At age 16, how many of us thought about being an entrepreneur? At age 16, how many of us thought that we could live off of our talent? As a matter of fact, how many of us think we can do this at 20, 26, 37 or 42? In each case, we’d say not many, right?
We could blame this on Trinidad and Tobago’s school system, which drowns us in academics and does its sociological duty in preparing us to accept the status quo, parents who let fear get in the way of them encouraging their children to look beyond traditional employment, and dream of entrepreneurship, or a society, which, for the most part, believes in getting a ‘permanent’ job and taking home a fat pension – and, of course, there’s nothing wrong with job security. However, for those who believe that our generation could be a bit more entrepreneurial, at some point, you have to stop wagging fingers, and do something about the change you want to see, right?
Well, that’s exactly what Akosua Edwards, Founder and National Coordinator of Enabling Enterprise, has done within the last three years, as she focuses on empowering women to pursue entrepreneurship.
Edwards’ life reminds me of those movies you see with missionaries or humanitarians, who go into areas, trying to bring out change, when they could have been lapping up the luxuries of life instead. Her average day is spent going into communities, like Egypt Village in Point Fortin, to help women plan for a bakery they want to open, pulling up by an empty lot of land to chat with a woman, mixing cement to rebuild her house and business that burnt down, or with secondary school children, encouraging them to be imaginative, confident and visionary.
As the owner of her own business, one would immediately call her an entrepreneur. From what I’ve seen, she’s an activist for entrepreneurship.
“It’s so good going into the communities,” she says. “I remember the first meeting we had (in Egypt Village) was in someone’s yard, and they’re all excited. You’re there with the laptop, like… ‘Ok, I can’t use this’. So you’re outside, under the mango tree, discussing various aspects of building and sustaining a business. Kids are there sitting down watching and you realise these people want to improve their lives and improve the community. So how do we engage them? A lot of times, we have to go to them. We have to go into their communities and work.”
As a champion for female entrepreneurs, Edwards expands her cause to several segments of society. For example, she recently conducted training sessions in business skills for disabled persons, who participate in art and trade classes at the National Centre for Disabled Persons (NCPD), because, as Edwards puts it, “what are you going to do with all this stuff you make if you can’t sell it or eat from it?”
Through Enabling Enterprise, she also seeks to partner Caribbean and international women’s business support agencies, policy makers and female entrepreneurs to enhance, and empower women, and exchange ideas and share experiences.
Edwards didn’t envision this life for herself, previously.
A chartered accountant, she left Trinidad’s shores years ago to pursue studies, eventually settling in London where she pursued an MBA with a specialisation in entrepreneurship at London South Bank University in 2003. As part of her studies, she had to volunteer with a company that focused on developing entrepreneurs, for six months, so she joined Account3 Women’s Consultancy Services, which was funded by the European Union and the London Development Agency, and whose main goal was to use entrepreneurship as a vehicle of empowerment for women from countries such as East Africa, and Bangladesh, and guide, encourage and finance ideas that had potential.
“Just to see how the women changed, from when they walked in the door with their head down, to fleshing out their idea to starting a business was amazing,” she says. “And it’s not that it was any huge business. It was the independence. They’re taking care of their family. They’re confident, and it’s improving the area. You saw it. And that just turned me onto the possibilities. So I was like you see this accounting thing… eh.”
After graduating in 2004, she started working fulltime with Account3. As Account3’s programme grew more successful, gaining international recognition, it broadened its reach to other countries, where it saw entrepreneurship as a vehicle for economic empowerment. Edwards was sent on missions to countries in Eastern Europe – like Romania, Serbia, Croatia, and even Germany – speaking with women who had lost their husbands and partners in the wars and to establish a new sense of independence and livelihood for themselves.
“I was going all over the place,” she says. “And I asked myself, ‘Why don’t I do this home’? So I told my boss I wanted to go back home, and do the same kind of work in T&T. She was like yeah. We can help you out.”
She returned in 2006 to get things started, but would fly back and forth, and eventually came home ‘for good’ in 2007. Three years later, she’s on her entrepreneurship activism grind.
Even as she drives all over Trinidad and Tobago, sharing her optimism and go-getter attitude with persons aspiring to self employment, Edwards is living the ups and downs of every person who decides to take the plunge.
“I eat any way I can,” the 30-something year old says, laughing.
“Any way I can” means lecturing entrepreneurship courses part-time at Arthur Lok Jack for the MBA programme, conducting training workshops for organisations, and providing business support for women – teaching them how to plan and manage their financials, or do it for them. It also means developing policy for organisations such as the Ministry of Social Development in areas such as poverty alleviation.
