The habitat of ideas
Discover the Barbados startup hub whose innovative approach to business development has transformed the landscape for Caribbean entrepreneurs. Words Tirshatha Jeffrey
Selwyn Cambridge is on a mission to change what it means to be a Caribbean entrepreneur. The founder of TEN Habitat – a Barbados-based, community-focused non-profit organisation that helps startups to grow – is motivated by his conviction that nurturing Caribbean entrepreneurs is integral to the growth and development of the region’s economies. “The world over, it’s been proven time and time again that entrepreneurs are the lifeline of economies,” he says. “Entrepreneurship and innovation are the instruments you need working well.” Selwyn, a serial entrepreneur, founded TEN on the belief that entrepreneurs need to belong to a community of peers and mentors just as much as they need access to funding and resources.
Selwyn describes TEN as a “nurturing environment that helps to identify, build and scale investable ventures”. Just as a natural habitat creates a nurturing environment for its residents, TEN Habitat has created a space in which regional entrepreneurs can learn and develop. Every week, the Habitat is home to workshops, mix and mingles, and rap sessions that give entrepreneurs access to potential partners, collaborators, mentors and investors. The physical site contains a co-working space that members who may not be able to afford or have need for an office space can access during business hours. Selwyn describes it as a place where “entrepreneurs can meet like-minded entrepreneurs, bounce ideas, receive in-house mentorship and connect with global players”.
Through access to their peers, as well as to a network of mentors and investors, entrepreneurs who become part of TEN Habitat automatically become part of a community. “We place a very big emphasis on community first and then building businesses second,” says Selwyn. “All of what is done is about community.”
The TEN Habitat community stretches beyond the waters of the Caribbean. “For far too long, persons have been trying to build big ideas and businesses while having exposure to only local networks,” says Selwyn. He affirms that he and his team have sought to surround entrepreneurs with a strong and supportive community and have “invested heavily with some of the best startup ecosystems and communities across the globe” in order to do so.
The Habitat has connections to international entrepreneurship hubs in Africa, Europe and the UK. The aim is to combine global networks and best practices with local ingenuity to build globally competitive businesses. “We believe fundamentally that, in order to be successful, entrepreneurs need to be surrounded by local, regional and global communities,” says Selwyn. “[They need to] know that they’re connected to a wider global community that they can always reach out to, depending on the challenge or need. We bring the world to them, so that they can build while staying in the Caribbean.”
Selwyn is a man of action. “The first thing I always tell people is that we don’t teach entrepreneurship,” he says. “We fundamentally believe in learning by doing.” In keeping with this belief, TEN has been behind some of the region’s best-known entrepreneurship events and programmes. It hosts the Caribbean Startup Summit, a two-day event where entrepreneurs from throughout the region congregate to network with and learn from each other. The summit also attracts attendees from North America, Africa, the UK and Europe who are seeking to make Caribbean connections.
TEN Habitat is also home to the Caribbean’s only entrepreneurship-focused hybrid accelerator, where entrepreneurs are guided through an intensive programme that allows them to progress from simply having an idea to developing an investor-ready business in just eight months.
The TEN Habitat approach also encourages entrepreneurs to view what they do in new ways. “In the Caribbean we tend to misconstrue the notion of small business owner, small business or self-employment with entrepreneurship – but they’re different,” Selwyn says. “An entrepreneur is an opportunity seeker who is trying to solve problems with ideas that are scalable. A small business owner [seeks] to create jobs for him or herself and his or her family.”
Though he sees nothing wrong with the latter, he does believe that the conflation has influenced the ways in which Caribbean entrepreneurs approach the journey of entrepreneurship. “A lot of entrepreneurs come out having that mindset of thinking small, as opposed to looking at big problems that require big solutions that can be solved and scaled.” The methodologies that TEN Habitat employs help entrepreneurs to focus on creating innovative solutions to the region’s problems.
For entrepreneurs such as Michael Husbands, Allison Burnham and Simera Crawford, the TEN Habitat formula is working. Michael is the CEO of Global Tutoring Hub (GTH), the creators of PODIUM, an integrated adaptive online learning platform that delivers personalised course content. He says it’s thanks to TEN Habitat that he now has a product. His team’s passion is “transforming learning based on individual learning styles” and he credits TEN Habitat with helping to transition his company from a vision to a reality.
PODIUM is, admittedly, not Michael’s first attempt at entrepreneurship. “After failing in a startup before, TEN provided an opportunity to start over and the support to get going again,” he says. Michael also acknowledges how integral TEN Habitat’s global network has been, allowing him and his team to partner with global companies such as Docebo and Smart Sparrow. “We could not have done that without TEN,” he adds. GTH has been ranked in the semi-finals and finals of several major regional entrepreneurship innovation and pitch competitions, and in October 2018 placed fourth among 108 entries at the ATECH Conference.
