Back in Colombo, on a break from studying Biology at university in the US, Otara is discovered as a new face and introduced to the catwalk. With her height, athletic poise and dazzling eyes, Otara has to overcome her natural shyness and modesty to become one of Sri Lanka’s most sought-after fashion models.
The boot of Otara’s royal blue Nissan Station Wagon is turned into an on-the-go shop; her customers are co-models; her ware is export clothing; the USP is her unique vision and style.
Her Father, the corporate legend, knows a good thing when he sees it and registers the business under the name – Odel, a combination of Otara’s first and second names.
Borrowing Rs. 15, 000 from her brother and mother to fund Odel, Otara cuts the ribbon at her very first store – a mere 300 sq. ft. property on Dickman’s Road. A Sri Lankan legacy is born, an iconic brand is launched. It’s only just the beginning.
To meet the rapid increases in demand, within no time the Dickman’s Road store is expanded to 1, 000 sq. ft. and 9 Odel stores are opened; some in popular locations such as Majestic City, Liberty Plaza and Trans Asia Hotel.
Otara is blessed with a beautiful son Kiran;
“It feels magical when one of my collections come to life. Yet, nothing quite prepares you for the raw and beautiful emotion of holding your child for the first time.”
To date, Otara continues to enjoy a very close relationship with her mother;
“I felt I had a responsibility towards the women of Sri Lanka - to show that we could compete in the business world, while still being devoted to our children. My Mother helped me enormously, so that I was able to bring up my two boys alongside my business.”
Otara begins work on her flagship store, a stately colonial property on Alexandra Place. Her vision – to create a world-class department store that will be the talk of the region. Despite being in an advanced state of pregnancy, Otara attends daily site meetings. She is rushed off the construction site to give birth to her second son! Involved in every step of the way, Otara painstakingly translates her dream…into a dazzling reality. She opens the doors to the most famous store in the country; a leader in style, a tourist attraction and an iconic landmark. Despite the country’s civil war and financial recession, Odel maintains its appeal throughout.
"Growing a business through a war was one of the biggest challenges. In addition, high taxes made products very expensive. Waiting it out was the only option. But, things have changed a lot in the last four years and it is a country worth exploring if you are looking to start a business or expand."Hindu Business Line, March 2014
Otara is blessed with another bouncing baby boy – Rakhil
This year is a momentous one for Odel. With extensive expansion, the store now boasts of 45, 000 sq. ft. Wallpaper Magazine UK refers to the department store as the Harvey Nichols of Sri Lanka.
Otara is named “Entrepreneur of the Year” by the Federation of Chambers and Commerce and Industry of Sri Lanka (FCCISL).
Odel unveils a new brand identity under the theme – Mind, Body & Soul.
Open 24x7, the last chance for the ultimate shopping experience in the country, Odel makes an appearance at the departure/transit lounge of the Bandaranaike International Airport, Sri Lanka.
Backstage – accessories shopping in a theatre-style dressing room ambience – another novel brand is launched by Odel.
Embark – the brand closest to Otara’s heart, launches a canine-inspired range of clothing and accessories with profits utilized for the care of street dogs in Sri Lanka.
"Whilst driving to work one day, I passed three little pups playing on the side of the road. As most people do, I drove past because it was just another stray dog and I thought like many would, what could I do with him? The next day when I went back to work, there was only one. The nicest brown puppy with big brown eyes; all alone. I could not drive past. I picked him up thinking I would give him away to someone kind; but I never did. My sons saw him and we all fell in love with him and decided to keep him and named him, Niko. It was only after I had given Niko a home that the idea of what would have happened to him - had he stayed on the road, made an impact on me. It made me quite emotional.”Otara
This, motivates Otara to change the fate of Sri Lanka’s countless homeless dogs by making it a bigger focus, thereby expanding Embark’s reach.
A little black and white puppy is left on Otara’s doorstep by a stranger. It appears he is the only surviving puppy of his litter. She keeps the survivor, naming him Bandit.
Sometime later, Otara sees a puppy getting pelted with stones on Rosmead Place and she stops her car.
“She trusted me enough to jump into my arms.”
After a few weeks in the animal hospital and some ice-breaking with Bandit and Niko, the puppy is named Rozzy, thus completing the trio.
Embracing opportunities and entering a new phase of expansion, Odel sets up an outlet store in Nugegoda. This was followed by openings for a 7, 900 sq. ft. store in the coastal suburb of Mount Lavinia and a 5, 481 sq. ft. store in Moratuwa.
Otara is inducted into the Dallas-Hamilton Entrepreneurial Hall of Fame, class of 2009, as an outstanding innovator at the Bowling Green State University, Ohio, USA.
In the same year, she is appointed Dior Brand Ambassador for Colombo Jewellery Stores and as Habitat for Humanity Sri Lanka’s new Goodwill Ambassador.
On the 5th of July, Odel becomes the first Sri Lankan fashion retailer to go public, raising almost Rs. 3 billion. It sets a new record at the Colombo Stock Exchange when the IPO is oversubscribed by 64 times on the same day itself. Otara is the first female entrepreneur to take a company public in Sri Lanka.
