Support, mentorship, empowerment, fun, sisterhood.
These are the hallmarks of the Association of Female Executives of Trinidad and Tobago (AFETT) and the goals of its newly-installed president, Yolande Agard-Simmons.
Agard-Simmons shared with Business Day how the mentorship of fellow AFETT members early in her career provided much-needed confidence to pursue her goals.
"I'd been in communications for nine years before joining AFETT in 2008, but I was still shy and a bit nervous. I became a member because I was looking for an organisation that could help me chart my career, a place to get advice from women who'd done it already."
In an interview at a coffee shop in Chaguanas, Agard-Simmons said one of the things that sets AFETT apart is the "safe space" it provides for women to learn and grow.
"As a young business professional, I had the opportunity to speak with women who were where I wanted to be, career-wise. They told me once I got my ducks in a row, I'd get there – achieve my goals. AFETT also expanded my network, giving me access to women in fields I might not have otherwise gotten to know. Cumulatively, I learned from the women in AFETT that nothing was too much for me to accomplish."
Smiling, the new AFETT head recalled the more networking events she attended, the more comfortable she became and the bigger her sisterhood in AFETT.
"The network you form when you're an active member, AFETT calls it a sisterhood."
Ten years after beginning her career as marketing and communications officer at the Employers Consultative Association (ECA), Agard-Simmons was appointed director of communications at the Ministry of Agriculture. The name changed to the Ministry of Food Production, Land and Marine Affairs under the People's Partnership administration, but she remained in the post.
Another move came in June 2012, when the then minister Vasant Bharath, was moved to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Investment. Agard-Simmons agreed to Bharath's request to head the communications department at that ministry, a post she continued to hold even after a change in government when Paula Gopee-Scoon became Trade and Industry Minister.
From 2009 to late 2015, Agard-Simmons said she wasn't very active in AFETT due to her expanded duties. That all changed when a fellow AFETT member contacted the ministry requesting the new minister, Gopee-Scoon, speak at one of the association's events.
Agard-Simmons ended up attending an AFETT event where then president, Cavelle Joseph, asked her when she was coming back.
"Cavelle said to me, 'We need people like you to be mentors, to serve.' So I paid my membership dues and made it known I was once again available to serve."
AFETT was getting ready to elect a new secretary and a new director of communications to its board, so Agard-Simmons decided to give back by running for the post of secretary.
"I was elected and during that one-year term in 2016-2017, I was asked to be president-elect for the following year by then president-elect, Charlene Pedro. She served as president 2017-2018. AFETT has an immediate past president, president and president-elect on its board. This was introduced in 2016 to ensure continuity of programmes, initiatives. In all, there are 11 directors on the board."
No stranger to change, in September 2016, while serving as secretary Agard-Simmons had the opportunity to return to her first love – agriculture.
She left the trade ministry to become head of communications and events at the Ministry of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries.
Yet more change was headed her way. A long-awaited dream came true in November 2017, when this consummate professional and her husband became parents.
They happily adjusted their lives to meet the needs of their baby girl, but Agard-Simmons soon realised she wanted to spend more quality time with her daughter and so officially resigned her post in the ministry on March 29.
Doing so also allowed her to dedicate more time to AFETT, something which Agard-Simmons shared means even more now.
"What makes being part of AFETT so special to me is the impact we have via our mentorship, our events, our sisterhood. I get a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment knowing that we're helping develop future leaders. We provide them with direction, structure, a sisterhood which will yield results for them. It's a feel good experience. Becoming a mother to a gorgeous baby girl, that makes what I do at AFETT more poignant because in a few years, my daughter will be the recipient of the work I'm doing."
AFETT was founded in 2002. One of the co-founders was Lara Quentrall-Thomas, founder and chairman of Regency Recruitment and Resources Ltd.
Agard-Simmons recalled conversations with Quentrall-Thomas about the need for an organisation like AFETT.
"At that time, there were policy decisions being made that affected women but without any consultation of women. Hence the formation of AFETT to ensure women have a seat at the table. This is why we are so big on public advocacy and offering solutions when we believe we can make a positive difference. That's also why AFETT has a director of research and public advocacy."
AFETT also holds an annual fundraising event – Suit Me Up – which provides new or gently used professional clothing at affordable prices for the young or established professional.
This year's event takes place on September 29 and Agard-Simmons is calling on all women who may be cleaning out their closets to consider donating to AFETT.
"Help us raise funds for our Women Development Fund – UWI Bursary – while empowering women in quality wear that they may not have otherwise been able to afford."
AFETT also hosts a leadership series. Launched last year, the annual programme aims to provide real life experiences on making it as a female leader while providing a safe forum for one-on-one engagement between the leader and the participants.
Looking ahead to her time as president, Agard-Simmons told Business Day the public will be hearing more from the organisation, offering solutions to a range of issues, from gender policy to the budget, to the impact of crime on women and sexual harassment.
"My year of service promises to be filled with excitement, robust engagement of our members, increased visibility for the association, mutually beneficial partnerships and vigorous advocacy on the issues relevant to women and young girls."
Giving thanks to those who've helped her reach where she is, Agard-Simmons said, "My achievements thus far have been defined by the foundation on which my life has been built – my faith in Jehovah God and living a life of gratitude – instilled in me by my mother at an early age. I am eternally grateful for the warm haven of life that I enjoy because of the love of my husband, my parents and my four younger brothers."
AFETT is scheduled to hold its annual general meeting today at the TT Coalition of Services Industries' (TTCSI) offices in Woodbrook, where the new board will be installed.
For more information about AFETT, visit its website www.afett.com .