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Young Bahamians lead the way
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Young Bahamians lead the way

Ambitious, skilled and talented, new generation of professionals make their mark

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The Bahamas Investor Magazine
July 13, 2014
July 13, 2014
Catherine Morris

Jasmine Williams’s third grade teacher once told her that “the sky’s not the limit; it’s just the target,” and the 21-year-old, who recently won the Bahamas Financial Services Board (BFSB) Student of the Year Award, has been taking that advice to heart ever since. She is one of a number of young Bahamians that are pursuing their ambitions in a range of careers from tourism to financial services to the legal sector.

Excelling academically at a young age, Williams was valedictorian and head girl at her junior high school, C H Reeves, and won a scholarship to Kingsway Academy, where she graduated among the top five in her class. From there, she decided to pursue a career in finance and completed a BBA in Finance and Banking (Spanish) at The College of The Bahamas, graduating in May 2013.

It was a short break from graduation to landing her first job in December 2013, when she was offered the role of junior fund administrator for Citibank Nassau, a position that she says is giving her valuable experience and a chance to broaden her skills. “It is a great time to be entering financial services,” she says.

“We are developing and there are new things coming down the pipeline. I am always training, always learning. I do not want to get stagnant or too comfortable.”

Williams is currently working towards her Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) charter, and eventually hopes to complete the Series 7 General Securities Representative Exam, which will allow her to become a stockbroker. She says the most challenging aspect of entering financial services was realizing that the BBA was not the end of the story. “In financial services, degrees are not everything. Certifications are important.”

Whilst pondering what form her higher learning should take, Williams attended functions hosted by the CFA Society of The Bahamas and actively sought advice from seasoned professionals in the industry. It was this feedback that helped her set her goals. She also credits one of her lecturers, Eve Poitier, the first Bahamian woman to become a CFA, with keeping her motivated.

“She really pushed me and her classes made me happy that I chose banking and finance. Not only were they interesting, but we learned a lot. She was a real inspiration for me,” says Williams.

Attracting talent
The financial services industry contributes between 15-20 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), and is one of the most diverse and fastest growing sectors in the Bahamian economy. Despite this, Williams believes it suffers something of an image problem among the younger generation and she wants to see more students joining the sector.

“We need young people in the industry. The young people are the ones who are most innovative and that is what we need for our industry to flourish.”

To attract young talent, Williams would like to see more business internships available, as well as feedback from experienced mentors. “I got great advice on what exams to do first, but it was me going out and asking. [Industry practitioners] should come into schools and tell them about how important the financial services industry is.

“The financial services industry is so wide—maritime, insurance, securities—people could go into these places and get hands on training to give them a taste of it.”

Williams also thinks it is important to encourage young people in her industry to hone their skills abroad. She intends to take a masters in Spanish at a university, either in the US or the UK and would like to work in New York in investor relations. But wherever her career takes her, Williams says she will always come back to The Bahamas. 

“It is important that we bring it back,” she says. “You do not want a brain drain to happen. One of the characteristics The Bahamas advertises is its skilled professionals. It would be great to have more skilled professionals with international experience.”

Raising the bar
One young professional eager to bring her expertise back to The Bahamas is Gabrielle Turnquest, who made history last year when, at 18, she became the youngest person ever called to the British Bar. And that wasn’t her first time in the history books. Turnquest was also the youngest person to complete an undergraduate degree at Liberty University in Virginia, where she studied psychology and graduated at 16.

Born in Nassau, but raised primarily in Florida, Turnquest has dual American and Bahamian citizenship and became a member of the Bahamas Bar last year, following in the footsteps of her attorney mother, who first encouraged her to study law. “There was a family tradition of law in our household. A law degree is a good foundation for other fields, so my mother felt it was a good starting point.”

Representing The Bahamas while studying at the University of Law in London meant a lot to Turnquest and she is proud to have shown what Bahamians can do. “There were a lot of Caribbean students in London and it was great to have that connection with them. Having students from the region studying abroad shows we can play on a global playing field.”

Turnquest says her time in the UK was invaluable and would urge others to follow suit if they have the opportunity. “I think it is important for everyone to study abroad,” she says. “Especially coming from a small country like The Bahamas. It is great to be able to experience different cultures and understand different world views.”

Turnquest spent some of her childhood in Nassau and says she would like to return to practice here one day. In the meantime, she continues to accumulate qualifications. She’s currently studying for the California Bar Exam and taking a course in apparel industry management at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, with a view to specializing in that area.

“I was interested in fashion before I was interested in law,” she explains. “When I started law school, I realized I was attracted to the business side of fashion. It is a very interesting field. It is a multi-billion-dollar industry with such little legal protection and a lot of legal issues come up that no one thinks about.”

Turnquest’s older sister is also a lawyer, specializing in business and asset protection, and she hopes that one day the sisters will work together as their interests converge. Given that intellectual property is still in its infancy in The Bahamas, Turnquest says the archipelago would be an exciting place for the family venture to do business.

Pursuing passion
Another young Bahamian parlaying her love of fashion into her work is Ife Bethel-Sears, retail associate and buyer for the $3.5-billion Baha Mar resort currently being constructed on Nassau’s Cable Beach strip. In this role, the 25-year-old is responsible for selecting merchandise not only for Baha Mar’s own brand stores, but also for the 30 to 40 high-end third party retailers joining the resort. 

