Yesterday Jamaica celebrated 60 years of Independence and, unlike in previous years when publications like this would turn to 'older folks' to reflect on the past 60 years, and in this case reflecting on the economy in the last 60 years since this is a business publication, I decided to turn to four young CEOs, two who have already taken their companies public, and the other two at various stages of getting ready to do so. Their views from that conversation form the basis of the article below. These young entrepreneurs are Gordon Swaby, CEO of EduFocal; Larren Peart, CEO of Bluedot Insights; Ricardo Allen, CEO of One-on-One; and Tyrone Wilson, CEO of iCreate.
A short conversation with the chairman and co-founder of FirstRock Group Ryan Reid early last week led me to reach out to a few young entrepreneurs to solicit their views on Jamaica as we celebrate 60 years of Independence and I left that conversation feeling hopeful for my country.
"It's a phenomenal time to be alive," said Gordon Swaby, CEO of EduFocal Limited, started at the beginning when asked to sum up his own view of where Jamaica is at as a country right now. "Certainly this is a much better time to be living in Jamaica. I think the best place on Earth to be right now is in Jamaica. My greatest affliction is my penchant for optimism, because cynics do not inherit the future, and we believe in Jamaica, land we love," he continued with a pride which barely hid his patriotism.
Swaby, whose EduFocal company is geared at helping to educate the next generation of Jamaicans, was adamant that if Jamaica is to achieve the promise it has, educating the populace will play a big role. His colleagues share the sentiment. They also share the same sentiment about Jamaica and where it is going.
"I am very optimistic about the economy, where it is now, the future," Larren Peart, CEO of Bluedot Insights, a data analytics company, told the Jamaica Observer. For me, I've never seen so much opportunity for my company before, and I am even more grateful that I have quite a few friends in the space who I can lean on. Sometimes when I am having down days, or not a good week, Gordon or Tyrone [Wilson] might just close a deal, and I would tell them I am happy for them, because I feel like it's me, and I feed off that energy from them. The same thing with Ricardo [Allen], the other day when he announced he was taking his company public, and I feel happy for them," he said.
His sentiments are reminiscent of what is being seen among this new breed of young entrepreneurs in Jamaica. People who compete, but are happy to support each other with no grudge.
Tyrone Wilson, CEO of iCreate, outlined how the face of entrepreneurs and the types of businesses they start are changing.
"Ten years ago, Jamaica 50th, my company did a documentary called 50 years of Entrepreneurship in Jamaica, which highlighted then some of our founding business leaders of big companies that we see today, when they started in the 60s and 70s and so on — like the Jamaica Broilers, Pan Jam, Sagicor, and so on — and we feature those entrepreneurs. What we are seeing now, compared to 2012, we are seeing a new generation of entrepreneurs and it is so surreal to be witnessing it myself, being behind the camera with that documentary then, and now being here as an entrepreneur, as one of the trailblazers now in terms of entrepreneurship on the stock exchange and encouraging folks; it's just a pleasure to see that. It's a passing on of the baton for Jamaica 60 and, as Gordon says, there is no better place to be.
"When I interviewed those guys in 2012 they were heavily in manufacturing, banking and finance, real estate, and now we seeing fintech, edtech, medtech, all of these businesses that are being launched now. We are expanding the economy in terms of the opportunities and the economic diversification we are seeing now and expansion of the economy is really good to be witnessing. It's a whole paradigm shift we are seeing in terms of entrepreneurship, leadership in Jamaica."
But all said, while they form a new class of entrepreneurs, they took advice from the 'older heads' who mentored them in the initial stages of their businesses and continue to mentor them.
For iCreate, the mentors include current governor of the Bank of Jamaica Richard Byles and Proven CEO Christopher Williams. For EduFocal, CEO of British Caribbean Insurance Company Peter Levy and Christopher Berry, executive chairman of Mayberry Investments. For One-on-One, there is Douglas Orane, the former CEO and chairman of GraceKennedy, and for Bluedot there is chairman of Advanced Integrated Systems, Douglas Halsall. The names listed above is not exhaustive.
"I looked up to them back in the day," Peart said. "But now we have a lot of entrepreneurial spirit. We are more accessible, we tweet a lot, and we share our views a lot."
Common among them was how they told stories of how each inspire the other.
"For me, coming out of university, I was an academic. I wanted to pursue the highest academic qualifications ever," Allen recounted."I met Tyrone while I was at Sagicor. I don't know how many people know this story, but Tyrone had a TV station he was trying to launch, Iview, and he came to Sagicor for the money, and I was on the pricing end of that, and I was trying to price it. But here I was seeing another entrepreneur coming through the door, and I said I want to do that," he said pointing.
"Usually, you see people come through the door, they are older guys, mature...and here is this 20-something-year-old coming through the door. I fell in love with entrepreneurship when I saw him. At the time I was tutoring and I thought that I could really take my business to a higher level. That's the inspiration element and the accessibility that everyone was talking about. Seeing other persons do it, seeing that you can do it too," he continued.
"I will tell you something else that I think is very important. Going to Jamaica College, obviously you see a number of old boys who would have done well in their own right. I never forget going up the principal's office, which I had to do many times, I would see on the wall written something that says, 'Why wait to be a great man, be a great youth." It was said by Norman Manley, he went there. And so, seeing those things, it motivated you. I remember when I met Danny Williams, and I got a summer job. I would tell you that Danny said to me, Ricardo, why not create a business out of this tutoring thing. He's never encouraged me to do a resume," Allen added.
"I remember when I was making a decision to give up my scholarship and Chris Williams said to me, 'Ricardo, do you want to be a professional student?' I said, 'What do you mean?' And he said, 'Do you want to go to school forever, or do you want to come and do this that we are doing?' And so, having those guys say that, having them in the background, to say, what's the worse that could happen kinda of thing, was very inspiring for me. I have learnt a lot from the older guys of the past.
"The truth is, while business has changed, business has not change. What do I mean by that? Danny always reminds us, two things that make a business work: You must be able to sell and collect the money. It worked in the 60s and it works today. So, learning from these guys with stable hands and so on has certainly helped, and obviously... us coming with the new flare, young with strength and drive, that's what's going to drive Jamaica forward," said Allen.
"For me, it may sound cliche, but education is the antidote to depravity and poverty. And I don't mean education in its traditional way and how we think about education. Education should act as an enabler of upward mobility and, for me, my story is the opposite of Ricardo, within the context of an academic perspective. I dropped out of university, but I by no means think I am stupid or uneducated. I mean any piece of content or knowledge I can get my hand on I consume it, and consume it in a methodological way...in a way that I can use to advance my own welfare and, by virtue of that, advance the welfare of others.
"I cannot be a rich man in a poor state. Not only is that selfish, it is unsustainable, because it means that I will have to be building my wall taller and taller," Swaby observed.