About 10 minutes into the interview, Otara Gunawardene says: “There’s one under your table.” I look and find Rusty, a fawn and white dog, lying there calmly. When I entered the room earlier, I had noticed only Browny, Gunawardene’s other equally-poised dog.
Gunawardene is the founder of Odel, that famous store in Colombo that has been drawing Indian tourists for decades. “Many Indians would tell me they made trips to Sri Lanka just so they could shop at Odel,” says Gunawardene. And it’s quite true: forget the Temple of Buddha’s Tooth or the famous frescoes of Sigiriya, shopaholic friends who know you are headed to Sri Lanka will urgently implore you to first visit this lifestyle store. “This was before India’s retail boom, but they continued coming even after that. It was flattering,” says Gunawardene.
What many people don’t know is why Gunawardene started the store. In the decade after Sri Lanka liberalised its economy in 1977, numerous factories came up in different parts of the country. It was a time when the island was witnessing a revolution in its garment manufacturing sector. The world’s top apparel and lingerie brands suddenly found a ready and cheap labour market here. Production scaled up and factories spewed out surpluses. Eager to make a little extra money, Gunawardene decided to supplement her modelling income by buying factory surpluses and selling them out of the boot of her car. The money was used to rescue and treat street animals.
“I started Odel for just that,” she says. The first store was formally set up in 1989, in a 400-sq.ft. space on Dickman’s Road, which now bears the name of acclaimed Sri Lankan filmmaker Dr. Lester James Peries. The chain, which got its name from hers (Otara Del Gunawardene), would soon become a favourite spot for shoppers and tourists. She quit modelling and became a full-time businesswoman. In 10 years, she launched her flagship store in a massive colonial building spanning 33,000 sq. ft. in Alexandra Place in the heart of Colombo. The footfall and captive customer base prompted her to expand further. By 2014, she had opened 20 outlets in and around Colombo.
Today, the model-turned-entrepreneur has turned full-time animal lover. She is ‘Director of Passion’ in an organisation called Embark that works with street dogs in Sri Lanka. “Dogs are like children,” she says.
Embark is located in one of Colombo’s busy neighbourhoods. The lobby walls are filled with photographs — all of them taken in lighting that glints on even the briefest brown streak in her cropped hair. With the photographs superimposed with motivational lines — ‘Compassion: learn it, teach it, share it’ or ‘The universe will always give you a wakeup call when it’s needed. Just make sure you are listening’ — the interiors evoke a new-age, spiritual spa.
The 52-year-old’s own wake-up call came in 2014, when she sold Odel, three decades after she had founded the store. By then, the single shop had expanded into a retail empire. Gunawardene had initially taken accounting lessons from her brother to read financial statements and balance sheets, but her business sense came intuitively. She travelled all over the world, sourcing products and designs seldom found in the region.
To raise money for expansion, Odel made an initial public offering in 2010, and was converted to a public limited company. “That meant even more responsibility,” says Gunawardene. Odel continued to grow, and in 2014, the company recorded a net profit of nearly LKR 2 billion.
Meanwhile, Gunawardene had begun Embark as a Corporate Social Responsibility initiative. Only to find that it was inadequate. It could, at most, be a “by-the-way” aspect of life, but nothing more. “The corporate world is too restrictive and does not let you work with your heart. It obsesses over numbers and growth. We get trapped in the pressure and tend to lose sight of the bigger picture.”
All the same, she did not think she would end up selling Odel, a brand she had painstakingly built. “But I have no regrets now,” she says, two years after she sold 45 per cent of Odel’s stakes to well-known local conglomerate Softlogic Holdings for LKR 2.7 billion (about $20 million) and exited the company.
Sri Lanka was once a country that was very compassionate, she says, worrying that increasingly people are “disconnected” from nature. “The world was given to us to live together, not tear part and take what we think is right for us.”
Now, at Embark, she and her team design and sell products across 10 outlets. They make T-shirts, bags, wrist bands and a small collection of dog leashes and other pet accessories — all advocating adoption of street dogs. Profits go to her foundation that has, since 2007, found homes for nearly 2,700 street dogs and rescued and treated 15,000. During the floods earlier this year, Embark was at the forefront of rescuing and treating street dogs.
Gunawardene is also actively campaigning for the closure of a zoo in Colombo. “At one point in history, humans were slaves and kept behind bars. But not anymore, right? I don’t see why animals should be kept in zoos.”