It is a lot of pressure, says Bethel-Sears, but she loves the chance to connect not only with international clients, but also local artists. “We are trying to be inclusive of the local community in the retail space, as well as the international community,” she says. “We want authentic Bahamian products. We are seeing so many great things and I am meeting such talented Bahamians.”

As Baha Mar draws nearer to its December opening, Bethel-Sears says the nature of her work is changing. When she joined in July 2013, her department did not exist and she had to build the retail business from the ground up.

Once the resort opens, she says the focus will be on maintaining and improving.

“It is such a challenge. You are always being thrown curve balls and you are constantly developing. We are creating the processes that will be the foundation of the operation. Creating is the hard part. Once we open we have to maintain the standards we set and surpass that every year. We are competing globally and we want to be the gem of the Caribbean.”

The opportunity at Baha Mar came out of the blue, at a time when she was finishing her BA in political science at Georgetown University and considering her next move. “I was home for the Christmas break and was invited to a Baha Mar holiday social. I had no idea what Baha Mar did. I was very interested in retail and fashion, so I told them that was my passion and they created this position for me.

“I did not choose Baha Mar, they chose me, and I’m so happy to be here.”

Bethel-Sears already had a strong background in fashion and purchasing, with internships at small fashion start-ups in London and Toronto. These unpaid positions allowed her to see the nuts and bolts of the industry—a perspective that she says has served her well. “That experience showed me how each step adds to the bigger picture,” she explains. “You have to understand the small tasks that make up the big picture and how to efficiently run a business from the intern to the manager.”

Despite being fully immersed in fashion now, Bethel-Sears says she did not always follow her passion. Growing up in Nassau, she attended St Augustine’s College and graduated at 18 with her high school diploma. Unsure of what to do next, she travelled to Swaziland, to attend the United World College of Southern Africa/Waterford Kamhlaba and get her International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma.

At Georgetown, she studied international relations and wanted to become a UN ambassador, but mid-way through the course was forced to reassess. “I was really overwhelmed in my final year. I was feeling a void. I was very integrated socially, but I was not pursuing my passion. I figured out what three things that make me want to get up in the morning and those were fashion, entrepreneurship and community development.”

Whatever venture the budding fashion mogul undertakes, she is determined to make community outreach a key part of the business. Her dream is to open a chain of showrooms where new designers can showcase their talents.

“I am a very creative person, so I want to remain connected to the creative aspect—selecting great designers from emerging artists. I do not want to box myself in, because my ideas can go beyond fashion. I want the flexibility to be a social entrepreneur. Whatever I do, it needs to benefit a community.

“If I prepare myself and I am doing what I am passionate about, I do not think I can lose.”

Leading by example
Director of financial planning and analysis at Baha Mar Vaughn Kerr
was working as an emerging market dealer with BGC Partners in London when he got the call from the resort and, at 29, found himself with a high-level position at one of the largest resort projects the Caribbean region has ever seen. 

“I was extremely intimidated,” he says of the moment he realized he had got the job. “But my past roles gave me a good feel for the global marketplace and different cultures. I also knew I had the technical skills needed to do the job.”

Now 31 and in the job for almost two years, Kerr works closely with Baha Mar’s chief operating officer and chief financial officer, drawing up financial road maps to support and sustain the resort’s development. “[Financial planning] feeds into every department. I manage the entire Baha Mar financial model, look at the cost structures behind it and how it is going to perform once we open.”

For Kerr the best thing about the job is the way it continually tests his skills. He says: “It is a developing environment. You have to be able to handle change very well and work under pressure in the kind of environment where everything was due yesterday.

“I love that it is challenging, and it challenges you every single day.”
Like his Baha Mar colleague, Kerr is a St Augustine’s College graduate. After a year at The College of The Bahamas studying electrical engineering, he furthered his studies abroad, moving to Canada to obtain his undergraduate degree in computer science at Queen’s University, followed by a masters in finance and investment at the University of Toronto.

“I was always interested in business and finance seemed the best opportunity to learn business—every industry needs strong financial talent. I like to travel too and finance seemed to be the best way to do that.”

 Despite enjoying his experiences in the UK and Canada, Kerr was more than ready to bring his talents back to Nassau for such a high-profile employer. “A $3.5 billion project gets noticed everywhere,” he says. “The fact that it was happening in my home [country], I thought ‘this is something I have to be a part of.’ It was the opportunity of a lifetime.”

In the future, Kerr says he would like to broaden his financial knowledge and work in asset management or venture capital. For now though, he has his hands full on the task ahead. “A lot of my focus now is seeing this project launch successfully and, once we launch, turning it into a world-class resort. You look around and see what you are building and it motivates you to continue. We are planning for the next few years, but that planning process always continues. It is huge.”

Kerr is proud that Baha Mar is taking place in his home country and believes it is a good example of what the country can achieve, saying: “The one thing that makes me proud to be Bahamian is that The Bahamas has proven time and time again that it can attract world-class projects. We need to get past the notion that we are a small island, because we are competing on a global level.”

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