2 THE ICON

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The founder of Sri Lankan cloth­ing and life­style em­pire Odel, Otara Gunewar­dene, talks about set­ting up the coun­try’s first de­part­ment store in the midst of a civil war and her an­i­mal wel­fare ini­tia­tives.

HOW DID START­ING ODEL IN THE MID­DLE OF A CIVIL WAR IM­PACT YOU?

Start­ing a busi­ness with a bi­ol­ogy de­gree was chal­leng­ing enough and that, to­gether with it be­ing dur­ing the war, cer­tainly had its chal­lenges. Mainly it was not be­ing able to pre­dict even the next day. You never knew when you would have to close or not be able to get to work due to bomb scares and ac­tual ex­plo­sions in the city.

How­ever, busi­ness kept grow­ing for me mostly be­cause I had some­thing unique to of­fer and, even dur­ing chal­leng­ing days, peo­ple would rather wait a day or two and come to Odel rather than go any­where else to spend their money.

The main thing was that I didn’t have great ex­pec­ta­tions. I just went with the flow of things. This was both be­cause I was learn­ing about run­ning a busi­ness, and I was not re­ally con­di­tioned to think how a busi­ness should run.

I think in the world to­day we start with many ex­pec­ta­tions and many pa­ram­e­ters in which we think we should op­er­ate. This is some­thing I didn’t have at the be­gin­ning, which was also prob­a­bly a rea­son why I did things dif­fer­ently, which be­came the at­trac­tion to many as a shop­ping des­ti­na­tion.

WHAT AD­VICE DO YOU HAVE FOR EN­TREPRENEURS AND EX­PATS WANT­ING TO START A BUSI­NESS IN SRI LANKA?

I think it’s to just fol­low your heart and do what you think is right. These days we’re bom­barded with in­for­ma­tion and it of­ten sets you on a track that is re­ally not yours.

Also, my ad­vice is to start small, no mat­ter how big you may want to be. It helps you to learn, iron out is­sues without a huge ex­pense.

Also, I do feel busi­ness these days is chang­ing. What we had is not re­ally work­ing so well any­more, and my view is that it’s go­ing to change fur­ther. We are go­ing to be see­ing a lot more con­scious cus­tomers. We have blindly fol­lowed a cer­tain set of be­liefs and a way of liv­ing which is now chang­ing. It may still not be vis­i­ble to many, but many are awake and change is hap­pen­ing!

HOW HAS THE START-UP SCENE CHANGED IN SRI LANKA SINCE YOU FOUNDED ODEL?

I think you get two sides now. The ones that want to start at the top, like peo­ple who have been do­ing a busi­ness for 10 years. I have seen many of these fail be­cause the model of fol­low­ing what oth­ers are do­ing, no mat­ter how suc­cess­ful it may be, of­ten does not work for you. But I now see a lot of small start-ups. Lit­tle cafes, unique small shops, and I think this is the new way of do­ing things, and I find it re­ally in­ter­est­ing. I think this links up with how things are go­ing to go in the fu­ture.

WHAT CHAL­LENGES DID YOU FACE WITH START­ING UP YOUR AN­I­MAL WEL­FARE INI­TIA­TIVE?

Chal­lenges are many ev­ery day with an­i­mal wel­fare. With Em­bark we have been able to help many dogs as well as peo­ple, like those in ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties who can’t af­ford to treat their pets.

Good an­i­mal wel­fare is vir­tu­ally nonex­is­tent in the gov­ern­ment’s agenda, but you have to carry on with the hope of change one day. And I do be­lieve that day will come. >

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