Otara Dell Gunewardena was the founder of Odel, a network of stylish clothing stores with merchandise of international standard. Her drive and vision made Odel a temple to which customers from cosmopolitan international cities wound their way in addition to hordes of local clientele.
A lover of the country’s flora and fauna since childhood, she started the business to find the resources to serve the environment by conserving to build a better tomorrow for her fellow human beings.
On her Facebook account, she has over a million friends exceeding the number found in former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s and incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena’s accounts. Below are excerpts of a conversation conducted by the Nation’s sister paper Rivira with Otara regarding the hitherto unheard story of the life of the woman behind the behemoth that is Odel.
Q: What memories do you have of childhood?
I was born in Colombo. I went to the Ladies’ College, Colombo. From the time I was a small child I was an avid lover of the environment, nature and animals. I remember clearly that since I was four or five years old, I loved animals and the environment. That was my favourite. To this day, it is the same. Back then, our home was like a small zoo. There were birds and rabbits. They became my friends.
Q: Did your parents show any interest in this?
No. Not as much as I was. Yet, when I said that I wanted rabbits and ducks they would bring them.
Q: Who is your father?
My father is Norman Gunewardena. He started his career as an executive at Aitken Spence. At the time of his retirement, he served as a director. My mother was initially a housewife. However, when I was two or three years old she started a school for children with special needs. At the start, there were only two children. Now, it is one of the largest in the sector.
There are about 200 to 300 students. Also annually in every province, awareness programmes are conducted for approximately 1000 children. Through the school, parents of children with special needs and teachers who teach such students are made aware of how the children should be understood and how one should interact with them. I also have two elder brothers. One is Ajith Gunewardena and the other is Ruchi Gunewardena. They are elder to me by about seven to eight years. One of them was and environmental lover .
Q: We have heard that during your time in school, you excelled at sports.
Yes. More than education via books I excelled at sports and other extra-curricular activities. From an educational stand-point, I was among the weakest in the classes.
Q: Why was this?
No, it was like this. I liked sports and the environment. Also, outside school, I was involved in dancing. It was to these activities that my primary preference and attention were. I did not much like the educational stream. Also, because of my liking towards sports I engaged in extracurricular activities and I worked hard to win. Since childhood, I had a tendency to do things properly, if they were things I loved. Also, I strove to come first and emerge victorious in them. On most occasions, these efforts succeeded. Yet, I neither had an interest nor liking to learning in class and therefore coming first didn’t matter to me. By the time I sat for the General Certificate of Education (GCE) Ordinary Level examination, I became interested in science subjects. During the period of the GCE Advanced Level I paid much attention to studies. By that time, I had understood that I needed to continue education. After sitting for the GCE A/L exam I went to the United States of America for further studies and there I obtained a degree in science.
Q: But everyone knows you as someone who has an education that is more towards fashion and your degree was in science subjects.
Yes. That is how most know me. Yet, my preference was to live in a jungle and conduct research and through that to create a new horizon in the field of conservation and to do a community service to the jungle and its inhabitants. That is why I obtained a Bachelor of Science. However, even though I gained a degree, the rest of the plans didn’t jell out.
Q: Why was this?
When I was in the USA, every year I came to Sri Lanka. On one of these occasions a close friend of mine who was a fashion designer invited me to a fashion show.
Q: Did you like it?
No. Initially, I didn’t. Later due to his insistence I came to like it. This was how I became involved in fashion.
Q: At school were you interested in fashion?
No. During those days I had no such interest whatsoever. During my schooldays I was mostly found on top of trees. I enjoyed myself by savouring nature. Therefore, I didn’t have any interest at all in such things.
Q: Generally during schooldays special friendships develop with schoolboys. Were you interested?
I had male friends. But I didn’t have any special interest towards them.
Q: Back to the subject of fashion, how did it blossom?
After finishing my degree I became more involved in it. By the time I came to Sri Lanka my father had registered the name Odel as a business company. My father had created the naming joining two parts in my name which are Otara and Dell.
Q: Was it then a business related to textiles?
