George Graham

What Makes Someone an Entrepreneur?

In America, in the year 2013, the most urgent need is jobs. Ask anybody. Check out the polls. The same is true in Jamaica. And everywhere else I’ve ever lived or know anything about.

But yesterday, chatting with a Chinese-Jamaican friend who was in Lakeland to record a deposition, it dawned on me that you don’t necessarily need a job to make a living. Our friend, Margaret, lives in Orlando now but grew up in Kingston. Her parents owned a shop there.

They arrived in Jamaica with nothing, she said, leaving everything they owned behind as they fled Communism. But her dad borrowed a little seed money from a relative and opened a tiny shop. Even the little children pitched in to run that shop.

“My job was to fill the one-pound and two-pound bags of sugar and flour,” Margaret recalled. “My sister cleaned the showcase and kept it stocked. That was her job.”

Their mother would stay up late after the shop closed for the night, wearily making tamarind balls to sell. Eventually, the business expanded and the family thrived.

To me, that is the story of the Chinese in Jamaica. It seemed to me that Chinese Jamaicans didn’t need a job. They could make a living on their own.

As I recall, the same is true of the Jewish families. And the Syrians (we mistakenly called the Lebanese Jamaicans Syrians).

When I was a toddler, living at Burlington near Port Antonio, my mother would tell me the inspiring story of the Issa family’s patriarch. I think his first name was Elias. She would describe with wonder and admiration how this gritty man would walk the island with a wooden case strapped to his back, selling trinkets to domestic servants.

Is the story apocryphal? Possibly.

But it’s a fact that the Issa family, like so many Middle Eastern and Chinese immigrants to Jamaica, started out with very little and became rich, famous and  extremely influential. And they didn’t go to the government – or anyone else –  pleading for a job. They found a way to make a living. Many of these families, the Issas for example, not only made fortunes for themselves; they also made priceless contributions to the island’s development and set up charities to help the less fortunate.

Come to think of it, my mother, who was not Middle Eastern or Chinese, was instinctively entrepreneurial. She always had something going on, raising chickens, ducks and turkeys, for example. Later, living in Florida, after she fulfilled her lifelong dream of becoming an artist, she and my stepfather would pack up her paintings and take them to the flea market to sell.

And my mother’s widowed aunts, who lived in Guy’s Hill,  used to sew and take in boarders to supplement their pensions. They never needed a job to survive.

Why didn’t I inherit that entrepreneurial instinct? My mother tried and tried to drill it into me, reiterating stories about successful people who had started out with nothing but the will to succeed.

It is the entrepreneurial spirit that motivated Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, and all of those great explorers who left us the world as we know it today. And they didn’t go to the government demanding tax breaks the way today’s corporations do. They had an idea, sought backing for it, and set sail.

Is it possible that governments around the world could meet their economic challenges by doing more to foster individual entrepreneurs, not just by coddling corporations and trying so desperately to provide jobs?

Is one answer to world poverty the kind of micro-financing being pioneered by such organizations as the United Nations? Or has the corporate culture become so entrenched that only a privileged few can get access to capital in today’s economy? Is the age of the individual entrepreneur gone forever?

It would be a tragedy if that were so.

Click for more on the Jamaican Chinese.

Click to read about microfinance.

Click for a story about growing up Chinese in Jamaica.

About the author


I am a Jamaican-born writer who has lived and worked in Canada and the United States. I live in Lakeland, Florida with my wife, Sandra, our three cats and two dogs. I like to play golf and enjoy our garden, even though it's a lot of work. Since retiring from newspaper reporting I've written a few books. I also write a monthly column for