Otara Gunewardene

From bringing home a lion cub from the zoo, to raising an abandoned baby squirrel on her own at the age of 4, Otara Gunewardene has loved animals of all kinds since childhood. This passion spurred her to pursue a degree in Biology at Bowling Green University, Ohio. 

Years later, back in Sri Lanka, a chance request by an apparel manufacturer to help dispose of surplus export garments led Otara to set up a shop in the boot of her blue Station Wagon, which gradually grew in profit and scale. She consolidated this early success by selling to other clothing stores in Colombo and as demand grew, Otara opened her very first store, Odel. From the initial 1, 000 sq. ft. space, to 20 stores island-wide – Odel evolved into one of the largest retailers in the Asian region, with a flagship store reminiscent of Harvey Nichols or Harrods.

Whilst her career in fashion progressed rapidly, her love for animals and her interest in improving their lives never diminished. With her years of experience in business and entrepreneurship she also gained the invaluable ability to see into the heart of problems. 

With pedigree dogs being in popular demand, countless street dogs in Sri Lanka who needed care and attention often lived difficult lives on the streets, and were always deemed less worthy.  It was with this thought in mind that Embark was initiated in 2007. With an inbuilt sustainability factor, Otara diligently focused on numerous projects while partnering with different organizations and professionals to improve the welfare of street dogs in Sri Lanka. Understanding early on that animal welfare work requires a means to be self-sustaining, Embark was molded to support its own rescue work through profits made from its trendy clothing and accessories collection. This link to fashion also resulted in a paradigm shift where adopting a Sri Lankan street dog became fashionable. Otara consistently leverages her fashion and business success to create sustainable models for animal welfare projects, and she is particularly adept at using her retail skill to raise funds for the cause. She not only uses her celebrity status to focus attention on the work that Embark does but also on encouraging a general positive change in attitude towards animals and the environment. 

Embark has succeeded in not only making a significant change through its own work, but has also inspired countless others to move from ignorance to empathy and from fear to compassion for the animals they share their space with. Otara was the initiator but is also the backbone of this operation, never failing in her passion and dedication to the cause.