SO rides the elevator to the Princess Royal Suite on the 15th floor of the Jamaica Pegasus for a sit-down with eight fiercely intelligent, unabashedly opinionated entrepreneurs under 35. The octet includes second — and third-generation scions of families known by their surnames (Vaswani, Matalon, Benjamin) and others, lesser-known but charting paths to make their mark in the spheres of food, print, IT, and politics. With the night-time view of the city-stretching to the illuminated Kingston Wharves in the distance — as a backdrop, and executive chef Mark Cole’s enticing finger food fare at hand, the men settle in to get real with a bracingly honest meeting of the minds.
What's your life/business plan?
Swaby — "I made a life wireframe before I left college and one of the things I set out to do was establish my own company which was EduFocal, an online learning tool for students preparing for GSAT and CSEC exams. I also love the idea of being in the military, but I'd not want active military service...I want to be a reserve, that's my next goal. I want to list EduFocal on the Junior Stock Exchange in the next five years and I also would love to get into politics; that would be retirement for me."
Gregg — "I run the second location of my father's business which deals with rims and tyres. I felt it was my responsibility to continue the family business. Honestly, I wanted to open an investment company but my father developed his company from nothing and was a real entrepreneur. In three years, we've managed to open our second location. So far business has been going well as we've expanded; the next part of the business is to move to other areas of the country and hopefully the Caribbean eventually, that's the long-term goal."
Jardim — "I just got back from spending two years in Honduras where I was focused on a fleet of boats and buying fish. That was my first experience in the family business, Rainforest Seafoods. I was right at the source understanding where everything comes from. I am looking forward to starting the next chapter, getting involved across the company. I don't have a direct title as yet, but exciting times are ahead for Rainforest. We are a month away from opening our Slipe Road plant which is going to be a full-fledged processing plant and I am going to get involved in the product development right there. The main focus of our company in the next five years is to double exports to our British-speaking Caribbean buying territories."
Mullings — "I own Epic Eats Fusion Restaurant and Fusion Food service with my business partner Christian Sweeney. We both learnt food in the States and came back and saw eye to eye on what we wanted to share. We wanted to provide a service for people who have travelled or lived away and give them a similar experience to what they've had abroad at affordable prices. We are looking to expand the business and want to build the business as a Caribbean brand that can be recognised internationally, and open in other Caribbean capitals across the region. We want to open another Epic Eats location, hopefully in Montego Bay."
Benjamin — " I left Jamaica in third form at high school to study in Canada and returned three years ago. I was in Australia for a year to study management and now I'm here working at the Guardsman Group learning the ropes of the business."
Vaswani — "I'm a manufacturer of paper products in Jamaica and we export to seven countries in the region. I moved back to Jamaica after studying in England, but when I returned I knew I didn't want to get into the family retail business because it was saturated. Retail was boring to me, my heart beats when a machine beats; so I started a paper manufacturing facility. I think manufacturing and production is the way to go. I started my business when I was 22 and I'll tell you something, the more you focus on efficiency, simplicity and humility, the more you attain. These are the things that are important to me as an entrepreneur and a member of the upcoming generation. We can surpass what has always been the challenge in Jamaica."
duQuesnay — "I'm a director in a family-owned business that has been operational since 1958. It's printing and a manufacturing business that makes about 200 products. It's a business that's getting tougher by the day, especially in a global recession...we've had to be more innovative and stay ahead of the game. I came back from college six years ago; it was tough getting into the family business as it was saturated. I was a bad boy, but after being dealt the tough hand over and over, you get your focus into gear, you know what you need to do and you stop asking questions. You teach yourself how to earn respect and responsibility. I went to school for animation and design but it got cut short. I wasn't really focused on doing that, but I am focused now. I'm also an entrepreneur and would love to start my own line of sauces in the near future and export to the UK. I like taking nothing and making it something or taking something and making it better.
Matalon — I moved back to Jamaica about five years ago and worked in the financial field. I did a management trainee programme that provided great training, but I came to realise finance was not really my thing.I started All Crete Surfacing Limited, a decorative concrete company about two and a half months ago. At this time, we are doing pool decks and driveways. Construction is our main line of business right now and I've aligned with Matalon Homes, which is my dad's brother's company. He's been more like my big brother than my uncle and continues to guide and support me. I would like to expand All Crete to other parts of the island, but in time. I want it to reach to a point where the brand becomes a household name".
On Why They've Chosen To Stay Rock-Bound....
Swaby — "I feel I'm not obligated to be anywhere else. I think for me, leaving would feel like defeat. A lot of the problems here in Jamaica can be fixed as long we work on solutions. I'm not giving up, I'm staying to the end."
Gregg — "My father has worked hard with his company and I feel I'm the only child who can take it over."
Jardim — "I want to make a mark, Rainforest Seafood's new processing plant is going to be bringing employment to 100 people. There's a lot of work to be done."
Mullings — "I always appreciate the saying 'It's darkest before the dawn', and I think with Jamaica we have gone through a lot. I trained in the States, I lived there and I see that we are pretty much on the horizon for change in Jamaica. When I was in the States, I ran around and did everything I wanted to do. I'm home now and am hopeful of change and I know it's coming."
