‘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.

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