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If the Caribbean Wants to Grow Economically, ‘We Must Embrace the Women’s Perspective’

Cecile Watson, founder of Pitch and Choose, one of the platforms through which she is empowering regional female entrepreneurs. Photo courtesy Watson, used with permission.

Cecile Watson is one Caribbean businesswoman who's thinking differently. Barbados-born and Jamaica-based, with 30 years’ experience in banking and finance, she founded the pioneering crowdfunding website pitchandchoose.com in 2014, with the aim of “democratizing finance” in the region.

She also founded Gr8Way Consulting as a means of arming senior women leaders and entrepreneurs to build better businesses and lead financially empowered lives of purpose and positive impact. In addition, Watson, along with Commonwealth Women Entrepreneur of the Year Valrie Grant, conceptualized the FundRiseHer project — a Commonwealth-wide crowdfunding initiative — which is a work in progress as it continuously builds capacity to get the entrepreneurs investment-ready. Its first Call for Grant Applications ended on December 31; 48 women applied for the crowdfunding grant program for women entrepreneurs.

Another facet of the program is “The Potent Pitch”, a blog and live interview series with experts who can speak to the funding side, and entrepreneurs who were formerly successful in being awarded grants. An online course in crowdfunding techniques will also start this month; by May, social media techniques will be employed to show the entrepreneurs how to leverage their community. All this is being done in conjunction with experts like Telojo Valerie Onu, Sandra Glasgow, Ingrid Riley, Marcia Brandon and Christopher Chaplin. Watson is also hoping for corporate sponsors to provide matching funds that will be accessible once the crowdfunding campaign goes live in the summer — so while there is a twinkle in her eye, she is very serious about her powerful vision for Caribbean women.

Global Voices (GV): You have solid experience in the conservative world of finance. What made you shift your focus? Or is this a shift?

Cecile Watson (CW): Well, that experience provides the core platform for what I do now — all that analytical stuff. I can leverage it now for a different purpose, one that is dynamic and not at all conservative — because it is about creating impact in the lives of others. Now, I am all about empowerment.

GV: Tell us a bit about Pitch and Choose. How is it going?

CW: Well, it was a little slow off the mark, but I fully expected and planned for that. I was bringing a completely new model into the market. Crowdfunding was not a concept Caribbean people were familiar with, until then. I was the first person to do this regionally. It’s all about democratizing finance. Awareness has grown, however; over the past two or three years, I would guess that around six out of ten people in the Caribbean now know what crowdfunding is. That's coming from maybe one in ten when I got started. It has such potential. For instance, in 2011, the residents of Rotterdam City crowdfunded a pedestrian bridge, which created an open space that would not have been possible if the citizens didn't buy into being part of the solution. It would be my dream for crowdfunding to address our infrastructural needs like that. But ‘every mickle make a muckle’, as the saying goes. The aim is to give crowdfunding the energy and direction it needs to build awareness and attract fans.

GV: With regard to training, what are the most useful skills women can possess in today’s world?

CW: Entrepreneur Kenia Mattis, co-founder of ListenMi Caribbean, will be one of those involved in training the FundRiseHer grantees. She is a creative. I myself am an engineer by training, and I believe in women doing more in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics], but I do believe we need the arts as a bridge. The world is calling for a move towards embracing everyone for who they are, from their own unique perspective and whatever their background and education; we are in the age of democratization. We must embrace our diversity — people may have ‘baggage’, but let’s not judge. We all have something to offer. These ideas intrigue me!

GV: You are focused on women’s economic empowerment. During a series of workshops last year in rural Jamaica, the 51% Coalition found financial independence to be at the top of the list for women. Do you think this is happening yet in the Caribbean?

CW: If we are really about a ‘growth agenda’, we must embrace the women’s perspective. We must be intentional about it. There is a lot of rhetoric, but I am not seeing women’s economic empowerment sufficiently manifested. Mentoring and mutual support among women must be a part of it. But I do understand that these things take time. So I try not to get befuddled by all of what’s not happening fast enough. Instead I think of what can I do to play my part in my own unique way based on my unique perspectives and insights.

GV: In an article you wrote just before the U.S. elections last year, you mentioned ‘changing the rules’. What did you mean by that?

CW: Well, it goes back to the idea that we are in the age of democratization. The old dynamics of the workplace have changed. But the old guard keeps hanging on. Leadership and the right to influence and be heard in the Caribbean, like everywhere else, depends on tenure, class, education, age, gender. But the millennials are having none of that. And I say that’s good. No good can come from excluding half of our population from opportunities to lead and to contribute in a way that they are best suited to do. We can no longer afford facilitating old paradigms that cause us to disenfranchise women (and others who have been traditionally marginalized) because our economies, our families and the state of our welfare are demanding all hands on deck. Therefore to me, we just need to get on with the work to embrace and empower women. It is simply good business to do so.

GV: What advice would you give the ambitious Caribbean woman today?

CW: I would tell them to tap into who they are. Because their empowerment will come through the building of a community, and through peer learning. That means you have to intentionally build something worth tapping into. It comes down to six elements in which I would encourage them to build some muscle: Work, Influence, Self Care, Decision Making, Order and Money. I call these the Wealthy Woman Currencies™. And I draw these from my journey and by observing others. I firmly believe that mastering these six currencies will not only transport you to a fulsome way of being, it will also get you to a place where you can willfully embrace your vulnerability, and let it transport you from a state of merely existing and searching to a state of passionate living. You see, the world needs our authenticity and our genius. We were fearlessly and wonderfully made and each day we get the opportunity to walk closer towards what we are purposed for. It is left for us to take it. And living from a place grounded in purpose can be joyful. And it can be mind blowingly awesome too, as we not only become empowered, but also make the time to empower others similarly.

GV: Who has inspired you? Who are your role models?

CW: I am inspired by Leotta Quintyne (my grandmother); Sheila Whittaker (my mother); and Courtnie Watson (my daughter). My grandmother didn’t have a smidgeon of what I have; she had so little. She used to load a tray and walk miles with it on her head to sell things she had made, like underpants and support belts to cane farmers. She was fearless and she bought a shop at auction without money and then went to my grandfather’s workplace to borrow the money from his employer. She was entrepreneurial, and memories of what she endured remind me not to complain! My mother is the definition of ‘meek’. She is calm, unruffled. There is strength in calm; it’s a powerful place to be. So, she reminds me not to make a space for judgment or bitterness, but to just be. And my daughter (she is 27) introduced me to words like ‘misogyny’ and encouraged me towards advocacy. She made me think about what it means to be feminist and how important it is for me to advocate for change from my own unique perspective of someone who has made it to the C-Suite. For me, feminism is really about parity. A level playing field. Courtnie sees it the same way.

GV: Finally, what is your philosophy of life?

CW: I am who I am because of my faith in God. That is my foundation. I would sum up my philosophy as guard[ing] my heart because it is the seat of myself, but to make room in it to let everyone be their own authentic selves, wherever they are on their journey. And if invited in, to always be ready to share a bit of me with love, in a way that can empower them to be more fruitful in their lives, and without judgment of who they are or from whence they came.

Ahead of us is hope.

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