The woman who turned kindness into a passionate reality

They say that there is no room for people who are kind in this world. Therefore, people who are born with kindness in their souls, leave their passions to rust away. But, my opinion is that there is still hope, just because she exists. She has proved to the world that kindness and compassion can turn dreams into reality. Yes, this is her story.

Otara Del Gunewardene was born on the 30th of August 1964, into the beloved family of Norman and Delysia with her two elder brothers Ruchi and Ajith. Since she was small Otara loved animals of all kinds. Every day after returning home from her school, Ladies College, Colombo 07, she would not forget to count all the household rabbits just to check if anyone had been given away.

Young Otara was an energetic athlete, followed up by her emerging competencies in swimming and ballet. She obtained her Bsc. in Biology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, with the aim of exploring the depths of veterinary science. Back in the days from 1987 to 2004 Otara was an outstanding professional model for high profile fashion brands and international apparel catalogs, TV commercials, and runway shows, which was inspired by her glamorous beauty and irresistible eyes. In 1990 she became the loving wife of Raju Chandiram and was blessed with two boys, Kiran (1994) and Rakhil (2000).

Otara’s legacy begins in 1989 at the boot of her blue Station Wagon when she started selling surplus factory garments just to make some extra money. While this small mobile shop improved little by little, Otara’s father took the initiative to establish his daughter’s business legally, in the name of ODEL created by adding Otara’s first letter of her first name and her middle name. Otara was unaware of anything related to business and finance but continued to pursue her business with a little hope to help Sri Lankan elephants and wildlife.

Working tirelessly, Otara was able to launch Odel’s first luxury flagship store in 1999 in the heart of Colombo, providing Sri Lanka with a first-ever unique experience in the retail industry. In 2010 Odel became a PLC becoming the first retail brand to be listed on Colombo Stock Exchange, while at the same time making a record when its IPO was oversubscribed by 64 times on the same day. With that Otara secured the position of the first female entrepreneur to take a company public in Sri Lanka.

With all these comes Embark. Embark, established in 2007 was inspired by Otara’s first adopted puppy Niko. Niko was a little street puppy who was left all alone in the street when his siblings were also taken away. Otara was moved by this lucky baby dog and had brought it home. It was then, she realized what could have happened to him if she did not let him in, into her life. Niko inspired Otara to start the project Embark to help such speechless animals, especially street dogs who are longing for at least one loving touch.

2014 was a year of change for Otara. Odel has grown to a massive extent with her success story known not only locally, but internationally also. And Odel needed more and more space to grow. As you know Otara is a mischievous, yet wonderful lady with such a passionate heart. So, in the above year, Otara decides to sell the shares of Odel PLC to Softlogic group, taking with her, only Embark and her dream to make her childhood passions come true.

As she had told us, success was not about money or physical possessions for our Otara. Her success was to do more for her people, animals, and the wildlife of Sri Lanka, interpreting success as the ability to make yourself happy as well as others around you. Leaving Odel in order to indulge her time on these courses, she established Otara Foundation in 2015. Since then, she has contributed enormously to environmental and wildlife conservation as well as animal welfare in Sri Lanka. She takes measures to protect the biodiversity of this small island as well as to educate future generations on these worthy causes of action. Embark still continues with its rescuing and rehoming initiatives for street dogs, with thousands of such poor fellows sterilized, vaccinated, treated for injuries, and also by finding kind homes for them. When the third wave of CoronaVirus hit the country and people were under lockdown, Otara’s campaign to feed the forgotten street animals who were starving and vulnerable was an act that moved a lot of animal lovers. Through Embark, Otara also has given the chance for all of us to sponsor a dog in need. Moving on, in 2020 Otara launched “Who We Are” which is an online platform that sells Sri Lankan authentic products which are sustainable and eco-friendly. It has been a great strength and a source of income to small businesses and emerging entrepreneurs of our country.

Otara was able to make a significant impact on the lives of all humans and animals. Being a holder of many awards and recognitions locally as well as internationally, she is still a much humble character. Selling away such a multi-million-making company would not be an option for people running behind this thing called money. But it was not like that for her. It was her dream to be a voice for the speechless animals in a country like ours. She earned money for the sake of that dream. Many people are born with such kindness, but along the way, society takes away such emotions and dreams making everyone the self-seeking machine-like individuals. But Otara never let the opinions of others dim her light or her kindness. She says that the most important thing that her parents gave her was the chance to follow her passion freely and never to cage her. She always says to look beyond what we have been taught. If it wasn’t for this courage of hers we would not see Otara as she is now. Everyone is unique and every woman is more than unique. Sri Lanka still has a long way to go in terms of gender-based issues and animal rights. But looking at Otara I think there will be more people like her who would emerge from this land to be a change that they wish to see in this world, just like she did. Otara is living proof depicting that dreams of kindness can be turned into a reality if a person has the courage and dedication to work and fight for what he or she believes in. So, as an endnote, I would like to conclude with some important words from this beautiful soul of ours while featuring in Volume six of Aurora magazine.

“It is your life, it is your vision. Only you know deep down what you should be doing. Parents, friends, advisors are all people who say things based on their experience and knowledge. Of course, there are things to learn from them but the life journey is yours.”

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Design by – Shanaka Vishwantha

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