It was break time at José Marti Technical High School. Students were heading in all directions around the central covered courtyard. I watched a girl walking straight-backed and slow in her long-skirted deep blue uniform past the school assembly hall. A student was shouting persistently, trying to catch the attention of another across the courtyard – and without success. It was your average Thursday morning in Twickenham Park, St. Catherine.
I was at the school with Katalyxt, a small, enthusiastic team that comprises the business development division of Mint Management and Finance Services Limited. Mint has a specific focus on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). A highlight of Katalyxt’s annual program is the Youth Innovators’ Competition, which encourages Jamaican students (third to sixth formers) across Jamaica to unlock their entrepreneurial spirit, while providing seed funding for them to get started. At the same time, through its portal http://www.infokat.net Katalyxt provides resources, information and expert advice on setting up a business. Last year’s competition engaged over 150 students from 35 high schools, each intent on producing an innovative, original, business-ready product or service. Ardenne, Excelsior and Bustamante High Schools came first, second and third respectively. There is a strong sustainability element (Vere Technical High School won the Sustainability Award for a vermi-compost project); and the Big Idea Award sponsored by the Development Bank of Jamaica must be eco-friendly and have scalable potential for growth (last year, St. Andrew High School for Girls won). By the way, each school can enter three projects.
So Katalyxt was launching the 2015/16 Youth Innovators’ Competition, under the theme: “Planting the Seed of Entrepreneurship in Fertile Soil.” This seemed to me appropriate, as the first teacher I met was Mr. Clovis Duncan with his team from Vere Technical High School, who teaches Environmental Science and Agricultural Science. The Vere students were the first to arrive, and they looked keen.
Ms. Winsome Minott, CEO of Mint Management and Finance, has chaired Katalyxt for the past four years; it’s her “baby.” She estimates that so far, the competition has impacted some 4,000 lives or more. Now, it was up to her to inject some mental energy into the students who gathered in the hall – to get those synapses buzzing and connecting. This is not easy with teenagers these days (I don’t think it has ever been easy); they are easily distracted and they tend to “switch off” easily. Ms. Minott also feels that that sense of “being Jamaican” – you could call it patriotism, I might call it a feeling of self-worth and belief – is lacking nowadays. “We must have that energy in our soul…We must believe it’s possible, and that we can be the best,” said Ms. Minott (who is also a soon-to-be-published poet).
Ms. Minott told the story of Jamaican businessman, the Hon. Karl Hendrickson, whose parents wanted him to be a doctor (a common desire of Jamaican parents – it’s either that or a lawyer or engineer). After a year at college in Canada, Hendrickson told his parents, who ran a bakery, that he did not wish to continue his studies. He believed in entrepreneurship as “a desirable profession,” and he has always believed in manufacturing. Hendrickson used to help out at his parents’ bakery in Mandeville during the holidays and during his year in Canada also worked at a bakery. On returning to Jamaica, he convinced his father to build a new bakery in Kingston in 1962 – Jamaica’s famous National Bakery. And it made sliced bread, an innovation introduced by Karl Hendrickson – hitherto unheard of in Jamaica. Using a direct marketing technique, Hendrickson himself went out on the horse-drawn cart selling door to door, not through the stores. He learnt to repair the machines himself and often slept on the shop floor at night, to make sure everything was working. He faced many challenges, but eventually became a highly regarded and awarded businessman, employing 4,000 Jamaicans, with interests in the hotel industry as well as manufacturing.
Ms. Minott noted lessons to be learned from Karl Hendrickson’s life: whatever you put your hand to, do it well; stick to your vision; be a problem solver; be prepared to sacrifice your time; invest in yourself; and always be “rooted and grounded.” Oh, and Karl Hendrickson built his business through networking. Person to person interaction is very important, and remains so to this day.
Moving from a veteran businessman to a young entrepreneur, Ms. Minott introduced 24-year-old Dean Morris. Dean is driven. He told us he sold sweeties at school (St. Jago High School) to save up for his first laptop computer. While still a student at the University of Technology Jamaica, Dean founded Think Smart Jamaica, a web development and mobile application development firm. #thevinelist, a local social shopping platform, is his latest venture. “I had an idea first, not a product,” Morris told us. He went on to give some tips to the students: set goals and work towards them (this is crucial!); do your research; run your ideas by smart people you trust, and get their feedback; tackle your challenges; work hard. “If you have a dream, go for it!” he concluded.
Representatives of the competition sponsors also addressed the students. Jerome Newton of the Export Import Bank of Jamaica (EXIM) reminded them of the proverb “If you waan good yuh nose haffi run” (If you want to succeed you have to work hard). Mr. Wright of Bank of Nova Scotia Jamaica declared that the competition should be front page news: “This is what the country needs – not politics or a prison from the UK!” Other sponsors are the Development Bank of Jamaica, Jamaica Association for Micro-Financing (JAMFIN) headed by Dr. Blossom O’Meally-Nelson, and the Ministry of Education.
Then the students put their heads together, with their teachers closely involved. Ms. Minott encouraged them to “think of a problem in your environment, and find a solution through creating a product.” It could be an energy-saving venture, for example. This was a brainstorming session. The students, huddled together, kept their ideas close to their chest, however. They didn’t want to give anything away to their competitors. The atmosphere rose several notches in intensity, and there was a low buzzing sound.
After this session with schools in Clarendon and St. Catherine (a total of eleven participating schools in this region), Katalyxt will move on to regional prep sessions in Montego Bay, Kingston (the largest region) and one other rural parish. The Youth Innovators’ Competition finals will take place in April, 2016.
And then, on to sandwiches, juice and sticky cake. The students had worked up an appetite. As the Katalyxt team made its way back to its Kingston office, Ms. Minott was confident that good ideas were starting to brew – and there was plenty to look forward to from the students, in the months ahead.