Jamaican women entrepreneurs shine spotlight on US exchange programmes
Participants in the US Embassy's Women's History Month entrepreneurship forum.

JAMAICAN women entrepreneurs were celebrated on March 28 at the US Embassy's Women History Month entrepreneurship forum, held under the theme 'Her Exchange Story' at the Jamaica Pegasus hotel. Over 40 entrepreneurs were invited to the forum to learn more about the stories of featured Jamaican women who have participated in US exchange programmes to build professional business, marketing, and entrepreneurship skills.

Speaking on behalf of the US Embassy, Deputy Public Affairs Officer Holly Wheeler affirmed the US Government's commitment to women's empowerment that "guides our policy initiatives, as the advancement of women in the sphere of business is paramount to the development and growth of any society".

The forum was hosted by media professional Debbie Bissoon, who moderated a panel discussion with four local entrepreneurs — Latoya West Blackwood, Kimone Knight, Kavelle Hylton, and Shaundrice Foster — who each participated in US Government-sponsored exchange programmes including the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative (YLAI) and Academy of Women Entrepreneurs (AWE). Each panellist shared details on her exchange experience and how the programmes benefited them. They discussed wins, challenges, and pitfalls in entrepreneurship and provided tips on how to get started and secure funding. They also shared how the US-sponsored professional development programmes provided networking opportunities that allowed them to expand and access new markets.

West Blackwood was a member of Jamaica's first YLAI cohort launched in 2016. Now a publishing and communications consultant with over two decades' experience in the cultural and creative industries, she shared her best tips with participants. She recommends that anyone aspiring to own their own business should "start with what you have, where you are; be confident; learn to collaborate with others; stay spiritually grounded; and be vulnerable and open". West Blackwood also asserted that as one grows in business, they should also "learn to balance people and profits".

Hylton, YLAI and AWE alumna, is the founder and chief executive officer of STEM Builders Learning Hub Limited. A STEM educator and education technology entrepreneur, she described her journey towards entrepreneurship as one defined by growth and breaking mental barriers. Previously described as "shy", Hylton resisted fear and decided to spread her wings to realise her dreams.

With coaching from fellow YLAI alum and noted speaker Tishauna Mullings, Hylton has won several local and overseas pitch competitions, therefore, acquiring well-needed support to expand her business capacity.

Describing herself as an extremely motivated, result-oriented and hard-working individual, Knight is the chief chemist and lead formulator for Chemqualco. She has developed years of experience as a chemist in the household, cosmetics and personal care industry, formulating for some of Jamaica's biggest manufacturing companies.

Her YLAI experience was life changing as she described the programme as "the best kept secret for female entrepreneurs" that formed an intricate part of her ability to pivot from one business line to another amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Foster, CEO and founder of G Weed Cosmetics, discovered her purpose through pain, as the business was birthed following her father's passing in 2017. To carry on his legacy and pioneering research in guinea hen weed, Foster developed a mainstream personal care cosmetics line with the 'go to herb' for solving everyday hair and skincare problems. She spoke highly of the AWE programme describing it as a "life-changing experience that gave me the push of confidence and push of passion that I needed to get started".

A speed networking session followed the panel discussion. Panellists were joined by YLAI alum Mullings, founder & CEO of Nexx Stepp Lifelong Educational Services; Chevelle Campbell, founder & CEO of Walk Bout Pickney; Janielle Todd, founder & CEO of the A+ Generation; and AWE alumna Michelle Roberts, founder & CEO of Aperitivo Management and Creations by Chelle.

Participants discussed with the mentors the nuanced topics pertaining to their specific business models, and heard first-hand accounts on how the alumni overcame difficult challenges. The room was charged with sentiments of hope, friendship, mentorship, and a true belief that success is possible.

This event coincided with the US Government's second annual Women's Business Summit, also held on March 28. The virtual summit featured Biden-Harris Administration officials who met with women entrepreneurs leading businesses in various sectors, including childcare, technology, services, manufacturing, and more.

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