(Photo by Michaela Althouse)
FonBank CEO Chris Duffus wants to live his life the way he describes reggae music: present in every country in the world every day.
“For a little, small island that has such a global reputation and calling card,” Duffus said, “I think that’s a pretty powerful thing. As an entrepreneur, I think of that as my first scaling example.”
Duffus, a Jamaican fintech entrepreneur who’s exited three companies, was one of three D.C. panelists of the Fostering Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the Caribbean Tech Ecosystem event at MakeOffices on Wednesday. Fellow panelists Marjuan Canady, CEO of SepiaWorks and a nonprofit founder, as well as Akua Waters, CEO of Hacker Hostel, discussed the successes of island entrepreneurs, and how best to help those struggling to get started as part of the DC Startup Week.
For the Caribbean’s 1,000 islands and 26 countries, Waters said the majority of their economy is tourism. This means a lot of income is held by a few families that sell mostly to each other, such as the Stewart family, which owns Jamaica-headquartered Sandals Resorts.
Waters said the sweet spot for Caribbean technologists is to create a product locally, but have an international market to sustain a business. This creates a pressing need for tech talent “closer to the source.”
“Our biggest challenge will always be access to customers and access to markets, because our products are more or less just as good as what’s created on the international market,” Waters said in the panel.
Moderator and CariCapacity CEO Camille Jones created the event to find fellow island entrepreneurs in the D.C. area. She reached out to New York-based Caribbean in Tech and Entrepreneurship (CITE) to host, as the team is considering bringing a chapter to the D.C. area.
“I felt like Caribbean entrepreneurs aren’t always noted,” Jones said. “There’s some really interesting and exciting things going on.”
She also noted the constant presence of climate change on the Caribbean, such as the increased storms including Hurricane Maria in 2017 and this week’s Dorian in the Bahamas.
“We are at the frontlines of climate change, and if we can use this unfortunate experience to come up with creative ideas to solve some of the problems,” Jones said, “that would be a great opportunity to bring something unique to the world.”
First-generation Trinidadian immigrant Canady also pointed out the significance of Caribbeans bringing culture into their product during the panel. In addition to SepiaWorks, she is the creator of Callaloo, an organization that specializes in children’s books, workshops and web content. She believes that including cultural practices sets islanders apart from other creators.
“We are people from the Caribbean, Black and Brown people and Latino, and that really comes forth in our content,” Canady said. “If you are a parent of color — even if you’re not — you want your child to be exposed to the different cultures that the world makes up.”
Below are some more quick entrepreneurial tips from the panelists.
Follow your passion.
- “The thing with entrepreneurship: You’re going to have fantastic days, but you’ll also have horrible days. So it’s gotta be that thing that you geek out about,” Duffus said. “It’s that enthusiasm that will be your sails.”
Put the customers first.
- “[Use resources that] will take you through all those spaces on a blank canvas that will really help you figure out where your customers are and what your business looks like,” Waters said. “If you can’t come up with a business model canvas, you probably don’t have a business.”
Hone your craft.
- “If you put in the work and those hours, no one can really take that away from you,” Canady said. “You’ll be able to move into different spaces in your field.”
If you’re interested in creating a CITE chapter in D.C., you can fill out a survey here.
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