Ideas into to reality
Allison, whose vegan fast-food company Plant Lyfe already has a cult following despite not having officially launched, endorses TEN’s ability to aid entrepreneurs’ development. “TEN helped to bring my business from the lightbulb stage,” she says. The noted chef already owns Coconut Baby, a popular eatery that offers vegan desserts, snacks, salads and drinks, and is now expanding her services through Plant Lyfe to provide easy access to delicious vegan food that is fast and affordable. Having won the Caribbean Startup Pitch Pit in 2018, Allison was entered into TEN’s Hybrid Accelerator programme. She adds, “It helped me to flesh out my idea and make my business a reality.”
Simera also praises the support she receives from TEN, and its innovative approach to entrepreneurship.
“It has been instrumental in providing institutional support that I can utilise while seeking and receiving initial funding from international development agencies to pilot initiatives,” she says.
Simera’s business, BitEgreen, is seeking to solve the Caribbean’s waste management challenge. It is looking at incentivising wider participation in recycling by providing rewards that appeal to a broader cross-section of society; tackling issues of sorting garbage at the source by implementing schemes to achieve separation of recyclables within homes and businesses; and developing a reliable collection and disposal network for recyclables.
BitEgreen, which uses gamification technology to turn trash into a currency of cash for citizens and organisations, has caught the attention of regional recyclers, as well as the European Union. It has also begun a regional conversation about how Caribbean states can turn waste into resources. Simera says, “TEN Habitat has offered support through a nurturing community of creative thinkers and mentors to collaborate with during the multi-disciplinary process of building out my idea into a tangible, scalable business venture.”
Such entrepreneurs, who are entering and making strides in the global landscape via TEN Habitat, are helping to create what Selwyn calls “Startup Caribbean”, a global hub that he believes can put the region on the map when it comes to innovation and entrepreneurship. The team at TEN Habitat maintain that “Startup Caribbean” could become a hub for entrepreneurship that would rival those found in places such as Silicon Valley and Beijing. The first step in this plan is expanding TEN Habitat’s reach by opening hosted habitats in every Caribbean community.
“We are taking the same framework and placing it within existing organisations that are interfacing with entrepreneurs to deliver support,” Selwyn says of the expansion plan. “We will help them set up the structure and use the resources and methodologies, which will allow more regional entrepreneurs to open global connections and have access to the Hybrid Accelerator.”
The TEN Habitat approach to entrepreneurship is simple but radical. Selwyn and his team follow the formula that they outlined for the entrepreneurs under their leadership: identify a regional problem and provide scalable, investible solutions to fixing it. This method has proven beneficial for the leaders of TEN Habitat, helping them to not only attract collaborators from throughout the global entrepreneurship community, but funding from the Inter-American Development Bank’s Multilateral Investment Fund programme and the European Commission. This support has been integral to helping them act upon and expand their vision for Caribbean entrepreneurship and innovation.
Selwyn says that he and his team encourage entrepreneurs in the TEN Habitat community to live by a simple mandate: “Never allow perfection to become the thief of progress. Just start and keep building. It’s the only way we create scalable enterprises that transform local communities and regional economies.”
Through its innovative approaches to entrepreneurship, and its belief that building global connections by way of a cohesive community is key, TEN Habitat is taking regional entrepreneurs to new heights and changing the face of Caribbean entrepreneurship.
Selwyn’s top 5 tips for entrepreneurs
1 Don’t let perfection become the thief of progress. Most entrepreneurs spend too much time and effort trying to perfect solutions before moving forward and putting their idea out there, which can stymie growth and stunt progress.
2 Iteration is important. Doing things quickly, learning from mistakes and moving forward with the lessons learned is integral to the entrepreneurial journey. Let perfection come in the act of doing, not in simply planning all the time.
3 Know that your success as an entrepreneur is limited only by your mindset. If you want to be successful, act that way. Failure is only failure if you give into it. Every setback is an opportunity to evaluate what went right and what went wrong, and then to move forward.
4 Know that building a business is never going to be easy. Prepare for struggle and have a system that will allow you to move through the process iteratively. Every step takes you closer to your ultimate goal.
5 Embrace and invest in the notion of building teams, collaborating and sharing. Many entrepreneurs have a fear of sharing and working together, so they make the concerted effort to go through the journey on their own – but no successful business has ever been built by a single individual.