‘The ability of an entrepreneur is to find a gap in the market.’
Otara Gunewardene, founder of Sri Lankan fashion house Odel, speaks to Southasia about the importance of entrepreneurship.
There weren’t many entrepreneurs around when you started back in the 1980s. What difficulties did you face?
There were many. I did not know how to run a business as my education was in Biology. There was a war going on in Sri Lanka and opportunities were limited. So there were many lessons to learn and challenges to face but each one of them helped me grow.
The main thing was that I was able to take these challenges as an opportunity to learn a lesson rather than a stumbling block that would discourage me.
You are regarded as Sri Lanka’s leading entrepreneur. Do you use this status to help upcoming entrepreneurs?
Yes, as much as I can. I use the social media to communicate messages and ideas. I also communicate through the press and TV and I hope people can learn something from what I say or do.
I have not been very good at attending many events to speak about my experiences but I am trying to do more of that now.
What are some of the most entrepreneur-friendly sectors in the Sri Lankan economy?
I think all sectors are entrepreneur friendly. The ability of an entrepreneur is to find a gap in the market even in a sector that is highly saturated. An entrepreneur does something which may never have been seen or done before. Or do something differently – something that is correct for that time and for the future as well since people are always looking for new ways to shop, be tech savvy, learn etc.
What can be the most rewarding and discouraging factors for an aspiring entrepreneur?
The rewarding factors are the sense of achievements for the goals set, achieving the dreams you have, lives you can change, influences you can have to change things for the better.
Discouraging, probably how hard you need to work, how committed you need to be, long working hours, missing many events your friends may be at etc. It all makes you wonder if the path you have chosen is the right one.
How did your company Odel begin? Who came up with the idea and where does it stand today?
The name was created by my father from my two names Otara and Del. Even though I was a successful model at the time, he wanted to me to do something in business. Or at least to give it a try. I started by selling hair care products to salons in the city and then had the opportunity to get some stocks of garments from a factory which I sold to my family and friends. That was the start.
I then traded the very old car I had with a blue station wagon so I could buy more stocks. That’s where the idea of the first Odel came from – in the boot of my car. Odel is now one of the largest and the only publicly listed companies in Sri Lanka. It is a fashionable brand that caters to both local and international visitors.
What are the prospects of fashion houses like Odel in South Asian markets?
There is a lot of potential for a concept like Odel as unlike many departmental stores, our private brand portfolio is very strong.