‘A former model’, ‘she once worked as a gas-station attendant’, ‘she started by selling clothes from her station-wagon, and went on to start Odel, Sri Lanka’s first departmental store’ read the various press releases and articles I skim through to prepare for my interview with Otara Gunewardene. I also learn that Odel has 19 stores across Sri Lanka, most of which are situated in enviable pin codes. I visit a few stores in Colombo, and make my way from floor to floor to find everything from top designer and high-street labels for men, women and children to funky jewellery, branded cosmetics, confectionaries, books and more. Armed with this information, I naturally paint Gunewardene as a bit of a diva. And I now expect to meet a boisterous, out-spoken woman, but am pleasantly surprised by the reticent mannerisms of this demure beauty. “I couldn’t have predicted this,” says Gunewardene humbly on the phenomenal Odel empire. “After all, I pretty much stumbled into it.”
Otara Gunewardene has set her sights on India and hopes to set shop here soon
Gunewardene holds a degree in biology from The State University of Bowling Green Ohio, USA. “I love animals and nature. And I’ve always wanted to protect them. That’s why I enrolled for a degree in marine biology,” she says. But her fear of deep-sea diving made it impossible to pursue this field of study. “So I simply shifted over to biology,” she adds. Today she may not fall back on her formal studies, but the years spent away from home have prepared her for life. “I learnt to take care of myself. I held many jobs as a student, including a gas station attendant. Most of all, I learnt that even when your plans don’t work out exactly as you want them to, don’t give up, and you will find success and happiness,” she says with confidence.
After obtaining her degree, Gunewardene returned to Sri Lanka to look for a job. “Immediately I started getting modelling offers,” she says, which is not hard to believe when you sit across this tall, svelte charmer. For a few years, she dabbled with the glamour world, walked the ramp for some well-known fashion brands and starred in several advertising campaigns. “But then, my dad got me thinking. He made me realise that modelling couldn’t last forever,” she explains. Still undecided on what she wanted to do next, her father, Norman Gunewardene, registered a firm under the name of Odel. “It’s a combination of my first and middle name,” says Gunewardene, whose middle name is Del.
“At this point, in the late ‘80s, fashion brands from the western world had just begun setting up factories in Sri Lanka. And there were many surplus goods that they just didn’t know what to do with,” she elaborates. So Gunewardene began to buy the surplus. “I had no office space, so I simply bought some stock and set up shop in my beat-up station wagon. I’d drive around the popular haunts for youngsters and park there and sell the goods,” she says.
Soon she had collected a small fortune. But it wasn’t nearly enough to buy goods and rent a store. “I needed $200 to get things going. I borrowed money from my mother and my brother, gave them both fancy designations in my new business venture. And with that I set up my very first store, all of 300 square feet on Dickman’s Road, Colombo,” she recalls.
Today that investment of $200 has grown into a venture worth millions. Odel has gone public and partnered with a Malaysian retail giant, yet Gunewardene continues to be at the helm as CEO. And she has set her sights on India. “Indians are already familiar with our brand. And we’ve also made some of our range accessible online, to ship to India. We are in the discussion stage now, of partnering with Indian names and setting up stores in India. If things work out, Odel will be in India in about 18 months, in either Mumbai or Delhi,” she says.
Odel is Gunewardene’s dream come true. But now, she is using her resources to focus on her initial goal. While she may not have been able to contribute to the world of marine biology, she has set up Embark, her personal Corporate Social Respsonsibility initiative to protect stray dogs. Embark was started to reduce animal cruelty, to rescue street-dogs in Sri Lanka, to provide them with medical care at a special shelter set up by Odel, and eventually re-home them. In order to create awareness and collect funds, Odel launched the Embark line of branded clothes, accessories etc. With this initiative, it’s clear that Gunewardene has truly come full circle. Ask her for words of wisdom she’d like to impart to young entrepreneurs and she says, “Let detours lead you to your dream.”