If you have travelled to Sri Lanka in the last 15 years, your trip to Colombo would be incomplete if you haven’t experienced retail therapy at the largest lifestyle store - Odel. Designer wear, high-street fashion, handicrafts, home accessories, jewelry, and leisure products, it’s all available at Odel.
On a recent visit to Sri Lanka with an all-women delegation comprising women entrepreneurs from Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata, I was delighted to spend some time with the Founder and CEO of Odel, Ms. Otara Del Gunawardene. The brand Odel is derived from her name.
A retail magnate and a pioneer, Otara Del Gunawardene is the first woman entrepreneur to take a company public in Sri Lanka. Otara is a single mother of two teenage boys. She is a passionate humanitarian and a role model for women entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka. She is a former fashion model and a Biology student from the US.
Nudged by her father to explore entrepreneurship, Otara borrowed a paltry sum of money from her family to set up the first Odel shop in 1990 and hired one assistant. Less than 20 years and 900 employees later, Otara boasts of 16 Odel stores in Sri Lanka.
Over the years, Otara and Odel have featured both in the local media and in the international media such as CNBC Asia’s TV show, ‘Asian Entrepreneurs’, on ZEE TV, in the Singapore-based magazine, Retail Asia, The Straits Times, Verve, and the US-based magazine, Retail Ad World, amongst many others - all of whom have lauded her entrepreneurship.
Otara is also actively involved in Habitat for Humanity. As their Goodwill Ambassador in Sri Lanka, she supports this non-governmental organization in their mission to provide simple, decent, affordable housing to people in need.
Otara is right at the top yet she remains humble.
Sangeeta Singh’s question: Otara, you have loads of energy and you are fit. What keeps you so driven?
I love what I do and that keeps me driven. I also work out regularly at the gym to maintain my inner balance and levels of energy.
Sangeeta: What did you always want to do in life? What were you always passionate about?
I always dreamed of living in the jungle and looking after animals. I have launched my personal corporate social responsibility (CSR) project and brand called Embark. This project aims to treat street dogs and find loving homes for them, and promotes the well-being of animals. This initiative has already benefitted hundreds of dogs and cats in Colombo.
Sangeeta: What does power mean to you as a woman entrepreneur?
Every woman should have the freedom to choose…not just what to buy but to do as she chooses. That, for me, is power.
Sangeeta: Women are still un-empowered in India and Sri Lanka. How do feel about that?
It is sad to see so many suppressed women in both our countries. I wish every woman the courage to never allow suppression for herself and her loved ones. Suppression is a choice and women can choose not to be suppressed.
Sangeeta: What is your advice for women entrepreneurs who face challenges in their personal lives?
I have had my share of challenges on the personal front. My marriage was not one that was suitable for me so I needed to make the effort to change that. It was a very difficult time but thankfully today, my children, my ex-husband, and I are like a happy family. I also realize that you cannot fix others. Knowing what you want and fixing yourself first are important if you want to attract something or someone better in your life.
Sangeeta: You have achieved a lot in your life. How do you celebrate your victories?
Professionally, I celebrate by charting another goal for myself. In my personal life, I often celebrate victories with my family.
Sangeeta: What is your biggest employee challenge at Odel?
We may be the largest retail lifestyle brand in Sri Lanka and the only one in the mid to high-end market, but there is a challenging side to that. We find it difficult to find employees with relevant industry experience within this country. So, we have programs to train people and we have also sought help from internationally experienced individuals both to train our staff and to take on certain roles within the company.
Sangeeta: Where do you go from here and what are the plans for the future?
Building a brand name and wealth is great but giving something back to society is truly more important. Now that my company has gone public and my son is ready to go to college, I have the flexibility of planning my life ahead. I would like to be visible in the international markets.
I would also love to hear your success story.