Niall Sheehy of Columbus / FLOW presents prizes to the 2014 BEF Columbus $20 Challenge Overall Champion, Amber McKenzie of The Codrington School
“Snail man, snail man!”
These are the teasing words that would follow Shakeem Coggin around his rural Barbados neighbourhood as he rummaged in the dark, filling his crocus bag with African snails. This is a strange way for any fourteen year-old schoolboy to spend his evenings but Shakeem was undeterred by the taunting of his family and the local youth because he knew something they didn’t. He knew there was money to be made from those smelly snails, enough money in fact to help out his parents and to fund a trip abroad. Soon those same fellas on the block were out in the gully picking up snails too. But they never earned quite as much as Shakeem did. That’s because Shakeem did not only have a novel idea, he had an unrivalled work ethic. When the snails began to die out, he apprenticed with a local painter. When he noticed that there was an abundance of plastic bottles on his school grounds, he picked them up. He worked hard, earned money, aided his family and cleaned up his community, all while still in secondary school.
Shakeem’s story can be compared to that of another highly successful entrepreneur, Brendan Paddick, the Canadian founder and CEO of Columbus Communications. Brendan too got his start doing a job that would make most people squirm: picking up worms. He earned enough money by selling worms to the local fisherman in his Newfoundland hometown to pay his way through college. When he graduated he went to work at a small cable company at the lowest rung on the ladder, selling TVs door-to-door. By the age of 28 he was CEO of that same company and by 38 he had turned it into one of the largest cable companies in Canada. From there he went on to start his own company, Columbus, now one of the fastest growing telecommunications companies in the Caribbean and Latin America, not to mention a major sponsor of the Barbados Entrepreneurship Foundation’s $20 Challenge. Profit, innovation and community spirit, these are the three pillars of the BEF Columbus $20 Challenge, and while stories like Shakeem’s and Brendan’s are inspiring and exceptional, they are by no means singular.
Stories like theirs abound among the participants of the challenge. From surf competitions to organic mosquito repellent, the 2015 challenge winners, like those of years passed, have shown extraordinary levels of innovation, risk-taking and passion. They have shown themselves to be entrepreneurs. The BEF recently celebrated its 4th annual $20 Challenge by honouring the participants at an awards ceremony at the Hilton Hotel. The $20 Challenge is an entrepreneurship project that aims to empower youth through enterprise. The BEF engages with all of the secondary schools on the island to encourage youth from across the social spectrum to participate. Those who choose to do so receive a loan of $20 to start a business as well as guidance from the BEF’s hardworking team of volunteer ambassadors. At the end of six weeks the $20 Challenge team evaluates these enterprises to select a group of Finalists, who then present to a distinguished panel of judges, and the winners are awarded in a variety of categories ranging from product excellence to strategic planning.
$20 and six weeks may seem like excessive constraints for any intrepid entrepreneur, particularly one not yet out of school. But as Keith Miller, Co-Champion of the Education and Talent pillar at the BEF puts it, “scarcity + brevity = creativity.” This point was echoed by 2015 finalists Sasha Hill and Mia Cothran who, on accepting an award for their business “Velas Verdes”, said, “Sometimes less is more.” and that the monetary limitations encouraged them to seek out the best deals and to spend wisely. Taylor Rowe, whose business “Message in a Mug” won for product excellence, admitted that her mother paid for her start-up materials, but Taylor repaid her with $400 of her earnings, proving that these teenagers understand the importance of paying back their investors.
Other businesses navigated the financial constraints by opting for cost-effective ventures utilizing their particular talents. Taliya Mottley-Hinds and Jayde Adams won the award for most market-ready business for their enterprise “Bajan Cravings”. The girls put to use their grandmothers’ recipes and made traditional Bajan treats such as cassava pone, shaped into pretty designs like stars and rechristened as “ponettes”. Rebecca Eames and Zoe King used household ingredients like coffee and Epsom salts to manufacture their line of organic skin care products, “RZ Skincare”.
