Goodwill Ambassador, Habitat for Humanity Sri Lanka
In 2019, Habitat for Humanity Sri Lanka, appointed entrepreneur, philanthropist and advocate Otara Gunewardene, as its Goodwill Ambassador in celebration of its 25th Anniversary. Otara, the Founder and CEO of Embark and the Otara Foundation, has been a long-standing supporter of the work of Habitat for Humanity. She first joined hands with Habitat for Humanity in the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami, volunteering and supporting Habitat’s Post-Tsunami Rebuilding efforts in the Southern Province.
Otara’s keen interest in engaging in work that benefits the people, animals and the environment is what first led her to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity in 2005. Since her first partnership with Habitat Sri Lanka, Otara has played a pivotal role in rallying the support of donors and volunteers alike to raise funds for Habitat Sri Lanka’s work across the country. Following her experience in working directly with Habitat Sri Lanka to rebuild after the Tsunami, Otara was inspired to sponsor the construction of 13 homes for flood-prone families in the Kalutara District. In celebration of World Habitat Day in 2015, Otara championed Habitat for Humanity Sri Lanka’s ‘Corporate Build’ volunteer event, which provided employees of corporates an opportunity to volunteer their time and effort towards engaging in a tree planting campaign and constructing permanent homes for families in need in Kalutara.
Beginning her journey by setting up shop at the back of her blue Station Wagon, Otara Gunewardene rose to fame as Sri Lanka’s leading female entrepreneur, fashion icon and philanthropist. Her lifestyle store, Odel, became renown throughout Asia as a top retailer and Otara was the first female entrepreneur to take her company public in Sri Lanka in 2010. Odel helped Otara combine the two things she was most passionate about; animal welfare and fashion. Through Odel, Otara championed her causes on animal well-being and wildlife conservation with large awareness campaigns, supporting organizations that help animals and book promotions, along with many other projects and community work to help animals in need. In 2007, at a time where countless numbers of street dogs perished on the streets due to being abandoned and uncared for, Otara created Embark, an organization dedicated to improving the well-being of homeless street dogs in Sri Lanka.
After 25 years of hard work and dedication that spearheaded Odel as Sri Lanka’s number one department store, Otara sold her shares to Softlogic PLC in 2014, marking the end of a glorious era. Consequently, Embark became the highlight of Otara’s journey from thereon, whereby she was able to pursue her true calling: a service towards animals. Otara revolutionized the idea of street dog welfare in Sri Lanka by using all profits from Embark’s brand and merchandise towards rescue and treatment operations. Embark’s uniqueness lies in its multi-pronged approach which focuses both on immediate rescue and re-homing to the more sustainable, long-term solutions of sterilization and vaccinations. As of 2018, Embark has re-homed over 4038 dogs, sterilized 23322, vaccinated 51980 and rescued and treated 20220 dogs since its inception.
As Otara’s sphere of influence expanded, so did the opportunity to show more compassion. It was this desire to make a change in the lives of animals and the world which gave birth to the idea of establishing her own foundation, the Otara Foundation, for environmental and wildlife conservation.
Remaining true to the highest ideals of humanity, she inspires, educates and empowers individuals on the importance of living in a world filled with respect and care for all living beings. From her humble beginnings of selling clothes from the boot of her car, today, Otara heads the list of Sri Lanka’s Most Powerful Women, was declared “Woman of the Year” by Women in Management and serves as the Ambassador for Habitat for Humanity Sri Lanka, World Animal Day and Earth Hour, Sri Lanka – serving as an inspiration for many aspiring young entrepreneurs and activists now and in the years to come.