IN recent days, news emerged that Nationwide News Network (NNN), a media entity, secured "significant investment" from the Amber Group, a tech firm that will see the media entity delving into new territory. While most people in Jamaica will know what NNN is, not many have that familiarity with the Amber Group, what it does, and who is behind this company. This week's Corporate Profile will seek to go further, pulling back the curtains on the Amber Group, its beginnings and plans. The CEO and founder Dushyant Savadia told a story about being lost in his teenage years in his native India after physical and sexual abuse led to alcohol abuse, before he found himself and made his way to Jamaica where he fell in love with the island, became a citizen, and built a business. Here is his story.
"THE Amber Group has become one of the largest technology conglomerates in Jamaica and in the Caribbean," Dushyant Savadia, founder and CEO of the Amber Group, replied when asked to sum up the company he heads.
"We officially registered Amber in Jamaica on August 5, 2015 so we really are only a seven-year-old company," Savadia told the Jamaica Observer.
At the beginning the company was called Amber Connect, "which was our first business and our flagship business, even today", Savadia outlined as he pointed out that occasion was when this reporter first met him.
Amber Connect is a vehicle-tracking and fleet management solution that Savadia said has made the company "really, really big globally in a very short space of time", he shared excitedly in the interview for this story with the Business Observer.
Since then, the company has grown from one which provided vehicle-tracking systems to now being involved in 10 business lines with operations in 30 countries across the world. Its headquarters is in Jamaica but it also has offices in Miami, Florida in the United States; South Africa and India. Savadia said those now in the employ of the Amber Group number more than 2,000 working on various products across the world.
Journey from India
But the start of the Amber Group is interlinked with Savadia's own life story. First, he's Indian by birth but was quick to point out, "I am a Jamaican citizen now.
"I come from a state called Odisha [formerly Orissa] in eastern India on the Bay of Bengal. I grew up there in the capital, Bhubaneswar, but was born in Kolkata [in the neighbouring state of West Bengal]," he said as he outlined his formative years ahead of becoming a Jamaican citizen, a status he embraces with such passion that not even his strong Indian accent could hide his patriotic fervour for his island home.
"I've got a very interesting life," he continued on the prompting to tell his life story before he came to Jamaica.
"So when I was 14 I became an alcoholic and a drug addict. I used to smoke about 60 to 70 cigarettes a day. I became an alcoholic due to many circumstances that I was in, in my own life. I grew up in a joint family. My parents were always busy in the [family] business and, while in school, if I didn't do homework or something my uncle would just pick me up and throw me on the wall," he said as his countenance darkened while mimicking the action as he spoke.
"I was physically abused. I was sexually abused when I was small. And with all that trauma as I grew up, by the time I was 14 I was already gone. I was drinking so much, and by the time I got to 19 my parents couldn't take it anymore and one night my father threw me out of the house. I had a little money in my pocket [and was] fully drunk. I left and went to the train station and said to myself, "Whichever train comes first, that will be my life."
Staying true to his promise to himself, Savadia said he got on the first train which turned up, lacking care for where it would go, as he only thought about getting away from his family and home.
That train took him to Delhi — India's national capital territory — after a 36-hour ride.
"By that time the alcohol was out of my system so I had my senses back," Savadia recalled.
"So I started looking around and began wondering how I would feed myself, and I saw a restaurant where I went to seek a job."
"So my first job, as in my career, was a waiter in a restaurant. I served there for three months, removing plates and washing dishes and serving food.
"But, having realised by that time that I had dishonoured my family and dishonoured my nation, I wanted to get back on track. After working as a waiter then I sought and found work in a call centre for a telecom company in Delhi."
Savadia said he did so very well there that after six months he was promoted and continued to excel. He was then recruited to work for Xerox where he became the head of Xerox for Southeast Asia "in a very short time".
"Then in 1999 I was introduced to the Art of Living Foundation, which is one of the world's largest non-profit organisations," he continued.
"The Art of Living Foundation teaches stress management courses. We call it the happiness programme, and it involves meditation and breathing and really makes you understand human values and how to handle your stress, and how to handle your negative emotions, and how to handle conflicts around you. It gets you out of the rut and helps you to live your best life — and that course actually did wonders for me. The effect that it brought to my life was that I stopped drinking, I stopped smoking, I stopped doing drugs. I stopped everything abruptly because that course brought me so much of wisdom and so much of centredness that I went back for more. So, I did some advanced courses and eventually met the founder of the Art of Living Foundation, Ravi Shankar, and then I decided to become an Art of Living teacher."
Savadia said he was so inspired by his new found happiness that in 2000, one year after being introduced to the Art of Living, he gave up his lucrative, high-paying job with Xerox and became a full-time humanitarian with the Art of Living Foundation.
"And since 2000 till 2012 I travelled around the world to nearly 70 countries teaching Art of Living courses in war-torn areas, conflict regions, gangs and prisons. And then in 2012 the founder asked me to come to the Caribbean because he understood the region had high stress levels and high crime, and we set out to use the Art of Living to reduce stress in the society and the violence."
