Lisandra Rickards’ sock it to ‘em entrepreneurial spirit
Without LimitTuesday, December 20, 2016
with Rachael Barrett
Most Jamaicans are familiar with the entrepreneurship spirit as a staple of our society. We like to ‘tun our han mek fashion’, and from the streets of Kingston straight through to Montego Bay, locals know there is no shortage of enterprising folks vending ‘from a pin to an anchor’.
Encouraging this entrepreneurial spirit and offering training, mentorship and financing resources to boost business savviness is the spirit behind the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship— Caribbean (BCoEC). The partners who founded the centre are part of the large component of our best and brightest who have trained abroad and returned to help build and grow the local business environment.
Fresh from a series of meetings at Branson HQ in London, incoming CEO Lisandra Rickards shares her own journey from Jamaica to Chicago, sharpening her skills in the MBA programme at Harvard and then answering the internal call to return home, where she found kindred spirits at the BCoEC.
"My mother retired from Jamaica Customs last week, after working there since leaving high school. She spent 41 years at the same company — something that is very difficult to imagine today! My father is very entrepreneurial, and I get my desire for autonomy and flexibility from him.
"I went to Campion College, then studied economics in undergrad at the University of Chicago, then did an MBA at Harvard Business School.
"My mother really pushed me to get the best education I could, with as much international exposure as possible, because she believed that it would give me options.
"She was right. You want to expand your field of options as much as possible during your lifetime. [However] like many Jamaicans, while I was away at school, I felt a strong calling to come back and contribute to our country in some way. So I kept coming back."
A native Kingstonian, Rickards has studied extensively abroad and has a background in economics, both in terms of investment as well as research, a combination of practical experience and academic principle which will serve her well in terms of running a centre and developing strategies that best harness and enhance entrepreneur’s potential.
"My first job out of college was doing economic and statistical research for the book SuperFreakonomics. After working on the book, I moved back to Jamaica for a year, and worked in research at Stocks and Securities, then did a consultancy in the Ministry of Finance.
"I got into Harvard Business School right as the Great Recession hit, and did my summer internship in the private equity group at Bain and Company in New York City.
"I moved back to Jamaica again after graduation, but it was harder this time. My eyes had been opened to a new level of life, leadership and work, and it was hard to understand what my next step was after being on such a high.
"I took three jobs in three years — searching for the right thing. First in corporate strategy at a large, local conglomerate [GraceKennedy], then at a family office doing private equity investments [the RMP Group], and finally in the entrepreneur programme at the Branson Centre. The Branson Centre Caribbean really embraced the Virgin Group culture — combining high productivity with flexibility and independence — and I felt at home there from the start.
Rickards joined the BCoEC four years ago after intervewing with then CEO Lisa Lake, a fellow Harvard alumna, who was looking for someone to help train entrepreneurs to structure their companies for growth and access funding. The combination proved a key catalyst in pushing the BCoEC — also itself a start-up — forward.
"Since [four years ago], we have expanded the entrepreneur programme significantly. We start with training entrepreneurs to develop a business pitch deck that presents their companies in a really compelling way, then we evaluate the pitch decks and invite the most innovative, scalable businesses to be a part of our core programme. They get assigned to a local or international mentor, and once they have built enough of a track record, they have the opportunity to access funding directly from us or through one of our partners."
The BCoEC was launched at a period of renewed interest in developing a vibrant start-up culture in Jamaica, and over the last few years the non-profit’s footprint has grown considerably, this year opening a second office in the British Virgin Islands (BVI).
"Our online platform has trained approximately 900 entrepreneurs,with 100 selected so far to become official Branson Centre entrepreneurs."
With 88 official entrepreneurs in Jamaica and 12 in the BVI, Rickards notes that the contributions of the official entrepreneurs have proven significant in terms of their own growth and also in terms of making a significant contribution to the local economy.
Rickards notes her assumption of duties as CEO at the BCoEC is something that she is prepared for in terms of practical experience, but ushers in a new era of leadership that will develop a separate but also crucial set of skills.
"Good leadership is about setting a vision and strategy, then hiring people you trust and unleashing their potential. At the end of the day, a company is made up of people, and service-based companies are especially dependent on the quality and productivity of the people on the team.
"Richard Byles once said to me that he views his role as CEO of Sagicor as holding the reins of stallions and guiding them towards the finish line. I hope to do the same."
Finding her tribe at the BCoEC, Rickards has long been someone I know as a key advocate of pursuing a work goal and vision that balances with one’s bigger picture in life. Unsurprisingly, her own personal icons she has valued along the way embody that work/life balance.
She shared some of the leaders in her own life who inspire her.
"I am really inspired by women who lead companies while having a full family life, and are able to balance it all well.
"Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, sets a big example for me. She runs operations at Facebook, launched her own non-profit — Lean In — and has had to cope with the shocking loss of her husband, while also raising two children without him.
"Another superwoman — Lisa Lake, former CEO of the Branson Centre Caribbean — gave me the autonomy to lead large areas of the company at a time where I wondered whether moving back to Jamaica was the right thing. I felt nurtured and trusted at the Branson Centre under her leadership, and was given the freedom and flexibility to grow into my own.
"But I think the person who has most acted in the capacity of formal mentor over the past five years has been Oliver Holmes — managing director of Capital Options. He has allowed me to continue working out of his office in Kingston, even as I left to join the Branson Centre — and has been a real example of calm, steady leadership. He leads by listening first, then combines empathy with thoughtful guidance to set a strategic direction. I hope to follow the example he has set."
With this vision in mind and her team ready to move, Rickards is quiet about future moves at the company but acknowledges that some changes are in the pipeline for the future;
"A leadership transition is always a good time to introduce fresh ideas into a company. So we are hoping to revitalise the Branson Centre in 2017 and beyond. We hope to continue to attract the highest potential entrepreneurs and train, mentor and fund them towards the goal of becoming large, globally relevant businesses."