Saturday, September 13, 2014

Here’s a cheer to you, Otara

25 years is not a very long time. But the business world rarely pays attention to time-span. People grow, and so do enterprises. They age. They wither. And they crumble. Nothing is permanent, not even the enterprises of man. Few bear the stamp of time delicately, with no sign of going down. But we have exceptions, little as they are. We see visions transformed, and passions realised. Profits are made, true. Ethics are infringed. But there’s something about those who sacrificed neither youth nor idealism when they ran the businesses they found. This is true even in Sri Lanka. I would rephrase that. This is true especially in Sri Lanka.

I am not a big fan of business (with a capital “B”). This is obvious. For all the superfluities associated with Corporate Social Responsibility and sustainability, commerce is yet as far removed from non-profit concerns as they can ever get. But then again, that’s the way with it all. This is an age where generosity is advertised. Big-time. Where feel-good initiatives and foundations are begun, ostensibly in the name of future generations and sustainability, but in reality for reasons of tax-exemption and wealth-generation. I don’t know how cynical I can get over Business. But I know one thing. There are exceptions. There is honesty. And there is generosity. Un-hyped.

Few entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka (and for that matter the world) have caught my eye. Otara Gunawardena did. And how. There was her array of dresses, true. From a humble corner in a car boot, her business acumen reached heights within less than two-and-a-half decades. That’s achievement. The endearing thing about it was this: it was born out of a small-time, innocent need. Otara had been to the United States for her higher education. She would have seen fashion store after fashion store. Back home, the economy had been made "free.” The robber barons had come. A Free Trade Zone, “free” only of labour rights and resource expense, had been built. The age of garment factories had begun, with garments being sold to countries which either were paying ridiculously low prices for them (hence the meaning of "cheap labour") or had set up import restrictions to keep their economies afloat. Short-sighted policy on our part, you could say.

Otara Gunawardena, like countless other budding entrepreneurs, saw opportunity. She could have, admittedly, started at the top. She could have gone with the crowd and enmeshed herself in the new economy. But she didn’t. She opted for a second path instead. From a car boot, she took in home produce. She converted them. She sold. She earned. And she grew. Entrepreneurs allured and enchanted by favourable prospects went out, or at least joined up with outsiders. It wasn’t give-and-take then. More often than not, the “give” became greater than the “take.” Otara didn’t get herself involved in it. She started at home, literally and figuratively. That’s how “national” entrepreneurs can get.

For all the hype over the “peace” we won in the early part of the new millennium, war still continued. Business interests were looked after, by a government more concerned with Profit than with Welfare. That’s putting things in a clichéd way, but no other will do. Otara stood away from those interests. She wasn’t alone. But the forging ahead and the getting of raw material and converting into final accessory were done amidst tremendous pressure.

It is of course a convenient plaything of commerce and politics to ignore a conflict-prone situation as long as it doesn’t affect their welfare. Amidst all this, ODEL reached new heights. Branches in Majestic City, Alexandra Place, Katunayake, and Kohuwala were built. It would be fatally easy to consider ODEL as having figured in prominently in the conflict, but no-one can deny that, at a time when business and government combined unethically, she cautiously (and laudably) stayed away. There was idealism in her. That never died. She was among the most honest entrepreneurs I ever encountered.

The war, despite the “peace” we had won, had to be over with. So we ended it. Loyalists of the old order, whose interests would be eroded should a new government come into power, tried to prevail. They couldn’t. So they did the next best thing. They embraced the winner. They bent with the wind. Otara didn’t, though. There’s a reason for that. She had seen reality. A long time back.

I remember seeing Kumar Rupesinghe, back then an unabashed apologist for the LTTE, genuflect to the present regime. He couldn’t do otherwise. That’s scoundrelism of the worst sort. But then, on the same news channel (Al-Jazeera), I saw Otara. She spoke succinctly. The war, she said, had been the biggest impediment, both to her country and to business. There was not a hint of back-bending in that statement. She said it as though she had accepted it as the truth a long time ago. That’s honesty. That’s class. Few businessmen could get that honest.

This isn’t all. Otara showed womanhood in Sri Lanka a way forward. A new way. She did something else. She brought fresh meaning to the word “CSR.” She did this not through advertising generosity on yearly reports. She did it almost purely on a personal level. EMBARK was not born out of ODEL. I’m not saying the two were clean different, but one could see where the real passion, the real effort, was coming from. The thing is, there are initiatives started every other day. More often than not, they become scarcely distinguishable from NGO outfits and feel-good Foundations. EMBARK went viral. Dog-adoption found its way to our hearts. We went with it. No scandal rocked it. But we rarely saw the woman advertise herself. Politicians and do-gooders in the corporate world, I feel, have a lot to learn. Especially from her.

This is not the time to attempt a lengthy analysis. I leave that to the experts. Sketchy as my tribute is, this is all I can write. I am not a fashion-fan. Neither, for that matter, is my mother, although her tastes in clothes far dwarf those of anyone else her age I have met so far. My visits to ODEL have not been frequent. There’s price and affordability involved there, but that’s another story. Despite this, though, my fascination with that organisation remains intact. My mother isn’t an ODEL patron either. But she loves dogs. Perhaps growing out of this, she has developed a shrewd talent at recognising people’s true worth and “humanity.” That’s talent. For EMBARK, and for ODEL, she has given a 10/10 assessment. Unconditionally. I am not saying her opinions are ex-cathedra. But when it comes to sifting the false from the honest, she’s streets ahead of me.

Otara Gunawardena deserves more than a cheer, of course. As a fashion-fanatic, I am sure you will heap praises on her. She has “given up” ODEL. In a way, at least. Perhaps some of us feel betrayed. One cannot predict how well Softlogic will run her company. It’s true that Softlogic has, in recent years, become a conglomerate (and force) to reckon with. So I reserve judgment of that. But enough with this “feeling of betrayal.” For the fact is, Otara hasn’t really given up. In a big way.

We look forward to term-end and year-end at school, because we know the new term and year will bring with it fresh start. Not too different here. ODEL has stepped out. But EMBARK remains. Indeed, we may even see it expand in time to come. In that sense, not much has been given up. I think this will remain so.