No. From a business standpoint my father had only registered the name. He hadn’t thought about what to do with it. I am the one who started the textiles business. My father said that it didn’t matter whether I was only a model but to also start a business. By that time, even I was faced with a problem.
That concerned finding money for environmental conservation activities. Initially, I tried to find a job related to the field of science. Yet, that failed. What was left was to start a business. Even though it was a challenge, I was willing to accept it. At that time, my father was the Consular General to New Zealand and through his connection I was able to become the Sri Lankan agent for a brand of shampoo made in New Zealand. In the beginning I was involved in that business too. With the money coming in from fashion shows I started the business.
Q: Back then, was fashion paying?
No. For participating in the entire fashion show, we got paid only Rs 1000 or Rs 2000. I started the businesses with the money saved from them. What I first did was to design T-shirts for various businesses with their names on them. Afterwards I designed some T-shirts. To this day, those T-shirts are found on sale at Odel. These T-shirts were designed with paintings of porcupines, elephants, crocodiles and monkeys.
You too must have seen them. Those T-shirts became very popular. The paintings were drawn by Sunela Jayawardena. Somehow, I donated a portion of the profits I earned at the time to an elephant conservation project. After that I became heavily involved with this business. I designed T-shirts using various local things which would popularize Sri Lanka.
Q: Back then did you have an outlet to sell these clothes?
No. Back then my clothes shop was my old station wagon car. I would stock the car with the clothes and sell them. I had a friend who owned textile factories. From among their finished products I would purchase what was leftover at an extremely low price. This was because even back then there was nothing that could be done about such clothes left behind. With those clothes I expanded my business. First I sold those clothes to friends of mine at a reasonable price. Also, I myself would take these clothes to small retail shops in Colombo and give them away wholesale. Back then I paid a lot of attention to the wholesale trade.
Q: As a woman was it difficult for you to do this work alone?
I truly didn’t feel any difficulty. Unlike now, back then there weren’t so many issues. With my maximum effort I strengthened this small business.
Q: So, when did you start a shop?
While things were continuing like this I decided to start a shop. It was as a result of this that I started a small clothes shop down Dickman’s Road. From what I remember, it was in 1990. At its inception one of my brothers and my mother gave me Rs 30,000. It was with that amount of money and that with which I had saved that I started the business. To this day I remember that it was I who painted the shop’s walls and arranged it. To buy the paint I used the money given to me. After that I employed two persons. Those two continue at Odel. After a while, many started talking about my clothes shop. Many started coming in search of it. Especially, even foreigners started coming in.
Those employed in certain airline services were of the habit of coming to my shop the moment they stepped in to Sri Lanka. Gradually, business increased. Subsequently I bought the entire ground floor of the building. And then the business expanded to the second and third floors. On the top floor, I started a small garment factory with a couple of sewing machines. The clothes sewed in it were sold in the floors below.
Q : Afterwards you expanded the business.
Yes. Aside from the shop down Dickman’s Road, I started several small shops in several places including at the Majestic City. As far as I remember, by 1992 and 1993, I had started about nine small textiles shops in Colombo. Afterwards, I understood that I could sell things other than clothes. As a result, I introduced shoes, slippers, handbags and belts to the market. I myself went abroad and selected new fashions and introduced them to Sri Lanka. These new fashions continued to become popular. The public embraced them.
Q : With the businesses, you became quite busy. And you lost the interest you had towards the environment.
It is true that I became quite busy when the business started becoming successful. However, to say that I lost my interest in the environment is wrong. Even during that period, I engaged in various environment related activities. Aside to the conservation of special environmental systems, in Colombo and congested areas, I engaged in a lot of cleaning activities with regard to coastal/beachside environmental systems. I never did them with the intention of making the business popular. I wanted to do something for the environment.
Q : Yet, most people say that your love for the environment is a fashion statement.
No. It is difficult to accept that. I started loving the environment from when I was a little child. Can one say that I had the intelligence to think about fashion then? That itself proves that I did these programmes with honesty. I got into businesses because to help animals it required that one has a lot of money. If not for this I was never someone who desired to engage in or had an interest in engaging in business.
Q : What you are trying to say is that even though you made the Odel group a massive profit-making business, you had no interest in businesses.
