Can business and social-consciousness be intertwined? For Alicia Riley, the two are one and the same.
As the indefatigable founder and CEO of the Orange Business Group, Riley has revolutionised the local design industry after just ten years of her company's existence. She holds a Masters of Business Administration from Anglia Ruskin University, United Kingdom, with specialised electives in leadership, innovation and entrepreneurship.
"Ten years ago, the design industry looked very different to that of today, people were still using publisher and Microsoft Word to design. Most clients didn’t even want to pay for artwork. But, as the saying goes, quality is always remembered. From it, sprouts the seed of customer loyalty," Riley told WMN.
Indeed, Riley said the Orange Business Group, located in Carnbee, Tobago, has moved from a little-known entity to becoming the most sought-after design firm on the island. She said the company has gone past sleek, classy designs and now offers a range of services through subsidiary groups such as the Orange Digital Agency, Orange Production House, Orange Consulting Firm, All Eco Caribbean and the Growing People Foundation.
"Tobago has built a strong brand in Orange. The Tobago House of Assembly birthed and fuelled a company founded by a young, black woman who has fired and led the evolution of an entire industry," she told WMN.
However, Riley said while her business has been generally well-received, it is still a work in progress "because in the same breath, many people scrutinise your growth." Saying the past three years have been especially trying, Riley recalled arriving at work one morning only to see human faeces pasted over her front entrance and door. She said the disturbing incident has not prevented her from attempting to fulfil her ambitions. "I have met people who admire the brand and some who denounce and mock not knowing the sweat, tears, fights and history."
Although she is satisfied with the brand she has built over the years, Riley said she yearns for a project that would be a game-changer not only in TT but internationally. "My mind started to grow, my appetite changed. I wanted to establish an entity that would become part of the solution and part of a broad social conversation. I wanted to produce more meaningful work as I strongly believe God has placed great purpose over my life." The result was Rosie's Bags - a brand she dedicated to her mother, Rose, who passed away from cancer a decade ago. Riley said the product embodies her late mother's characteristics.
Conceptualised to support four causes -- cancer, HIV/AIDS, ocean conservation and Alzheimer's Disease -- Riley said the bags, which come in four colours, pink, red, blue and purple, is not just about making money and saving the environment but accountability, change and hope.
According to the product's Facebook page, "The RosieBags brand offers a solution to reduce the harmful effects of single-use plastic bags in the Caribbean. Our bags are made from materials that are 100 per cent degradable and safe for the environment." Part proceeds from sales of the bags will be donated to the relevant causes associated with each colour, one post assured.
Riley told WMN, "It is a flag bearer for other black girls and women. It is the deep story of a single mother who shared the sore traits associated with the traditional Tobagonian, tough yet gentle, adaptable and adventurous, colourful yet serious, resilient and reliable. This is, indeed, the brand that Rosie's Bags represents."
Riley said at her mother's weakest, she was still a symbol of strength and determination. "She is the reason why I embrace pain, grind and push through. She is the reason why I go above and beyond and force myself to stay focussed and motivated no matter how the odds are stacked against me."
But has there been positive feedback to the Rosie's Bags campaign? Riley, who leads a competent and dynamic team, said the concept of social-entrepreneurship is catching on slowly in the Caribbean. "A lot of persons and companies are supportive of the concept. We have some great things planned for the brand, not just for Tobago but regionally."
She said her company has already held discussions with private entities and government officials from Dominica, Antigua, Barbados and other islands "who are fascinated by the concept." The Orange Business Group started as a home-based company, called A Simple Design, after Riley's mother passed away. "The company I worked for at the time also closed and I decided it was time to start a home-based design studio."
However, she recalled her then boyfriend felt it was more prudent for her to look for a job and just "run a side hustle." But Riley felt the time was right to venture out on her own. She said the graphic design she learnt while working at the Hilton also encouraged her to start the business. "I was obsessed with magazines and newspaper clippings of what I thought at the time was "high standard design."
Riley moved to her first office at Stumpy's Colosseum, Canaan, two years after operating from her home. She recalled her then tenants gave her some leeway because they admired her determination and passion for business. Riley said she worked seven days a week because she had no employees. She also sold movies to supplement her earnings. The young entrepreneur said the "Orange" in the title of her business came from her being granted the wisdom by God to paint the outside of her space in a bright orange to match the bright fluorescent tent she had purchased to see her movies.
The driven CEO, who has won several awards for entrepreneurship, said she has come a long way since those hard, early years. "I'm at a pivoting point right now. I'm slowly turning and moving to a new dimension." She said her days can move from holding a shovel and digging a hole on a Sunday to meeting with the prime minister or government officials from neighbouring islands. "I play shifting roles that are both on the extreme end of each other. Some days are 80 per cent strategy and 20 per cent operations. Other days it’s the other way around."
Riley said these days the demands on her time have increased considerably, especially in light of the newest addition to her "family," Rosie. Being a black woman in an industry heavily dominated by men poses its challenges, Riley said. "I’m swimming against the tide with no flippers on. It’s signage. It’s working from 8 am to 3 am and praying and pushing through when you get your first large contract and machinery breaking down.
"It's pushing staff even though their faces and bodies are drained and the company just can’t afford overtime yet, to return at 8 am to satisfy customers and build a trusted name. It's motivating a team of men to follow not just you but a greater dream of building a company that expands beyond the borders of Tobago."
Riley said being a woman in a pro-male environment demands that "I work faster, think smarter, push harder, dream bigger and lead by example." She encourages women interested in business to try to innovate and be humble enough to learn and find the right mentor, "One that has walked the path you seek to pursue, respects your limitations and encourages your growth." She admonishes that they try to avoid exposing their vulnerabilities and weaknesses to everyone.
"What you don’t know learn and always remember it is not what people say about you that will threaten your destiny but what you say about you."
Riley said women should not be hard on themselves if they fail along the way. "Reinforce your confidence with positive affirmations. In life not all people are genuine and be very cautious of those overly willing to help." Forgiving oneself, she said, is a must. "Holding things on your chest weighs you down, the freer your mind, the more God will inspire you with the right creativity and focus to propel your dreams forward."
Being in business has taught her that women are judged harder. However, she said it is important to remain focussed. "As a woman, as a leader, you have to plan it and execute fearlessly. You have to be brave and never think for one minute because they are women, it is impossible." Women, she said, must know the building a business and a brand requires sacrifice.
"I believe there is a discipline required as a leader and as a young entrepreneur about working to optimise the business. There is no balance is life as an entrepreneur. You can’t expect to work nine to five. That is never going to happen. You have to expect that it is going to consume your life for a period of time. That’s the downside, but the upside is that you buy yourself freedom in perpetuity."