After travelling to various countries he ended up in Jamaica for the first time in April 2012 to teach Art of Living courses.
"And when I came to Jamaica I was not in a very good place myself at that time. I had just divorced six months before that day and I was uncertain what to do with my life. And I think when I came to Jamaica and I started serving here, something changed. I just started living again and I was so happy here, and I think this land healed me quite a lot — and that day I decided this will be my home," he said as his face brightened.
Having decided on resettling in Jamaica, Savadia said he taught the course to thousands of people, including politicians, business leaders, farmers, gang members, inmates, entertainers and staff of many companies "while living in a little apartment from which I just recently moved into my own house".
But after teaching the Art of Living courses for three years, by early 2015 Savadia had expended all his money and was broke again.
"I then realised that charity cannot happen from an empty body. You need wealth to do good, you need money to serve. So, because all the income that came for the foundation, we spent all of that back in the good work in Jamaica, and I wasn't a great businessman at all — whatever money came, I just kept spending; as long as I had money to eat my food and pay my rent, I was okay — but I didn't think [things] through very well.
"I still remember January 2, 2015: I had no food in my fridge, no gas in the car, and my rent was due but I didn't have the rent to pay. And that is the day I realised one option was to go and ask for donations and sponsorships from companies, which I could have, but I didn't because I realised that's not sustainable. And that is when the idea for Amber came, and I realised I want to build a company that has a single purpose, to do good and to create wealth so we can give back more to humanity."
But on that day in January 2015, a "very close friend suspected that I didn't have money and refused to ask, so she decided to visit me one day with her husband".
"They looked around the house and saw that the kitchen was empty, nothing was there, and she said 'Are you okay?' and I said, 'Yeah, yeah, everything's fine.' But it appears she knew something was wrong. Her husband opened the cupboard in the small apartment and saw that there was nothing there."
Savadia said he was compelled to confess that he had nothing to eat, and his friend and her husband bought a big box of food for him. "Enough to last for a month."
He said he was also given money to last for a month.
"Before that time, for almost a month, I survived only on boiled rice and boiled potatoes, because they are the cheapest things for a vegetarian in Jamaica. I survived on them with only salt."
But having realised he couldn't keep on teaching without being able to eat, Savadia said he started to put together the business plan for the Amber project.
"And I reached out to one of my students I taught the Art of Living in St Martin. I taught there before coming to Jamaica. He was a very, very wealthy chap; a young guy. I knew he would understand tech. I turned to him because, of course, in Jamaica if you go to anybody with just an [idea on a piece of] paper, nobody's gonna invest in you. So, I reached out to him. He saw it. He knew this was a brilliant idea. At the same time he also said he knew I was starting this business because I wanted to do good with it, so he said he will support me."
That support came in the form of US$450,000 which was to be used to build the entire software and hardware for Amber Connect. Savadia said he himself wanted to learn how to build the app so he went to China where he lived for months, learning to build it himself. To ensure the US$450,000 would last, he cut costs where he could, including staying in a dorm with 30 men who shared only two bathrooms while he built the device on which the Amber Connect app would be installed.
During that time, he said he also went to India where he created a small team of seven engineers to build the software over 9 months before he returned to Jamaica.
"Having spent on hardware engineering and software engineering, and paying the salaries in China and India to engineers to build the app and the hardware, and on a small office here [in Jamaica], and everything else including my personal sustenance, the money was done. I still remember I only took $2,500 salary at that time."
But he said he was lucky that by the time he ran out of funds, the product was almost finished. "And I went to some of our friends and customers who are large, including King Alarm, and they adopted it. King Alarm adopted us first.
"Then some Digicel retail stores started selling Amber Connect as well so that started giving us some money. But very soon, late in 2015, I realised Jamaica's too small for this technology — and if we focused only on Jamaica it'll take me ages to become wealthy. So, I packed my bags early 2016. I left for South Africa, and I started selling our software and hardware there."
He said he chose South Africa because car stealing is a big problem in that country and it is mandatory for vehicles to install tracking devices for insurance companies.
Success with Amber
More success was also to be recorded in Jamaica. The Joseph Matalon-led ICD Group bought a 12.5 per cent stake, which it increased to 32 per cent by 2019.
"Last year we bought ICD out so we now own the Amber Group 100 per cent now. We have no [external] shareholders, no debt."
"Last year, when we celebrated our fifth anniversary, we also took out a good portion of our shares and gave it to all our employees free of cost," he added.
Savadia said that amounted to five per cent of the company but added that there are provisions to increase the proportion of shares given to employees to 10 per cent.
"We still are a small team. As we grow we also have to provision for the new staff that will come down the road."
"This company was built for people, built for our people, so we tend to focus on our own people internally and, of course, the society at the same time," he added.
