Once a schoolgirl ballet dancer, product of Ladies College and a competitive athlete, Otara Gunawardena suddenly discovered the world of fashion whilst being an undergraduate reading for a Biology Degree in the USA . At that time whilst on vacation back in Sri Lanka - partly for the excitement, partly to overcome boredom.
However, the doors to fashion retail opened for her one fine day at a shoot for an exporter`s brochure as Otara was asked to dispose an assortment of garment stock-lots to help a manufacturer to clear his stores. This opportunity virtually created the first retail experience for Otara
From the boot
She began her business from the boot of her car, which she filled up with clothes, which she found soon disappeared amongst her friends. With a little help from her father she opened her first store down Dickman`s Road. The store was her own master-piece. She painted the walls on her own with a few tips on interior design which she got from a friend and displayed the merchandise herself. Her personal touch to the store made it uniquely different. `I don`t think my parents expected me to go this far, she said. Today, her brand, Odel, is synonymous with almost everything fashionable that is Sri Lankan.
The growing sales were more than just pocket money for her to meet personal expenses. In fact it was quite considerable, especially at that time. This led her to develop a small wholesale business, which catered to the smaller retail stores. As time went by Otara realized that there was more to this small time effort. She understood that this was definitely a business opportunity and a new career to pursue.
Despite having established herself as an extremely successful entrepreneur, with the grit to make it through where so many have failed, the vision to take big risks, and the will to triumph, there is no appearance of stress or pressure with Otara. She is almost enviably calm.
`I do yoga, which helps me retain my inner balance,` she said. Her philosophy, very simply, is to `be happy.` She describes herself as an uncomplicated, easy-going, though very private, person. She does not party as much now as she used to, mainly because of the time factor.
Her greatest passion is the environment. `I wanted to be a vet when I was little to work with animals, and in some ways that has carried through to what I do today ? which is why Odel is so involved in environmental conservation,` she said.
ODEL has launched a housing development project in the Balapitiya area with the aim of constructing 50 houses to an identified group of families affected by the Tsunami disaster. Under this project, ODEL will rebuild part of Brahmanawatte in Balapitiya, a village situated 80Km away from Colombo. This project is a step further from their initial contribution of relieving affected people in the short run.
`Animals have always played a very dear role in my life. Since as far as I can remember, my family has maintained pets in our home, from the conventional dogs to rabbits and chickens. As such it pains me greatly to see these innocent and defenseless animals treated cruelly around the world, especially in our country,` she said explaining her initiative ? Embark - to the media this week.
Sterilization of 500 community dogs in the Colombo area using fast and effective method of CNVR-Catch, Neuter, Vaccinate and Release will be done as a part of the project and dogs who are suffering from illnesses will be treated accordingly by the veterinary surgeons present at the clinics.
Life begins at 40
Turning 40 last year was according to Otara, a momentous event, not to mention her most memorable birthday. And she definitely agrees that life begins at 40! Well it might, with her great looks and, in some ways, idealism ? almost.
In business however, she is an uncompromising realist. She has no problems being a woman boss of a huge company. `I don`t judge people on gender, and I trust I don`t get judged likewise.`
Her fairytale life as a successful businesswoman, mother and wife was shattered earlier last year when she separated from her husband. A painful experience that nonetheless left her stronger and more enriched. Her two sons aged six and 12, her friends, and her business are now the main focus of her life, though she certainly has not forgotten how to kick back and have a good time!
Ottie, I call is a true inspiration to women and girls in SriLanka.