On Genuine vs Opportunistic Women....
Matalon — "You have to find a way to siphon them out."
duQuesnay — "Trial and error. You have to be lucky to learn before somebody can trap you. Experiences are what make you who you are and take you where you are."
Vaswani — "Five years ago I had $1000 in my bank account; today I have $4000, but I don't know what I'll have next year or the year after, so the women are attracted to who looks the sweetest, it's the low-hanging- fruit philosophy. You don't want to climb all the way to the top to find the perfect mango."
Mullings — "If you can find a woman that does not have cable television, choose her."
At 50 years old, is Jamaica a failed state?
duQuesnay — "I don't believe that. I think we all need to work together and look past our differences. I do think people can work together given the right situations and the right opportunities."
Benjamin — "People that go into politics don't go in because they want to make Jamaica a better place, they go in because they want money and power. It's a generalisation, yes, but I think it speaks for itself and corruption is what happens when you get to that."
Matalon — "It's said that Jamaicans lack motivation but you have to lead Jamaicans to be more motivated and get somewhere in life. You need to help and show them how to get there."
Most of you were born with a gold spoon in your mouth. If you hit rock bottom tomorrow, could you handle it?
Mullings — "I have hit rock bottom before. I was a mortgage broker in the States at the age of 18 when I started working to pay my way through college, then 9/11 happened and the financial world collapsed. I knew my parents were coming from nothing. I have seen my mother work two jobs and yes, hubris is right before the fall and there might come a time when I can't provide or can't make ends meet; but as long as I am humble I know I can pick myself back up then I'll be alright."
Matalon — "Yes, there is no denying all of us are privileged... I think that's a given. But I think all of us know where we are now. If we hit rock bottom, we would have help obviously, but do we need that help? I honestly don't believe so. All of us in here have the drive and the motivation to survive."
Benjamin — "I can't say I would be the same person I am now if I were born under different circumstances. I believe if I lost everything now, I would be able [to survive]. I am educated, well-spoken and I can go and apply for a job and I have been kind enough to people over the years that I would expect one of them would be kind to me. To start over again would be impossible because I might not be the same person I am now."
Vaswani — "I have experienced rock bottom. I was thrown out of my house two years ago. Luckily, I had a very good girlfriend and told her what happened and stayed with her (that night), and the following day I went to my parents' house and got my clothes and didn't take anything else. I drove around and within two days, I found a place. There were days when I could barely pay my light bill. It was disconnected four or five times within a year. The first two weeks I slept on a sofa without a blanket. I was thrown out on a Sunday night and I didn't go to work the next day because I didn't have any clothes, but on Tuesday I was back at my desk, working with the man who threw me out the house."
Swaby — "My father operated a restaurant and would sell half a chicken per day. I was actually embarrassed in high school to work in the store; people used to laugh at my Daddy. Today, however, he's able to do what he wants. That's big! I'm the second generation of Swabys. I want to grow the family name. In retrospect, if I knew then what I know now, I would have been more involved in the family business."
Matalon — "People don't pay attention to rags-to-riches. My grandfather and his brother shared shoes to go to school. People are not going to know about that now. They are seeing the second generation of the hard work they did."
Where do you think we're headed?
Benjamin — "It's not that Jamaica can't be a better place, it's that the powers that be are only interested in making their lives better as opposed to the country and the private sector can only do so much within our sphere of influence. I think every member of parliament should live in his constituency. Perhaps the roads would get fixed more quickly if they had to drive on the road every day."
duQuesnay — ""I believe we have a fighting chance as a country. We are blessed with natural resources, we have the fastest man in the world, our music has influenced the entire globe, our food, our culture, we are wealthier than many other nations, but the governments — and I'm talking JLP, PNP, NDM — and we as a people, we need our priorities straightened. I plan to be in a position where when I speak it will influence people and hopefully 10 years from now at a (similar) social gathering — we can remember the words that were spoken and be proud of what we stood for."
Matalon — "In my opinion, Jamaica has a lot of room for growth. We made mistakes in the past. Can we all come together? It takes a group of people to do that. We are a solid group, not that we are the only ones, but we can build upon that if we stick together as a generation. Right now, we are in a slump and it is going to take a lot of digging to get out of it. But there are ways out."
Swaby — "I think I have come to appreciate group-think. I am a member of the Branson Centre of Enterpreneurship and I think people underestimate the value of like-minded people and the impact they can have on other groups and individuals. Us speaking as a group is of value not only for us but Jamaica on a whole. I really think coming out of this conversation, change really does begin with us."
Gregg — "My father has always taught me to be humble. The red-eye-ness in this country needs to stop and all of us need to change it. We need to cut out the bandoolism; without it (unfortunately) many companies/individuals can't survive. The duty structure here is crap. In this country, it's not what you know, it's who you know."
Jardim — "We spoke about the government but I truly don't believe that we can look to them as the only leaders in this country. I'm looking around at seven other leaders that hopefully in 15 or 20 years can make a significant difference in this country".
Mullings — "If there's one thing we should say to entrepreneurs or people looking to lead in this country, it's say 'yes' to an opportunity. Explore every opportunity."
Vaswani — "We as a country need to focus primarily on what is happening here instead of what is going on in the world."