Several participants donated 100% of their profits to charity, often upwards of $1000, definitely not small change for a teenager. They experienced the thrill of starting their own business and they learned from the challenges along the way. They earned the pride and satisfaction that came with their success and they were granted the ultimate reward: the opportunity to give back to their communities, an aspect of the $20 Challenge that was encouraged by Scotia Bank, who sponsored three special prizes this year for those participants who demonstrated the most charitableness.
The $20 Challenge participants gain invaluable life lessons. As 2015 overall champion Amber McKenzie said when speaking about her business “Organic Essentials”, one of the hardest and most valuable lessons she learned about being a business owner is that you can never slack off. As Amber put it, “If there were nights when I did not feel like filling up bottles, I didn’t have a choice.” Other students learned that success does not always strike the first time, and they reassessed their business strategies of previous years and resubmitted to this year’s challenge. For Keith Miller, these stories of young people reattempting the challenge, or those examples of past participants who have continued their businesses, or branched into new endeavours, are highly indicative of the kind of mindset the BEF is attempting to engender. He says, “We’re not trying to create a culture of giving trophies, we’re trying to create a culture of enterprise.”
Though we cannot all be entrepreneurs, we can all be enterprising in all of our endeavours. This means taking risks and giving ourselves permission to fail. One thing that stands out when listening to the testimonies of the $20 Challenge participants is their willingness to try and try again. Another is confidence, in themselves, in their potential and in their businesses. Those participants like Britney Seale, whose business “Lemon Rush” won the award for excellence in branding, who are unafraid to say, “I’m the boss.” They, like Brendan Paddick, are willing to stick their necks out, to put themselves in a position of authority, to accept the risks and responsibilities that come with being an entrepreneur.
That confidence is something that can be fostered in the right environment and that is why those schools that fully embrace the $20 Challenge are the ones whose students have the most success. The Codrington School incorporates the $20 Challenge into its curriculum and it is this commitment to business education that encouraged Amber McKenzie to participate. Amber is a busy student with plenty on her plate (including being a national swimming champion!) but she says that encouragement from her teachers motivated her to participate in the challenge. She said that the charity component of the challenge was what inspired her to donate all of her profits to charity.
Though there are numerous projects aimed at empowering Barbadian youth, often these projects are geared towards equipping these young people with the necessary skills to navigate within existing social structures rather than to change them. There is a shortage of jobs in Barbados generally and a shortage of entry-level jobs specifically. This fact is coupled with a firmly entrenched Barbadian mindset that has traditionally placed a high value on academic qualifications in the belief that these would lead to successful employment. This approach to education has formed the bedrock of Barbados’ success as a nation but we are in a new and unprecedented economic age. In order for Barbados to compete in the world of free enterprise we have to evolve our education system to better support those young people, like Shakeem, who think a little differently, who go where no one else thinks to go, who, quite literally, are not afraid to get their hands dirty. Youth empowerment can be defined as enabling youth to act on their own behalf rather than at the behest of others. This interpretation of empowerment entails changing the way we educate young people, to produce an independent-minded generation who seek to earn their income through entrepreneurship, creating employment rather than seeking it and thereby growing the economy as a whole.
Whether it be digging for worms or picking up snails, every successful businessperson starts somewhere. The talent exists. The passion exists. The philanthropic spirit exists. The potential for entrepreneurship in Barbados is immeasurable and the $20 Challenge is contributing to the support structure required to foster this enterprising spirit in Barbadian youth. But the challenge cannot thrive in a vacuum. We have to encourage risk-taking and outside the box thinking. We have to invest in those youth who dare to be different and give them permission to fail. We have to harness their passion, rather than silence it. Barbados needs more entrepreneurs and to get them we have to think like entrepreneurs ourselves.
Or as Brendan Paddick puts it, “Don’t predict the future, enable it.”