When you meet Arlene Ross for the first time she does not strike you as being a hard-nosed entrepreneur, who weighs risks, crunches numbers and spends much of her time travelling hundreds of miles by air – sometimes as often as once a week – to acquire stock and explore new ventures.
That is certainly not the direction which she envisaged her life would take just over ten years ago, when, having completed training in nursing and midwifery and having been trained as a medic, she was assigned to Region One to assume responsibility for the running of the Port Kaituma Hospital while serving out her five-year contract with the Government of Guyana.
Port Kaituma is a long haul from Arlene’s hometown, New Amsterdam, and the thought of being posted to the interior is not one that many urban public servants relish; especially not a married woman with three children — at the time.
Arlene says however, that she loved – and still loves – her profession and off she went to Port Kaituma to serve the period of her contract and to come face to face with a life-changing experience. It is not uncommon for career public servants to transform their lives by venturing into the world of business, but Arlene has done so in a somewhat unusual way.
Gold is transforming parts of Guyana’s interior and Arlene believes Port Kaituma is part of that transformation. Everywhere, she says, there is evidence of new construction, new investment, most of it linked to the gold industry. Even to the uninitiated, the prospects of taking advantage of a growing business climate are evident.
“It’s a mining town.” Arlene says, “and where there is a mining town there is a demand for all sorts of goods and services.”
Other things have changed at Port Kaituma. There has been an influx of non-Guyanese—Brazilians and other South Americans—all gold-seekers and various other European types, more likely than not, connected to bigger investments in the gold-mining sector. Up to 2007, Arlene had watched the steady transformation of the community with interest.
As the fortunes of the gold industry continued to impact increasingly on Port Kaituma and as the period of her contractual obligation to government came to an end Arlene became more and more intrigued by the possibility of getting into business. It was not, however, an open and shut case. Years of being a public servant often creates an altogether false sense of security associated with the assurance of a regular and reliable if decidedly inadequate pay cheque and as Arlene puts it “I had a mortgage to pay.” That apart, she, along with her husband, had a family to support.
Two considerations helped to influence Arlene’s eventual decision. First, she was growing increasingly comfortable with her environment and more and more taken in by the business prospects which the community appeared to offer. The gold rush had by then created the demand for a wide range of consumer goods which Arlene felt she was well-positioned to supply. The second consideration had to do with the fact that Arlene’s stint as a medical professional at the hospital had earned her a level of trust and respect in the community which, she surmised, could be turned into patronage. In 2007 she took the plunge, resigned from the Ministry of Health and opened a small shop at her Port Kaituma home.
Both considerations paid off. First, the faith which she placed in the people for whom she had provided health care over the previous five years paid off. They supported her venture. Secondly, her venture benefited from the expanding market for consumer goods resulting from the expansion of the mining business at Port Kaituma. Trading grew, expanding from demand for goods which she stocked in her own small shop to goods supplied to order. Over the counter drugs and energy drinks proved to be in high demand among the miners. “People knew me from my time in the medical profession and they came to me for things which they needed and which they thought I could provide. If there was something that I did not have in stock, I got it. That is how you do business. People need to be able to rely on you,” Arlene says.
Interior communities involved in high-stakes business ventures and multi-million-dollar investments place a high premium on communication. Arlene moved to take advantage of the requirement by establishing an internet café to go along with her small trading establishment. The new venture also benefited from the growing interest in information technology at the community level. The need to train residents in the use of computers prompted yet another investment, this time in the purchase of computers and other equipment to set up a training centre which she recruited her nephew to run. Her clientele includes school-age children, residents of the community and businessmen seeking to enhance their knowledge of a sector that has become critical to their own business pursuits. Arlene says that she envisages a time in the not-too-distant future when the further proliferation of computers will significantly increase the demand for IT training in areas like Port Kaituma. She wants to be ready.
Arlene talks enthusiastically about the changes in her personal life that have come with the transition from public servant to businesswoman. “For a start I have been able to complete my mortgage payments which I would not otherwise have been able to do this quickly,” she says. She admits that her love for the medical profession and for giving care persists. Part of her growing business includes the provision of an over the counter drugs service and, like any good medical practitioner she is always open to giving advice and offering remedies to people in the community who knock on her door. Arlene may not have been born or even grown up at Port Kaituma but she has become a fixture in the community.
More than that, as the gold industry makes Port Kaituma a busier place her own business is expanding. “There is constant movement of people and goods in an out of Port Kaituma. Sometimes we have as many as six flights a day and bookings have become quite difficult. It tells me something about how business is growing,” Arlene says.
Two projects lie immediately ahead for Arlene. First, she is contemplating the physical expansion of her premises at Port Kaituma to accommodate the growth of her business. She plans to create more room for the second project – the setting up of an information technology service centre that will market products and services provided by the Guyana Telephone and Telegraph Company as well as several internationally-renowned IT manufacturers. This most recent venture is being undertaken in collaboration with Starr Computers and Arlene has already invested the $200,000 deposit required to ‘sign on’ to the venture. Some of the material necessary for the setting up of the new operation is already on its way to Port Kaituma.
Though Arlene insists that she has lost none of her caring for the medical profession she is unequivocal about where her future lies. She has no plans to relocate from Port Kaituma, choosing instead to entrust her four-year-old son to the care of a relative in Georgetown in order to have him attend school in the city. Her other children, daughters, are studying nursing and hairdressing. Her own life is now set in the direction of doing the very best that she can, in business.