biggest element of the foundation’s work is advocacy which involves creating awareness and helping people understand animal cruelty, and things that need to change in our country for improved animal welfare, environmental protection and conservation. Two of the largest campaigns we ran were to attempt to shut down the Dehiwala (Colombo) zoo as it was in such a run-down condition, and the other was to pass the animal welfare bill. Even though the bill was approved, sadly it has not yet gone to parliament to be passed. Having said that, certain areas of the zoo did improve but it is still not the life most of the animals there deserve to have. The foundation also funds other organisations with conservation projects, tree planting etc. You can have a look at the work on www.otarafoundation.com.
I started modelling when I was 18 and it started when Nayantara asked me to model for one of her fashion shows. After that, I took part in many fashion events and appeared in magazines and TV commercials. It was one of the most enjoyable periods of my life. However, after my business started to grow, I had to do less modelling and then eventually I gave it up totally to focus on the company. Of course, the world of modelling and fashion continued with Odel.
I love a lot of things about Sri Lanka but what I love the most is our incredible natural heritage, biodiversity and wildlife. We are all blessed to live in a country like this but we all need to do more to help protect it for future generations.
Well, I love working out, doing yoga and meditation, which helps me achieve a more positive look on life. I eat vegetarian and vegan food, and I like travelling to different places in Sri Lanka.
I suggest that you visit the Dambana Veddah indigenous community in Mahiyanganaya because there are many things to see and learn there.
Start small. There is a lot to learn along the way and starting small helps you to adjust your business while building it and perfecting it to what you want it to be.
I am sure there are many but I'm still evolving as that's what we all do in our lifetime here on earth.
Thank you for chatting with Hi!!