Columnists,Lorraine Cattell,Main Slider,Top Story l by Lorraine Cattell l 22 Nov 2019     - 549

Interview with Otara Gunewardene!


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.

Otara, it's difficult to know where to start with such a high-achieving successful career woman, but I guess, my first question has to be - Looking back, are there any indications from your childhood that foreshadowed your becoming an entrepreneur?

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.

Going back to your adolescence. You were very much an animal person and loved nature. Do you think that this had an impact on what you wanted to do and make happen in later life?

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.

I know that 'ODEL' (https://odel.lk/home) came about through your selling of clothing from the boot of your car and today it's the most successful fashion retail brand in the country. I've even heard that your huge flagship department store has been called the Harrods and Harvey Nicholls of Sri Lanka. So, what were the most difficult challenges you faced building a business from scratch?

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.

Do you follow a certain morning routine or daily schedule to maximise your productivity and well-being?

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.

After being in Sri Lanka for two months earlier this year and observing the number of stray dogs myself, I'd love to hear all about 'EMBARK', (https://embarkpassion.com/) your fashion brand that supports the care of homeless dogs and puppies, plus their vaccinations, sterilisations, adoptions and even the eradication of rabies when necessary.

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!

Are there animal organisations and charities in Sri Lanka that support you in your work? More importantly, to what extent are people educated about the plight of animals and willing to do something about it?

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.

You're also the founder/CEO of the 'Otara Foundation' which combats climate change and extinction of animal and plant species through conservation awareness, good governance and policy change. What has been the Foundation’s greatest achievement to date?

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.

As I work in fashion, and so little is known about your early modelling days, I’d love to hear how you became a model and what made you give it up?

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.

On a more personal note Otara, after having lived and travelled around the world, what do you love most about Sri Lanka?

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.

I’m sure our readers would like to know more about Otara, the woman. For example: what are your favourite pastimes outside of work, and what do you most like to eat?

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.

Do you have any personal recommendations for my next visit to Sri Lanka?

I suggest that you visit the Dambana Veddah indigenous community in Mahiyanganaya because there are many things to see and learn there.

What's the one piece of advice you find yourself repeating over and over again to fellow entrepreneurs?

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.

And finally, a common misconception about you?

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!!

https://www.facebook.com/EmbarkLK/

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lorraine Cattell

Lorraine Cattell (Eyre) is a renowned international British Fashion Journalist. Her articles & interviews appear regularly in magazines & online across the globe.

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