It is true that I had no interest in business. However, I am a person that does what she has to do, properly, till it is concluded. Therefore, to achieve the goal related to my love for the environment, I made my business successful to the best of my ability. During the period when I was making my businesses a success, the shop down Dickman’s Road was completely destroyed in a fire. I had to start from scratch. I faced that challenge too and emerged victorious.
Q : Afterwards, you expand the business to the point that it then had a massive showroom.
Yes. When I realized that the space down Dickman’s Road was insufficient, I placed a small advertisement in the newspaper that I was looking for a building. That was how I came to get the area behind where the Odel presently is. Initially, the said area was dilapidated and falling apart. Previously, there had even been a Special Task Force camp there. I completely renovated it. Sri Lanka didn’t have a clothing showroom like that. It became a new experience for Lankans.
Q : Did you do the renovations with the express wish to create such a new fangled, trendy showroom?
No. It wasn’t like that. I changed the place according to the way I thought fit. In the end, there was a beautiful look. That is how the showroom was organized.
Q : By this time it became known that you and Minister Mangala Samaraweera were good friends.
Even before this time, Mangala was a good friend of mine. He too was involved with fashion. That is why I associated with him. He was like my designer and I was his model. Because of this, we knew each other very well.
Q : He was a Minister then?
No, no. He became a Minister much later.
Q : Afterwards, your businesses expanded further.
Yes. I obtained the buildings in front of and to the back of Odel to my business. Not only that, I started large clothes showrooms in main towns/cities in the country. A business that started with just two employees had swelled up to 1,000 by that time.
Q. But in one moment you sell all this?
It didn’t happen in a moment. While, doing business for around twenty-five years, I felt I needed to do something different. The love I felt for environmental conservation re surfaced. I wanted to devote more time for that. So, I decided to sell my business. But, I had to make attempts at that for nearly two years. That was because some of the people who came were not agreeable to meet my price. I too did not concede until I got my price. Because, I wanted to do this business properly, alongwith my brother, we transformed the business to a public company. After starting a business no other female had been able to convert such a business to a public quoted company. I did it first. After that, I had even to change the way I did business. With the first opportunity I got in having my asking price matched, I divested 45% of the shares of the company to a Malaysian investor. He invested a large sum in Sri Lanka.
About four years elapsed after that. I decided to sell my balance shares too. That is how I sold the entire company. But I retained the Embark name. It is still functioning.
Q. What are you doing now.
I think I have started my life again anew. Now, I have the time for environmental work and to devote time towards the poor and destitute people of the country.
Q . Even though you sat that, some people are accusing that you are only concerned about looking after dogs and puppies.
It is like this. When I was in business I did Social Responsibility work. I felt that, rather than concentrating on one sector, I can do justice in many ways. That is how, looking after stray uncared for dogs was started. Up to now, I have given shelter and assistance to about 85,000 stray dogs. I started by taking care of strays along the roads. Earlier I was only concerned about dogs imported to the country with pedigrees. It was during that time I encountered this dog called “Nikko” one day on our road. That changed my whole attitude towards dogs. It was after that, I started caring about the tomorrows facing the roadside stray dogs.
Howevever, I have also understood very well what is meant by environmental conservation. I have started that in earnest now. Not only that, there are lakhs and lakhs of single females like me who are alone. I am ready to show them, they can succeed in their tomorrows. I have stated that journey. Most people who are watching me understand that. But a few can see shortcomngs. That is the way of this world. Even when I was doing business, I ignored such things. I did the right thing. My businesses succeeded. This endeavour is also like that. I am prepared to accept any constructive criticism. But, I will not be deterred by loose talk. My aim is to serve the silent masses, the people and the dogs who cant talk of what they want. I will go my way in spite of any obstacle.
Q. Actually, what are you trying to do
I believe I was born to make the environment better, to make lives of people and the animals to the better. Simply put, to make a justifiable change in the environmental landscape. I changed the lives of thousands who were associated with my business. It was confined not only to our workers, but also to our suppliers and their families. That shows dedication can bring positive results. My plan is to accept that challenge on behalf of the envir onment and the country.