"Don’t be afraid to start small.
Big achievements often start from humble beginnings."
As one of Sri Lanka’s most successful entrepreneurs and influential individuals to date, Otara’s very first inspiration was her parents and the impact they had on her life. Keen observation and learning from early life became the blueprint which she used to propel herself to the top. A typical family with big dreams, yet, what set them apart was the work ethic instilled within them – a success story in itself. Making use of every opportunity that came their way, her Father commenced his career as an Executive at Aitken Spence & Co., eventually becoming Chairman of the company. Her Mother, a humanitarian herself, founded the Chitra Lane School for differently-abled children which started with just 2 students and now has over 200. Prior to this, she contributed towards the family income by maintaining chickens at home and funding her children’s education from the sale of eggs. Valuing and gleaning from this, Otara learnt that hard work and self-belief were the secrets to success;
I learnt to take care of myself. I held many jobs as a university student, including a gas station assistant. 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 the path that’s meant for you.
The regular girl-next-door, Otara took ballet lessons and studied at Colombo’s premier girls’ school, Ladies’ College. She had a talent for sports; representing school in athletics and swimming, and on an international level in high jump and hurdles. Spurred by her love for animals, Otara decided to read for a degree in Biology at Bowling Green State University, Ohio in the USA. While down in Sri Lanka for a holiday, she dabbled in modeling only to be drawn to it in a professional way; shooting for high-profile brands and international catalogues after completing her graduation.
It was during this time that fate had other plans, marking the juncture that was set to redefine Sri Lanka’s fashion retail and lifestyle industry. In 1989, a chance request by an apparel manufacturer to help him dispose an assortment of surplus export garments led Otara to set up shop in the boot of her blue station wagon. It was an unconventional beginning, but then again so do almost all fascinating stories. Her friends were the first regular clientele and she consolidated this early success by selling to other stores in Colombo as well.
As the business grew steadily, so did the dream. Borrowing Rs. 15, 000 from her brother Ajit and Mother, in 1989, Otara set up the very first store – Odel, a combination of her first and middle name Del, located down Dickman’s Road and consisting of only 300 sq. ft. of retail space. From folding clothing, to stacking shelves and helping at checkout, she did it all with the help of two staff who still work for Odel. It was at this time Otara met and married Raju Chandiram in 1990. Although the two divorced 14 years later, they have 2 sons, Kiran (born 1994) and Rakhil (born 2000) and continue to remain friends.
By now, the response to Odel’s offerings were so great that Otara was compelled to expand the number of stores. By 1995, approximately 9 stores were dotted across busy hubs in Colombo; from city hotels to popular shopping malls; Majestic City, Liberty Plaza and Trans Asia Hotel. The turning point was the purchase of a stately colonial property consisting of 10, 000 sq. ft. located on Alexandra Place which eventually became Odel’s flagship store. The vision – translating a world-class department store into reality, which would eventually be considered a model retail store for the South East Asian Region. With Otara’s distinct sense of style and meticulous attention to detail, Odel was focused on providing a multi-sensorial shopping experience to each customer that visited. The following years saw significant expansion of the Alexandra Place space to a 40, 000 sq. ft. department store that was unique and stylish in its own right. Evolving into one of the most renowned brands in the country and region, Otara and Odel transformed and led the way in fashion retail;
We made a determined effort at unlocking ways to indulge each customer, and creativity across the world provided a muse for our eclectic brand. But mostly, it was our own imagination that inspired us, the imagination of a team, who like me, wakes up each morning challenging our boundaries. I believe that is what makes us distinctly different from the rest.
In 2010, Odel created history in the records of the Colombo Stock Exchange with its Initial Public Offering confirmed to be oversubscribed by 63.8 times within 24 hours after opening, beating the old record which was 20 times. Not only was it the very first fashion retailer to go public, Otara became the first female entrepreneur to take a company public in Sri Lanka. In the same year, her entrepreneurship was globally recognized when she was named Best Female Entrepreneur at the 7th US Stevie Awards for Women in Business. In 2012, Odel saw a significant change in ownership when Parkson Retail Asia Limited purchased a 41.82% stake in the company for Rs. 1, 424 billion.
In September 2014, Otara made the decision to sell shares belonging to her and her family to Softlogic Holdings PLC for Rs. 2.7 billion. The total value of the company at the time was approximately Rs 5 billion.
The decision to sell my shares in the company, was principally to allow me to spend more of my time helping animals, working with more people to believe in the importance of living in a world where we respect and care for all living beings.
From her humble beginnings of selling clothes from the boot of her car, today, Otara heads the list of Sri Lanka’s Most Powerful Women – serving as an inspiration for many aspiring young entrepreneurs in the years to come.