2 THE ICON
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. >