Feeling low? If you want a shot of adrenalin and zest for life you should get to know a Jamaican entrepreneur, soon. Just sitting down for a coffee with one (or two, in my case, recently) will give you a boost. Guaranteed.

It’s a sunny midday at Susie’s Bakery (one of the original Kingston cafés). Business people and shoppers are taking a break, and there is a good bit of traffic around the salad bar (those New Year resolutions haven’t worn off, yet). Yaneek Page and I have barely settled down at the table when a dash of brilliant color flies in. Erica Wynter, President of the Young Entrepreneurs Association (YEA) has started a quick fire conversation before she had even sits down with us. Feeling rather slow and indeed rather dull beside them, I do my best to keep up.

I want to get a feel of the challenges – and the rewards, because indeed there must be some – of venturing out on your own in a business landscape that is almost as hostile and uncertain as the Mines of Moria (just a little Tolkien reference). One could not liken these brilliant women to two little Hobbits, but they rival Frodo and Sam in audacity and sheer determination. I cannot imagine stepping out in such a hazardous environment. Whether the hazards are perceived, known, or unexpected.

Ah, but that’s part of the problem, Yaneek Page explains to me. You must be prepared. No one should start a business without counseling,” she affirms. Coaching is important, as well as mentorship. It’s more than just getting good advice – do this, do that. The would-be entrepreneur must educate him/herself. This will save a great deal of heartache. Page believes the tax authorities should set up mandatory information sessions – and updates, as legislation and regulations change regularly – and keep the information simple and digestible, not disturbingly obscure as it often seems to be. So budding entrepreneurs: get yourself armed and ready.

Page (who started her first business at age seventeen) has a generous smile and a positive attitude, but is not afraid to admit that the going is tough. There are always “mackas” ready to “juk” you (translation: thorns to stick you). In fact, Page and Wynter could each write a book about their respective trials and tribulations. As founder (in 2008) and Managing Director of Future Services International, a firm specializing in legal funding, litigant support and enterprise risk management training, Page has successfully navigated her way through some stormy economic waters. Wynter founded her business, C&E Innovational Services, in 2009; her company provides “nuts and bolts” services and consultations for micro, small and medium-sized businesses that might otherwise struggle with paperwork.

So what are the challenges entrepreneurs should be aware of, I venture to ask? They begin to explain the baffling complexities of government bureaucracy. Some government agencies, it seems, are hardly focused on empowering small business. Unanticipated expenses, fees and taxes are one thing; poor customer service is another. “If you spent a day in my shoes, you would understand,” Page and Wynter want to tell government officials. More empathy is needed. Worse than that, however, is simply the economy, says Page. “It’s squeezing us,” she stresses. Taxation is burdensome and complex; large entities are getting all the benefits and “breaks.” Access to capital is also a problem; entrepreneurs need more people to believe in and invest in them.

And because of the general economic situation, Wynter adds, it is very hard to find good staff when you are small. “I know the kind of staff I need,” she says. “I want aggressive, flexible workers, who can think on their feet and are prepared to ‘go the extra mile.’” But she is asking for qualities, skills and qualifications that she cannot afford to pay for. “I try to encourage staff – tell them we are growing,” she says with a sigh. “But I can’t promise them things are going to get better any time soon.”  Her staff have to “keep the faith,” as she does. Fortunately, they do.

Erica Wynter:
Erica Wynter: I tell my staff to keep the faith.

So if the economy is not conducive to new business, why not talk to the Minister of Finance? After all, the International Monetary Fund wants Jamaica to focus on growth, right? They comment wryly that the Minister “will only sit down with the big boys.” The CEOs, the privileged ones, many of whom do not understand entrepreneurship, having never had to start a business themselves. The private sector lobby primarily advocates for major players; to Page and Wynter, they are distant. They don’t understand. It’s not easy to “seek audience” with the Minister to express their concerns, discuss solutions; small business groups “have no clout,” Wynter observes. She explains that there are no less than 150 business associations in Jamaica; too many! An alliance is needed. “We must all get together!” she urges, but stresses that Jamaica doesn’t need another large business association; it is networking, real connections among small businesses and with larger firms, that is key.

Some of this may sound disheartening, even defeatist. Why on earth are these two women still pressing on, one wonders, if things seem to mitigate against their success?  Why go through all the stress and sacrifice? But there is always the proverbial silver lining. Page and Wynter were full of praise for the Companies Office. While some government officials seem to only pay lip service to supporting entrepreneurs, Registrar Judith Ramlogan has provided “actionable support,” they say. It is now easier to register your company, and important data on women-owned businesses is now available (you can find more information on the Companies Office on their rather neat website: http://www.orcjamaica.com). And Minister of Industry, Investment and Commerce Anthony Hylton “listens.” He held a consultation session to gather feedback on the Business Registration Form from key stakeholders and adjusted it accordingly. We must also note that Jamaica’s ranking in the World Bank’s “Doing Business Report” for 2015 has jumped up by 27 places over 2014. Take a look here: http://www.doingbusiness.org/data/exploreeconomies/jamaica/

Industry, Investment and Commerce Minister Anthony Hylton.
Industry, Investment and Commerce Minister Anthony Hylton.

Words and promises are not what is needed to boost the entrepreneurial sector, I sensed from my conversation. What entrepreneurs need is practical and moral support; clear and unambiguous information; fewer obstacles and “curve balls”thrown their way; just to be allowed to make money and employ people (their emphasis) while abiding by rules and regulations, of course.

What makes it all worthwhile? Perhaps it is the sense of somehow, despite it all, being able to control one’s destiny that is invigorating. Entrepreneurs are, naturally, self-starters – and the energy shows. Page says it is important to “focus on oneself” – one’s wellbeing, one’s family – and one’s own success. Be willing to share, she tells entrepreneurs – and partnerships are important. But, ultimately, your responsibility is to yourself, the viability of your business and the best interests of those who depend on you – your employees and your customers. You have taken that on your shoulders – you owe it to yourself, to your family and to the future of Jamaica.

The story of entrepreneurship in Jamaica continues, and it is a fascinating one.

Read on…

Both Yaneek Page and Erica Wynter are accessible and easy to find online. You can find out more about them by contacting them at Email: yaneek.page@gmail.com. Twitter: @yaneekpage. Website: yaneekpage.com. Contact Erica Wynter at ewynter@innovationalservicesltd.com. Twitter: @ricawynter. Read about the Young Entrepreneurs Association online: http://www.yeajamaica.com/about_us  And they are all on Facebook.