It began in 1989 at age 24, when professional model Otara Gunewardene purchased a small surplus stock of export apparel to distribute for sale in Colombo. Without commercial space to work with, Otara sold the stock from the boot of her station wagon, grateful to the friends that were her first clients.
Otara borrowed $50 each from her mother and brother to start the Odel brand – a name her father derived from the first letter of her first name and her middle name Del (a lasting tribute by Norman to his wife and daughter). She leased a small space (300sq.ft) on Dickman’s Road and learned every aspect of retail management – finding herself with a natural affinity for trending fashion, stylised arrangements, and visual merchandising. She had to learn quickly the aspects of retail finance and resource management, all the while also stacking shelves and operating a cash till. Just over 5 years later, Odel had expanded to 9 stores within Colombo’s shopping malls and tourist dwellings, establishing itself as the leading home of retail fashion in Sri Lanka. As the Odel brand rose in stature, Otara secured a stunning colonial mansion encompassing over 10,000sq feet – soon to be the flagship store known as Odel Unlimited (1995), the first fashion and lifestyle department store in Sri Lanka. Customers now had a one stop shop for fashion, beauty, art, craft, design and true customer service and value. The introduction of a safe play centre for children for example soon became a trend in large scale retail. With Otara’s distinct sense of style and meticulous attention to detail, Odel provided a multi-sensory shopping destination experience in Sri Lanka, expanding by the year 2000 to over 45,000 square feet. Showcasing both international and local retail brands, the now famous Odel t-shirts and branded pret-a-porter complemented Sri Lanka’s booming apparel industry whilst Odel led the Colombo retail fashion industry.
From the very beginning, Otara’s primary purpose in business was to better the lives of animals through her work. The initial and now famous line of animal t-shirts at Odel contributed to conservation, as Odel’s CSR arm heavily invested in the protection of wildlife areas and environment. Billboard signage explaining the need for caution in national parks and high-speed areas still carry the Odel moniker, long after the exit of its founder. In 2007, inspired by the puppy Niko she had adopted and unable to ignore the calling to be of service to the voiceless 4-legged friends of urban society, Otara founded Embark – soon to become the strategic rehabilitation arm of Odel’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).
In 2010, Odel and its founder made history in Sri Lanka once again. Odel’s Initial Public Offering on the Colombo Stock Exchange was oversubscribed a record-setting 63.8 times within its first 24 hours of trading. Not only was Odel the first national retailer to go public, Otara became the first female entrepreneur to take a company public in Sri Lanka. In acknowledgement, she was globally recognised that year as Best Female Entrepreneur at the US Stevie Awards for Women in Business. With strategic divestments necessary for large scale continued growth of the now-giant Odel brand, Otara signed on Malaysian retail heavyweight Parkson Retail Asia Ltd as a business partner, divesting 41.82% stake in Odel for Rs.1.5 Billion (US$20 million at the time).
In 2014 at the peak of Odel’s success, Otara decided to divest her entire stake in the company. The sale of the Odel corporate giant now valued at Rs.5 Billion, took the business community by surprise and sent shockwaves through her peers as Otara announced her new focus to be the development of her passion project Embark, under the umbrella of the charitable trust: Otara Foundation.
Founder, Proprietor and proud Executive Director of Embark, Otara has thrown all her might, voice and countless resources toward the needs of street dogs in Sri Lanka. Knowing all too well how rewarding the work could be, Otara grew to understand the countless and continued problems facing stray dogs– from neglect to cruelty, skin diseases to hit-and-runs, over breeding, poor population control, disease and despair. Through it all, thousands of rescue stories and a nation that rose to support the cause carry Embark with all the passion of its founder, and more.
By introducing Embark on the runway at Colombo Fashion Week, Otara effectively re-branded the entire perception and identity of Colombo’s street dogs – making them desirable companions available for adoption to safe homes – monitored with aftercare and never abandoned again. Through sterilisations, vaccinations, and rescues, often courtesy of general public tip-offs, Embark’s operations are now island-wide, providing far more substance than its ultra-cute public brand can speak of.
Day to day management of Embark remains an integral part of Otara’s work life. For every dog that is saved, is another that needs help and Otara remains uncompromising in her commitment to the cause. Embark remains the Passion and pilot project of the Otara Foundation.
Incorporated via Trust to create an umbrella organisation through which Otara Gunewardene could channel strategic philanthropic endeavours, the Otara Foundation has a vision that contributes to the upliftment and responsible development of Sri Lanka.
With three primary objectives – Education, Environment & Enterprise, the organisation has a multi-pronged approach to utilising these operational guidelines. Seeking to be a calm voice of reason in an often-unbalanced leadership landscape, the Otara Foundation shies away from politics and focuses instead on positive change.
Otara Gunewardene is Chairperson of the Otara Foundation and dedicates 100% of her work towards the furtherance of its proactive, compassionate agenda for Sri Lanka.