However, amidst all of this, Edwards’ pet project these days is the NiNa programme – a young entrepreneur’s programme focusing on young women between the ages of 16 to 20, a part of Enabling Enterprise. NiNa attempts to forge an entrepreneurial culture among secondary school students, and to provide them with the training and knowledge to empower them to view entrepreneurship as a career option, rather than a last resort.
“I’ve worked with women entrepreneurs all over the world and I realised that a lot of times – not all the time – women have the ideas, passion, and drive, but they don’t feel that entrepreneurship is an option, whether out of fear or family commitment,” she says. “So I was thinking… I wonder if we could plant the seed in their head from young whether that would change. Working in local programmes, like NIHERST’s Gen-Y programme, and talking to young people, I realised that lot of them feel that life is just about following the status quo… you know going to school, doing A’ levels, getting a job, and that’s it.
“I realised that business was the last thing on their mind. They didn’t think that even if they had a talent that they could turn that into a business or a career. So I thought there must be something I could do that would help bridge that gap.”
The seed for NiNa was planted in her mind, but what really pushed her into action was a conversation, some time after the GenY project, with a teenager who was seated next to her on a flight.
“We started to talk and it was the same thing and I was like nah… a soon as I get back I’m going to design a programme that focuses on young women with entrepreneurship as a career option,” she adds. “Everybody doesn’t have to be an entrepreneur but the programme also lets them know that while you go through life you won’t succeed at everything and that’s ok. It’s a learning experience. If you don’t ‘succeed’ at this it’s not the end of the world. And that’s what entrepreneurship is about. Sometimes you come up with an idea, but it doesn’t work. It’s how you take it and get back up again. You can use that in your life.”
Getting NiNa off the ground wasn’t that easy though. She tried to secure Government funding, but that didn’t pan out.
“I had to wheel and come again and try to do this in a way that was clever and not in the big way I was accustomed to doing things,” she explains.
The eternal optimist, she reached out to various organisations, like Scotiabank, NEDCO, and Arthur Lok Jack, to build a team of advisors. While she does not receive financial assistance from organisations, they do assist her with finding entrepreneurs to lead interactive sessions, host field trips to businesses, and mentor teens. In addition to gaining knowledge, students also have to create business ideas, and have access to mentors after the end of the programme.
“I fund it myself and I have to be resourceful because I have to find ways to get it done, so for some of the sessions, I would link with the financial literacy programme (hosted by the Central Bank) and call in my friends and associates for help,” she adds.
NiNa kicked off fully in 2010, with its first run at Pleasantville Secondary School, as an after-school programme. Edwards recently concluded the second edition of the programme at Bishops Anstey (East) and Trinity College (East). While NiNa is meant for girls, the Trinity boys begged to be part of the programme, and were fortunate enough to have NiNa as part of their school curriculum, getting two periods a week for the entrepreneurship sessions. The aim is to host it in one school every term, and while she’s gotten requests from several schools, at present, she can’t go to all because of limited resources.
“I know eventually it will get bigger and I will have to get more help, but I think if the programme is seen as something that’s successful and building the entrepreneurial culture or just helping the kids pass their exams, then people would open up the possibilities,” she says.
Edwards is one of the few specialists in female entrepreneurship in the Caribbean, and, in May, she’ll have the honour of joining international peers – as the lone representative from the Caribbean – in Canada for a United Nations Women and Canadian International Development Agency conference, and a Commonwealth conference in India, the latter for which she’ll be presenting her recommendations on how the entrepreneurship gap can be reduced in Trinidad and Tobago. Humbled by the invitations, she’s eager for this new experience. After all, it’ll go along nicely with her positive memories of trips to places like Italy, Finland and Singapore, under her Enabling Enterprise banner.
A real example of someone who’s returned home to do her part in building Trinidad and Tobago, Edwards is definitely an activist for entrepreneurship, and a rare example of going all out in ‘giving back’.
“I’m passionate about using my knowledge to assist the entrepreneurial landscape because all of us can’t work for somebody,” she says. “It’s one of the way to diversify the economy. The oil and gas can’t sustain us forever as much as we would like it to and we have to start being innovative from young. We have to come up with innovative ways to get young people to realise it’s an option. And while the landscape isn’t perfect, we can do what we can to empower people to explore their options.”
Photography by Mark Lyndersay of http://lyndersaydigital.com. Mark is a professional photographer and writer working in Trinidad and Tobago since 1976. His column on personal technology, BitDepth, has been continuously published since 1995. He is currently pursuing a photo essay series about how Trinidad and Tobago pursues its culture and festivals called Local Lives. Both series are archived on his website at http://lyndersaydigital.com.