"We continue to expand our humanitarian outreach in Jamaica. We are fully focused on Jamaica — it's a 100 per cent Jamaican company and we continue to grow."
That growth would see the company expanding from just being Amber Connect, which Savadia pointed out has features such as video and telematics; provides a fleet manager with full-blown, live, 4G LTE dash cams in the software that allows live tracking of vehicles; and facilitates the watching of videos live, from within the vehicle.
"And then because Amber Connect software was so good and people enjoyed the analytics, they enjoyed the user interface that it had, all of this put together it just made Amber Connect a company known for software. And then a lot of companies reached out to us. 'Can you build this for us? Can you build that for us?' We decided we can't do it under Amber Connect so we created another company called Amber Innovations. Now Amber Innovations is the firm which handles all of our software development."
To get the software developers, Savadia said he had to get them trained through a programme that is fully funded through the Heart/NTSA Trust
"We now have more than 600 employees as software developers, including nearly 70 Amber Heart Academy graduates. We are training youth in Jamaica and then giving them guaranteed jobs at the end."
Just last week a batch of 40 youth graduated from the programme, who were brought in from various communities across Jamaica.
"Most of them dropped out of school or something else happened. We brought them into the Stony Hill campus of Heart/NSTA and we trained them for a year, and employ them at the end."
These young people are now developing "many big solutions that have been developed in Jamaica...including the JPS app and the TransJamaica Highway app".
Amber Innovations now works in about 16 countries. Other companies have also been launched since. They include Amber Pay, which is a payment technology built for banks which is to be launched in South Africa next month. Another is Amber Rewards and a US-based company that was acquired last year and renamed Amber Cybereye (a cybersecurity company). There's also Amber IOT (Internet of things), Amber Fundme (a crowd-funding platform), Amber Fuels, Amber Academy, and the newest company, Amber Aviation which is to launch adventure flights in Negril in May this year.
Of course, while the company has registered success, there were hiccups along the way. The most public of them was when the JamCOVID-19 software, developed for the Government to help return citizens stranded overseas after the borders were closed at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, was breached.
"I can't comment on that because it is [the] Government of Jamaica who are the only authority to speak about it, not us," he said when asked about it.
"All I can say, and it was publicly announced at that time also, it was a major hacking. What we have to also look at is how quickly it was dealt with and how fast things were fixed, as opposed to things remaining unattended for years. As a business we have always done the best we can, and we will continue to improve. There is always room for improvement, and we will continue to strengthen every sphere of technology, every business that we work with. But as far as JamCOVID is concerned, I'm not the authority to speak about it."
He, however, said the issues which came up did not impact on Amber, "Because those who have knowledge of technology and those who understand it immediately knew what the truth is behind it. Now, after the JamCOVID breach, the Government of Trinidad reached out to us [to build a similar app] because they understand how things work and what had happened."
And the authorities in Trinidad and Tobago were not the only ones to reach out to Savadia either.
"Lots of governments came and took the same software. Eight governments used our software in the Caribbean.
"We were the first in the world to develop a software of this size... and after we developed it and it became big, India launched a similar software [and] South Africa, Dubai and even the US followed.
He pointed out that because of JamCOVID-19 the Government was able to reopen the economy.
"This software is what allowed tourism to come back...It did wonders for Jamaica, and this wonder was then immediately replicated by all these countries."
With the breach, the software was updated and, according to Savadia, it "became Fort Knox".
"Tell me, in the last two years which company hasn't got hacked? Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn — name any large company across the world — even Microsoft. Every single large company has been hacked in the last two years. So, have we stopped using Facebook? We didn't. We still use Facebook and we still use Twitter even though 200 million emails leaked.
"We continue to be a backbone for a lot of large companies, not just in Jamaica but across the world," he said.
Savadia said with his dream fulfilled in Jamaica, he has since mended the relationship with his father who kicked him out at the age of 19.
"I reconciled with them three years later and they even have visited Jamaica and spent time here with me," he said.
In the end, he outlined that while his life story took an unexpected turn with him transitioning from being a wayward teen to a technology disrupter, that was never his dream. Savadia, who speaks with a slight stutter, summed up his story this way.
"When I was young I lost my speech for a few years and then it came back with a very heavy stammer. I used to stammer so much that it would take me one minute to say one sentence so by the age of 17, when I was in high school, I could barely speak to people and I barely made friends because nobody wants to speak to you because you can't speak back.
"I always dreamed of being a pilot, and I also enrolled myself and couldn't join the flight academy because I was stammering so much. So, eventually I gave up that dream and two years ago I actually became a licensed pilot. Now I fly planes and I communicate in international airspace with other large aircraft.
"So the moral of the story is, I've just never given up on anything that was dear to me or that I've been passionate about. From being 'stammer' to becoming a licensed pilot, it's a journey by itself of perseverance and faith that everything comes through as long as you hold on to what you really believe that you want to achieve in life," he concluded.