Lanka Domain Registry Office names www.otara.lk the “Best Personal Website.”
Otara wins the award for Best Female Entrepreneur at the 7th US Stevie Awards for Women in Business in New York.
Oriflame Sri Lanka launches a limited edition handbag inspired by Otara herself. The bag is sold out within 6 days!
Odel is expanding in leaps and bounds and opens a characteristically stylish store in Wattala consisting of 12, 000 sq. ft. The metropolitan city of Kiribathgoda and hilly Kandy are the next in line with the latter being the first location outside the Western Province.
Luv SL, a concept carrying stylish souvenirs and products catering to locals and tourist is launched. Each store additionally offers unique Odel brands such as Backstage, Embark and Delight. Subsequently, Luv SL opens stores at Queens’ Hotel Kandy and at the Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct Colombo.
Odel announces a significant change in ownership when Parkson Retail Asia Limited purchases a 41.82 per cent stake in the company for Rs. 1. 424 billion. Following the acquisition, Otara retains a 27.88 per cent stake in Odel and continues as CEO commending this as a “new chapter in the evolution of the company,” and strengthening her role in the infusion of foreign direct investment to Sri Lanka, while raising capital for the company’s growth.
Otara is listed in the Sri Lanka Rich List
Paying homage to classic chic and reinventing all boundaries of style, Otara launches her eponymous jeans label at Colombo Fashion Week. The “Forever Young” collection celebrates the freedom that comes with wearing denim;
"There’s nothing you can’t do in a great pair of jeans"
Otara tops the list of the Echelon’s 50 Most Powerful Women in Sri Lanka, and is also featured in India’s leading international and lifestyle magazine, the Verve. She joins the ranks of Nita Ambani, India Hicks, Kareena Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra, Barkha Dutt, Mira Nair, Aishwarya Rai, Liz Hurley and Queen Rania of Jordan.
“Otara makes me challenge myself; she takes me out of my comfort zone, performing tasks I thought were beyond my job description and skill-set. Yet, she is fantastic at making us all believe in ourselves.”
“Otara works out every day from eight to nine in the morning. From then on, she will reply to every mail, be it from a senior or junior employee. No reply is ever missed, whether it’s a leave request or an e-mail about a sick family pet, whether it’s at nine at night or two in the morning, Otara replies. Her work ethic is absolutely amazing.”
“She has incredible energy, even when addressing a small task. She is very detailed. An utter perfectionist.”
“I’ve never seen her blow a fuse. She’s always open to suggestions, and is very genuine and humble. She really values what her employees have to say, making us feel like our input means a lot to her and to the work she does.”
A slim, towering and shy model transforms into a flawless 50 year old in August. Leading up to this, Otara launches her Kindness is Happiness Campaign;
“I think it’s important to be kind to everyone and everything.”
Which is reflected in her Twitter feed; embodying positivity and serving as a source of inspiration to all.
“I’ve been in the business a long time, but will always keep learning. I will always keep challenging myself. I will always step out of my comfort zone.”
She says, ‘I’ve been in the business a long time, but I will always keep learning. I will always keep challenging myself. I will always step out of my comfort zone.’
September 11th 2014 marks the day its Founder,Otara Gunewardene sells her shares in the company to the Softlogic group for nearly Rs 2.7 billion.
Her statement to the public simply read -
Words cannot express the journey I have had; one that I have shared together with you and with everyone past and present at Odel. It has given me great pleasure to be a part of the love, joy and inspiration so many people, including myself, have experienced with a venture that started from the boot of my old blue station wagon.
I believe everybody has a purpose in life. One that goes beyond material gain and one that goes beyond a life that we may have been leading and loved leading. Twenty-five years on from when I started Odel and as I turn a grateful 50, I find it harder to silence what I know is my own true calling in life, which is to help animals. I have tried to do as much as I can for them over the years, as well as to help people understand the importance of living in a world in harmony with animals and people, but it is time to do more.
I have always known that I am here to help animals. I spent my childhood years surrounded by animals, dreaming of ways that I could help them and knowing the importance animals and the environment plays in our world and our lives. I am fortunate that I have the ability to relive my childhood again, but with more knowledge and a greater will than ever before of making a change. From the day I started selling my first garment until today, this has always been a part of the Odel culture. My love for fashion has always been linked with my passion for animals and to helping our world both people and animals co-exist for our future. It may have been a thought, it may have been an action but it has touched every customer every day and I hope it will touch many more in the years to come. Embark, both the brand and the amazing team who have done so much to improve the lives of dogs on a daily basis will continue to be a big part of what I will do in the future.
The decision to sell my shares in the company, besides being a pragmatic business decision, 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. The time I will spend on this will not permit my continued hands on involvement Odel requires. I will however, remain with the company for the foreseeable future and continue to work towards its continued success.
I am certain that the new shareholders of the company, together with the most wonderful and passionate people working at Odel, will take it to even greater heights with the advantage of their group’s synergies and focus.
I would like to thank all my shareholders, customers, stakeholders and all well-wishers who have been a part of this incredible journey. I hope that you will continue to support Odel in the future. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for believing in me and I hope you will be a part of my new journey. Xx