The Sunday Leader

For Life And Its Living

Vivacious, vividly striking, chic and stylish are just some of the words that describe Sri Lanka’s young, top entrepreneur Otara Gunewardene Chandiram whose business ODEL is considered a forerunner in retail excellence in Sri Lanka, and indeed the region, that has grown into something of a legend with its own brand identity of “Mind, Body and Soul”. Deriving its name from the initial O and her second name being Del, Sri Lanka’s most innovative fashion brand ODEL was born in 1990.

Celebrating two decades since its inception, the company is partnering with Habitat For Humanity to build 20 houses to mark the occasion. The 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami triggered the ODEL Foundation’s collaboration with this international organization. The company funded the building of a number of houses to help resettle families in the Balapitiya area.The Odel Foundation also provided sponsorship to Leo Hope for the Kosgoda Trust to construct houses for residents affected by the tsunami in the Kosgoda area.

Many were the times she broke into peals of laughter during the interview, unaffected by the enormity of her stature in the business arena, and proving that she has only tucked her achievements under her arm and, yet, remains the lovely and focused human being with warmth, compassion and empathy for life and its living.

“I have been through an interesting and exciting journey, and it has been a lot of hard work,” says Otara. According to her, success is relative.

“When you reach a certain point, you want to see how much further you could go. That really is the whole excitement of running, and growing, a business, in that you always see how much further you can take your business and, obviously, yourself as well.”

Otara has always been the one to set the goals and the benchmarks. “When I reach it, there’s always more to move ahead with. So, I celebrate it briefly but move on.” To her, it is not about celebrating the achievement, but that there is always more to do. “That is the excitement of what I do.”

The one attribute that has brought her to the position that she is at now is her discipline and she attributes that to a lot of hard work! “I am dedicated to what I do – the business that I run which is a routine and a plan. I have always been disciplined even from my childhood. My time at Ladies College – where I was an athlete, representing my school in athletics and swimming, representing the country in high jump and hurdles and taking ballet lessons – instilled that discipline that was to be a part of my daily life. Everything was to push myself to the top.”

Norman Gunewardene, her father, was one of the best known corporate leaders in the country. “Having started at the very bottom rung of the corporate ladder, he worked his way up to being the Chairman, steering Aitken Spence to its status as a blue-chip group.” Delysia, her mother, has nurtured the Chitra Lane School for differently abled children from just two students to its roll call of 200 today, with nearly 600 children as day students, giving them a new lease of life – a duty she still carries on today. Ajit and Ruchi, her two brothers, are also respected professionals in Sri Lanka’s corporate sector.

Her two sons, Kiran now 19 years old and Rakhil just entering his teens, are very close to her, she says, “and have known my lifestyle of being a busy working mother since their infancy and value the quality time I share with them at every opportunity.” Still, her motherly caring extends beyond the reach of her family as the Odel Foundation extends support towards the Chitra Lane School in Colombo. “It is one of the few educational institutions in Sri Lanka which has expertise in Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, and even employs speech therapists.”

When she was young, Otara wanted to work for the betterment of animals. “I wanted to live in the jungles and work with wildlife. Hence my choice of higher studies reading for a Degree in Biology at the University of Bowlingreen, Ohio.”

Launched by Otara in March 2007, Embark is an organization that aims to promote the well-being of animals by creating awareness, raising funds and simultaneously organizing individual projects in conjunction with other animal welfare associations, treating street dogs and finding kind homes for them, reducing animal cruelty and focusing on improving the wellbeing of animals throughout the country.

When she was down in Sri Lanka for a holiday away from university, Otara dabbled in modeling, only to be drawn into the profession – shooting for high profile brands and international apparel catalogues right after her graduation.

“I have worked with such designers as Nayantara Fonseka, Mangala Innocence, Lou Ching Wong, Kirthi Sri Karunaratne and Yoland Aluvihare, among many others, who were the leading fashion designers at that time. Shows were very grand back then. They were all very big, expensive productions with huge sets and backdrops. Now that has changed.”

When I ask what style means to her, she says, “Style is really what each one makes of it, but to me it means each individual bringing out what’s best in them, using a combination of what is current, trendy and relevant to them.” According to Otara, it is not simply about dressing according to the trend but what is right for each individual, “especially nowadays, it should be a mix, a combination of high street, unknown brands and even designer brands, in order to create their own style.”

“Style is being timeless,” says Otara, “Someone who could move with the times seamlessly, no matter what the trends are.” When I ask her what this Christmas season means to her, she says “Christmas has always been a family affair, with exchanges of gifts, a turkey ham and trimmings dinner with the traditional Christmas cake, love cake and pudding flamed with brandy butter trickling over on Christmas Eve. I’m just about to decorate my home and I’ve chosen red and gold as my colors this year.”


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