A Woman with Vision and Compassion

Feb/24/2023 / by Swarnendu Biswas
Otara Gunewardene
Image credits: DushiYanthini Kanagasabapathipillai via Flickr

Otara Del Gunewardene, popularly known as Otara Gunewardene, is a Sri Lankan entrepreneur. Besides being a globally renowned entrepreneur, she is also a committed animal rights advocate and a philanthropist. While discussing about Otara Gunewardene we can come to know that she is the founder of ODEL, the first public retail company in Sri Lanka.

Born on 30th August 1964 in Colombo, Sri Lanka, the age of Otara Gunewardene is 58 years. Her father Norman Gunewardene was the former Chairman of Atiken Spence, a Colombo-based blue chip conglomerate, and her mother Delysia Gunewardene did set up a school for differently-abled children. Otara Gunewardene is the youngest of the three siblings and the only daughter of her parents.

From Modelling to Retail

Just after doing her graduation, Otara Gunewardene did make foray in fashion modelling and soon found success in it. She shot for many prestigious brands and took part in many catwalks; her face adorned many a fashion magazine, catalogue and billboard.

The biography of Otara Gunewardene should mention that she entered into entrepreneurship in 1989. Her first office was her station wagon. She began selling factory surplus garments and apparel from the boot of her station wagon. A chance meeting with a friend in the garment manufacturing industry and a modest loan from Ajit, one of her two elder brothers, and from her mother enabled her to embark on her maiden business venture.

Super Success with ODEL

Just one year after that entrepreneur Otara Gunewardene launched her first ODEL outlet on Dickmans Road in Colombo. Two decades later, that is by 2014, she was having 20 ODEL outlets in and around Colombo.  ODEL began its journey as a company focusing on fashion retail business, but eventually over the years came up with the first department store in Sri Lanka, with the launching of Odel Unlimited.

With the mushrooming growth of ODEL, Otara Gunewardene became one of the leading entrepreneurs of the island nation. It is remarkable that despite having very less knowledge in marketing and finance she plunged into entrepreneurship, learnt on the way and wrote her own success story and eventually build her own retail empire. The success of ODEL should be the highlight of any good biography of Otara Gunewardene.

On 24th February 2010, ODEL graduated to a public limited liability company and in July of the same year ODEL became the first fashion retail business in Sri Lanka to get listed on the Colombo Stock Exchange.

A meeting with an abandoned puppy gave another new dimension to her life’s goals. According to a website on her, Otara Gunewardene expanded ODEL’s CSR operations towards the rescue, rehabilitation and empowerment of street dogs in Sri Lanka, who are often neglected.

Embarking on a New Chapter

In 2007, Otara Gunewardene launched the fashion brand named Embark. A part of the income generated from Embark has been channelized for eradication of rabies, canine vaccinations, sterilisation, adoption and medical care for injured street dogs.  In 2015, the first stand-alone store of Embark was opened in Galle, a city in Sri Lanka, and by 2019, there were 12 stores under the ambit of Embark.

One can safely assume that the passion for Embark continued to grow within Otara Gunewardene and in September 2014 she sold all her shares in ODEL PLC to the Softlogic Group for approximately LKR 2.7 billion, in order to give more focus on Embark.

Her Foundation

Over the years, Otara Gunewardene has been instrumental in rescuing, treating and finding home for thousands of street dogs.

In 2015, Otara Gunewardene launched the Otara Foundation. According to the website of Otara Foundation, the organization is focused on environmental and wildlife conservation as well as animal welfare in Sri Lanka.

The foundation endeavors to not only protect Sri Lanka’s rich biodiversity, but disseminate education among the country’s future generations on the need for urgent action to conserve Sri Lanka’s invaluable wildlife and environment.

Otara Foundation also emphasizes on improving the lives of Sri Lanka’s street dogs through the work carried out by Embark.

Otara Gunewardene succinctly explained the objective of this initiative in the website of Otara Foundation. In her own words, “Fortunate to have experienced the rise of retail in Sri Lanka through the Odel brand, I found that people seemed to care about what I stood for – not just as a business person, but as a woman, a mentor, an animal lover and more. To be in a position of influence over people’s life choices is a responsibility I have always taken seriously, which is why I formed the non-profit venture that is the Otara Foundation.”

“Driven by passion, the scope of our work has evolved to cover environmental protection, livelihood development, education, community upliftment and our distinctive expertise – animal welfare,” she added further.

Advocating Animal Welfare

Otara Gunewardene has also been engaged in advocacy. In 2015, she initiated a campaignurging the then Sri Lankan government to enact the proposed National Animal Welfare Bill. Her campaign got over 100,000 signatures and induced the Sri Lanka’s Cabinet’s approval of the said bill on 13th January 2016. However, its passing has been impeded.

Next year, in 2016, Otara Gunewardene initiated a campaign against the Dehiwala zoo, which brought about improvement in the conditions in which wild animals were kept at that zoo.

FAQs

What is Otara Gunewardene’s educational qualification?

Otara Gunewardene studied at  C. M. S. Ladies College in Colombo, which is a girls’ school. There besides studies, she excelled in athletics and swimming. She graduated from Bowling Green State University, which is in the Ohio state of the US, with a degree in Zoology.

Who is the husband of Otara Gunewardene?

In 1990, she and Raju Chandiram were married. The marriage produced two sons, Kiran (1994) and Rakhil (2000). The couple got separated in 2007.

What is the networth of her?

According to https://profilesinfo.com/otara-gunewardene-wiki-networth-age/ the estimated networth of her was 5 million USD in 2021. However, it looks like a gross underestimation of the wealth of Otara Gunewardene, which is expected to be enormous.

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